An Unheralded Genre

In an adventure story, getting there is all the fun.


“Adventure” is not really, strictly speaking, a literary genre. You won’t find an “Adventure” section in the bookstore, and even Amazon is hit or miss on what it assigns the label to. It is most often shelved under “Mysteries & Thrillers,” because, after all, adventure tales must have something thrilling about them, no?

And yet a real adventure story is different than a thriller. The driver in a good thriller is suspense as the hero heads off some cataclysmic event. “Trust no one” must often be his or her motto, because the villain may often be masking as a friend or ally. Mysteries are something altogether different. There is a crime that must be solved. The mystery is who did it, or why.

Both of these genres have a goal — to avert the catastrophe or solve the mystery. A rip-roaring adventure story, by contrast, is all about the ride.

Take, for example, the latest Dirk Pitt adventure from the Clive Cussler workshop (recent books by the 85-year-old writer list his son, Dirk, as coauthor), Odessa Sea. Pitt’s NUMA (National Underwater and Marine Agency) ship is in the Black Sea helping with an archeological survey when Pitt and his sidekick, Al Giordino, get involved with Bulgarian police on the trail of some enriched uranium.

There are plot twists and turns as in a thriller, but it is the adventurous derring-do of Pitt and Giordino that keep the reader turning pages as they dive, swim, run, drive, and fight their way to aid their friends and, often enough, rescue the damsel in distress (yes, these stories can be somewhat retrograde). The good guys and bad guys are identified from the get-go.

So improbable are Pitt, Giordino, and their exploits that the stories have largely defied efforts to translate them onto the screen. The 2005 film “Sahara,” based on the Cussler book of the same title, lost a lot of money. It might have done better but for the egregious miscasting of Matthew McConaughey as Pitt and the even more mistaken choice for his sidekick, since Steve Zahn bears no resemblance at all to the burly Giordino described in the books.

The sea plays a big role in the 24 books of the Pitt series and, in general, the sea is a passport to adventure. Patrick O’Brian’s score of sea adventures with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin have a cult following, though they are a bit too wordy and moody for my taste.

Now, an American writer, James Haley, is seeking to duplicate what O’Brian did for the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars for the nascent U.S. Navy. The Shores of Tripoli is the just-released debut novel in what promises to be a series. The young protagonist, Bliven Putnam, is a midshipman on one of the ships sent in 1801 by President Thomas Jefferson to deal with the Barbary Pirates.

Historical fiction is of course the other great treasure trove for adventure stories, though they can get lost in the broad range of sub-genres in that overall category. It may not seem important to parse the genres so strictly, but think how much easier it would be to find the books you want to read if there was a special shelf for them.

My last book, The Grand Mirage, intrigue and bravado in connection with the building of the Baghdad Railway in 1910, is historical fiction and often described as an historical thriller. Amazon drills down to it as “Thrillers & Suspense” through three different paths, though I think of it (modestly) as an adventure story in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard.

It was Haggard’s hero Allan Quatermain who was the model for Indiana Jones and the series of unabashed adventure films starring Harrison Ford. Treasure hunts of various sorts, as those conducted by the fictional archeologist or, for that matter, by Dirk Pitt, are always good drivers for adventure stories. “National Treasure,” the Nicolas Cage feature that seems to be a permanent fixture on cable, is another example that comes to mind.

Genre or not, for those of us for whom sitting in an armchair in front of the fire is about as intrepid as we want to get, there’s nothing like a good adventure story on these cold winter days.

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