By Robert D. McFadden
Published Feb. 26, 2020 Updated Feb. 27, 2020
His literary fantasies and larger-than-life exploits swirled together for decades. He wrote 85 books, selling no fewer than 100 million copies, and located scores of shipwrecks.
Clive Cussler, the author and maritime adventurer who captivated millions with his best-selling tales of suspense and who, between books, led scores of expeditions to find historic shipwrecks and lost treasures in the ocean depths, died on Monday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 88.
His death was confirmed by a spokeswoman for his publisher, Penguin Random House. No specific cause was given.
Mayan jungles, undersea kingdoms, ghost ships, evil forces out to destroy the world, beautiful women, heroes modeled on himself — Mr. Cussler’s vivid literary fantasies and his larger-than-life exploits swirled together for four decades, spinning off more than 85 books and locating almost as many shipwrecks.
A college dropout who once pumped gas and wrote advertising copy, Mr. Cussler resorted to a hoax to get his first book published. But his work — mostly action thrillers of the James Bond-Indiana Jones kind, plus nonfiction accounts of his marine quests and a few children’s books — made him a global celebrity.
His books sales have been staggering — more than 100 million copies, with vast numbers sold in paperback at airports. Translated into 40 or so languages, his books reached The New York Times’s best-seller lists more than 20 times, as he amassed a fortune estimated at $80 million.
Mr. Cussler looked like the hero of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” You had to imagine the battered straw hat and the tired shoulders hunched over a gunwale, but after years of roaming oceans and diving for wrecks, he had that seafarer’s husky build and sunburned cheeks, and his face, more sea dog than bibliophile, was flecked with gray: the grizzled beard, the mustache, the eyes, the gray-white hair.
Often compared to the thrillers churned out by Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Ian Fleming, the Cussler novels featured formulaic plots, one- or two-word titles (“Cyclops,” “Dragon,” “Inca Gold,” “Poseidon’s Arrow”) and frequently a recurring hero, Dirk Pitt, an undersea explorer who cheats death and saves the world as he foils the diabolical plots of megalomaniac villains, while satisfying his taste for exotic cars and lusty women.
Mr. Cussler was hardly a stylist. Critics called his characters wooden, his dialogue leaden and his prose clichéd (“the cold touch of fear,” “a narrow brush with death”), while praising his descriptions of marine hardware, underwater struggles and salvage operations. But readers were swept along on the page-turning tides, and after his commercial breakthrough, “Raise the Titanic!” (1976), his books were frequently on the best-seller lists for months.
Mr. Cussler also connected with readers by turning his love for scuba diving into an oceanic lifestyle that paralleled and validated his superhero.
He first created the National Underwater and Marine Agency as a fictional government organization that employed his hero in the Dirk Pitt books. Then, in 1979, he founded an actual National Underwater and Marine Agency as a private nonprofit group committed to “preserving maritime heritage through the discovery, archaeological survey and conservation of shipwreck artifacts.” It underwrote his maritime ventures.
With Mr. Cussler leading expeditions and joining dives, the organization eventually located some 60 wrecks. Among them were the Cunard steamship Carpathia, first to reach survivors of the lost Titanic on April 15, 1912, then itself sunk by German torpedoes off Ireland in 1918; Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt’s coastal steamer Lexington, which caught fire and went down in Long Island Sound in 1840; and Manassas, the Confederacy’s first Civil War ironclad, sunk in battle in the Lower Mississippi in 1862.
His first nonfiction book, “The Sea Hunters” (1996, with Craig Dirgo), was an account of his NUMA exploits, some of which were portrayed in television documentaries featuring Mr. Cussler as narrator. Valuable artifacts raised by his expeditions were given to museums or governments.
Mr. Cussler, who named his franchise hero after his son Dirk, acknowledged that Dirk Pitt’s character was his own alter ego. His later novels, many co-written by his son or others, often included himself as a character who saves the day. His son, a daughter and friends were also used as characters in his books.
