Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Chase by Clive Cussler (historical action mystery)

April 1950 — A fisherman searching the bottom of a lake for his lost outboard motor finds something quite a bit more impressive, and soon a dredging company unearths (unwaters?) Baldwin locomotive #3025 (and its 3 saponified corpses) from the silt and muck it sank in back in 1906.

Nearby, a tall, anonymous observer watches closely. He knows what happened 44 years ago. He was there....

January 1906 — A bank robber disguised as a wino makes off with a $325,000 mining payroll, leaving three dead victims in his wake. This is at least his fifteenth such undertaking, and the public knows him as the Butcher Bandit.

Joseph Van Dorn, founder of the famous detective agency that carries his name, puts his best man on the Butcher Bandit case: Isaac Bell, who feels that the bandit plans his escapades so well that he will undoubtedly be tripped up by a single overlooked mistake. Bell proposes that it is the job of the Van Dorn detectives "to find that insignificant mistake."

Jacob Cromwell is president of the Cromwell National Bank, but where he got his initial capital is a mystery. His sister Margaret seems to have some connection with the Bandit, but that, too, is not clear. With little else to go on, Bell focuses his sights on the Cromwell siblings, though they appear to be San Francisco's biggest philanthropists.

Clever villains make for the most interesting reading, and author Clive Cussler's The Chase offers up one of the cleverest in the Butcher Bandit. He robs and kills, and yet always escapes due to his very careful planning. (Some may say that this much planning is unbelievable, but Cussler never allows it to slip into parody, though he may have his tongue in his cheek.) But the Butcher's ambition and ego may just be his downfall.

However, as bright as the Butcher is, Cussler's newest hero Isaac Bell is at least as clever. Bell is from an independently wealthy family, so his interest in investigation is pure; he's not doing it for the money. He has his quirks, but he is a mostly relatable hero. The reader learns who the Bandit is fairly early on, and from then on The Chase offers a suspenseful ride of wondering when Bell and the Bandit will meet.

The Chase also features a close-up view of the San Francisco earthquake of that year. And Cussler caps things off with a thrilling locomotive chase across the Sierra Nevadas and north to Montana, with no working telegraph lines to warn of oncoming trains keeping the suspense at similarly mountainous heights.

The historical aspects of The Chase are also fun. It takes place mostly just after the turn of the 20th century, so it has many aspects of a Western (since that's only about 25 years after most Westerns are usually set). I especially enjoy a good Western-mystery, so this one really fits the bill, especially with the added adventure.

The Chase was first appreciated as a standalone thriller. But an also train-related sequel set the following year in 1907, The Wrecker (written with Justin Scott), has since appeared, with presumably more to come.

Trivia: Cussler tips his hat to a classic bank-robbery film by having Salt Lake police detective John Casale have nearly the same name as John Cazale, the actor who played Sal to Al Pacino's Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon.

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