The Chase...A Book Review
2007; G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Hardcover, ISBN 13: 978-0-399-15438-6; 404 pages; Price $26.95
Reviewed by Marianne Plumridge – November 2007
It is unusual for Clive Cussler to deviate into a new lead character and timeline for a book, other than his usual, highly successful masculine leads: Dirk Pitt and Kurt Austin. However, the hero from ‘The Chase’, Isaac Bell, is tellingly cut from the same cloth. Born to wealth and privilege, able to call his own shots financially, romantically, and adventuristically, and something of a ladies man, Bell differs only in that he is an actual private detective working for the ‘famous’ Van Dorn Detective agency. He is, of course, a favourite with ‘the old man’ – Van Dorn, himself – and is the agency’s best agent. Like Pitt and Austin, Bell also has a passion for big boys’ toys: a unique fast car, an equally fast motorcycle, and trains. He likes to travel and reside expensively, but isn’t above getting his hands very dirty, or wading into danger. Exotically handsome, blonde, with mesmeric lavender-blue eyes, tall, lean, urbane, both playful and determined, Bell is the quintessential turn of the 19th century gentleman - one of the more exciting ones. With the current excesses of technology in today’s world, we live the future with a blasé acceptance and increasing lack of a sense of wonder about it all. Recent trends increasingly view the past as exotic and exciting, tinted with a rose-coloured romanticism: harking back to simpler times, when personal borders were not so blurred as they are today. Perhaps Mr. Cussler is trying to breathe new life into an overstressed literary field looking to excite its readers anew. This step back into the American past takes the reader to a time when the industrial age, and all of its knowledge and dreams were brand new, and there were still new frontiers to see and conquer.
‘The Chase’ begins enigmatically enough in 1950, with the raising of an antique train engine and its dead crew from the uttermost depths of a Montana lake. A mysterious stranger watches impassively and supplies background information about the locomotive and its fate. The scene then switches backward in time to 1906, to a bank robbery and murder. Enter the ‘Butcher Bandit’ a serial killer who robs banks of their payroll cash and cold-bloodedly executes any witnesses. He leaves no clues, and no-one to report his passing. His crimes are brilliantly thought out and meticulously rehearsed before being put into action. He seems un-locatable and unstoppable. In desperation, the government employs the Van Dorn agency to capture or kill the phantom-like robber/murderer, and Van Dorn calls in its best agent, Isaac Bell. Bell reviews the case file and like any good detective, sets out to revisit the scene of each of the most recent crimes. To talk to lawmen and anyone who might have unwittingly witnessed the passing of something, or someone strange. Foreshadowing in the text supplies the few ‘witnesses’ and their pitiable scraps of minute things seen or heard. From finding and questioning these people, Bell adroitly manipulates the few straws of information into a proverbial tapestry of a profile of the ‘Butcher Bandit’. It was a few of these ‘leaps of logic’ that left me frowning at the page and then going back to reread the previous pages, to find out how the character got from point A to point D in his assumptions. My curiosity wasn’t always satisfied. I winced at Bell’s declaration of “I know how the man thinks,” in his pursuit of Cromwell. A lot of the plot points seemed too convenient, and a few, too contrived.
The cat and mouse game that builds over the ensuing pages is quite fast paced. Bell compiles his profile on the killer and finds it points to a supposed pillar of the community, a wealthy banker in San Francisco named Jacob Cromwell. The prerequisite easy taunting banter between hunter and prey take place. There’s an attempt on Bell’s life by a paid assassin ‘heavy’, as well as two magnificently detailed hair-raising, cross-country chases: one in Bell’s fabled fast car, and one in a train engine unfettered by carriages. The mortality rate rises, and includes the death and presumed death of Bell’s two able and trusted assistant detectives in two different episodes. The climax of ‘The Chase’ becomes part of the great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. In fact, it is after Cromwell’s capture and internment in San Quentin jail, and his subsequent escape by easily bribing the professed upright prison warden that finds Cromwell at home during the quake and ensuing conflagration. He has already begun preparations to escape the country when it hits. While the confusion reigns, he and his sister Margaret flee in a Cromwell’s luxurious private Pulman car attached to a fast engine, with much of the Cromwell Bank’s hard currency. Finding out what his adversary has done, Bell commandeers a fast train engine and crew and sets off in pursuit. It ends dramatically and badly during a freak storm on a train ferry in the middle of Flathead Lake in Montana.
A ‘bookend’ return to present day 1950 ties up the last of the loose ends, including some of the life of Isaac Bell and his family.
This is a great read, especially if you haven’t read any of Clive Cussler’s earliest dozen or so works. While this novel has many trademarks of Cussler’s consummate storytelling abilities, including the usual lavish detail imbuing the technical aspects of the vintage cars, motorbikes and trains, there is an obvious ‘lacking’ in others. I haven’t re-read the early works of this author for some years, nor read any of his more recent works. I was a fan for an awfully long time, though, so some of the plotting and writing of this new novel left me a bit unsettled. The character portrayals were somewhat two-dimensional compared to characters in Mr. Cussler’s other works; and some of the plot points were just a little too obvious for an author who is known for his mastery of fluid narrative, plotting, and style. Even though there were plenty of historic details spread carefully throughout the text, so much so that they didn’t overwhelm the reader, I still found it difficult to feel a sense of ‘place’ or atmosphere within the story. One set up scene contrasting Bell’s two ‘love interests', the pure Marion, and the ‘evil’ wanton Margaret, left me with a big WHY? It was clumsy and not really worthy of Mr. Cussler’s talent. I have yet to figure out why Marion was in this scene to begin with, other than to show her off as ‘pure’ against her more ‘depraved’ companions, and to begin the process of weaning her from her previous loyalty to her boss - underlining the fact that she’s seeing his coldness and indifference toward everything for the first time. This is after working for him for nine years.
If this were a previously unpublished early novel of Clive Cussler’s, my recommendation to the author would be to have gone back over it with the same care and attention he did with his other earlier works before going to print. However, it still reads well, and contains the quintessential Cussler hallmarks: historical mystery, fast pace, action, adventure, romance, witty interaction, a daring, devil-may-care romantic hero, and a worthy adversary. As with Pitt and Austin, one also might lament that the character of Isaac Bell is too perfect. However, this is fiction and many of us really do like our heroes larger than life.