“I’ve been doing Dirk Pitt for 30 years,” Mr. Cussler told The Times in 2000. “Maybe I can find another writer down the line to take him over. It’s not the money; it’s the fans.
“I’d like to retire,” he continued. “I’m toying with the idea of Pitt having a son who shows up. He’s getting a little long in the tooth. When we started out, we were both 36 years old. Now he’s a little over 40, and I’m pushing 70.”
But 20 years later, he was still churning out books, sometimes two a year. His 85th, “Journey of the Pharaohs: A Novel From the NUMA Files,” written with Graham Brown, is scheduled to be published in March. The Penguin Random House spokeswoman said there are others to be published after that.
Clive Eric Cussler was born in Aurora, Ill., on July 15, 1931, the only child of Eric and Amy Hunnewell Cussler. His father was an accountant. Clive grew up in Alhambra, Calif., a poor student but an avid reader of adventure stories.
“I detested school,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1994. “I was always the kid who was staring out the window. While the teacher was lecturing on algebra, I was on the deck of a pirate ship or in an airplane shooting down the Red Baron.”
He attended Pasadena City College briefly, but left to join the Air Force when the Korean War began in 1950. He became a mechanic, flew supply missions in the Pacific but never saw combat. While stationed in Hawaii, he learned scuba diving and explored underwater wrecks. He mustered out as a sergeant.
In 1955, he married Barbara Knight. They had three children, Teri, Dirk and Dayna. His wife died in 2003. He later married Janet Horvath, who survives him, along with his children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
In California, Mr. Cussler pumped gas, wrote advertising copy and, from 1961 to 1965, co-owned Bestgen & Cussler Advertising in Newport Beach. Later, at the D’Arcy agency in Hollywood, he won several awards.
From 1967 to 1969 he was advertising director of Aquatic Marine Corporation in Newport Beach. In 1970, he joined Mefford, Wolff and Weir Advertising in Denver, where he became a vice president and creative director.
He began writing fiction at home in the late 60s, but his first two books, “Pacific Vortex” and “The Mediterranean Caper,” were repeatedly rejected. Unable even to get an agent, he staged a hoax. Using the letterhead of a fictitious writers’ agency, he wrote to the agent Peter Lampack, posing as an old colleague about to retire and overloaded with work. He enclosed copies of his manuscripts, citing their potential.
It worked. “Where can I sign Clive Cussler?” Mr. Lampack wrote back. In 1973, “The Mediterranean Caper” was published, followed by “Iceberg” (1975) and “Raise the Titanic!” (1976).
Despite an improbable plot and negative reviews, “Raise the Titanic!” sold 150,000 copies, was a Times best seller for six months and became a 1980 film starring Richard Jordan and Jason Robards Jr.
While Dirk Pitt books appeared throughout his career, Mr. Cussler also wrote other series: “The NUMA Files,” featuring the hero Kurt Austin and written with Graham Brown or Paul Kemprecos; “The Fargo Adventures,” about husband-and-wife treasure hunters, written with Grant Blackwood or Thomas Perry; “The Oregon Files,” set on a high-tech spy ship disguised as a freighter, written with Jack DuBrul or Mr. Dirgo; and “The Isaac Bell Adventures,” about an early-20th-century detective, written with Justin Scott.
His nonfiction included “Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt Revealed” (1998, with Mr. Dirgo) and “Built for Adventure: The Classic Automobiles of Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt” (2011). Mr. Cussler, who had homes in Arvada, Colo., and Paradise Valley, Ariz., restored vintage cars and had about 100 in his museum in Arvada, including a 1906 Stanley Steamer, a 1913 Marmon and a 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
Correction: Feb. 26, 2020
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the number of books Mr. Cussler wrote. It is more than 85, not about 70.
A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 27, 2020, Section A, Page 27 of the New York edition with the headline: Clive Cussler, Best-Selling Author and Adventurer, Is Dead at 88.