Thirty years ago in his fast-paced and farfetched first novel, ''The Mediterranean Caper,'' Clive Cussler introduced the good-natured, fabulously handsome underwater adventurer Dirk Pitt, launching one of the most successful publishing franchises of all time. In Caper's 16 best-selling sequels -- Trojan Odyssey is the latest breathless installment -- Pitt has traveled the world, dived into its deepest oceans, shot down many a thug, triggered a volcano, wrestled hideous sharks, and exchanged missile fire with the Benin navy to save humanity from a never-ending string of inventively concocted disasters.
Sometimes readable, often wretched, but always bursting with energy, Cussler's novels -- staples of the airport book rack -- have little literary merit, in case you were wondering. Jules Verne he is not. But if you want to understand why he has become so phenomenally popular, despite preposterous plots, Ken and Barbie characters, and lumbering prose, you have only to pick up one of his classics, like ''Raise the Titanic!,'' ''Cyclops,'' or ''Sahara'' (which will be made into a movie starring Matthew McConaughey as the rugged Dirk Pitt). Who cares about a cliche when red-eyed cannibals are devouring a carful of tourists? Or when hammerhead sharks are circling? Or, as in ''Trojan Odyssey,'' when a cult of diabolical redheads is trying to alter the planet's climate?
Cussler's ''Odyssey'' begins with a quick summary of Homer's ''Odyssey'' (setting up the standard Cusslerian historical mystery), then jumps to 2006 as a powerful hurricane zooms across the Atlantic heading straight for an enormous floating hotel in the Caribbean. The resort's vile owner, a freakish and obese tycoon named Specter, declines to evacuate his guests (fearing bad PR) and waddles onto his private jet as the storm approaches, leaving the now-dangerous rescue job to Pitt & Co.
Meanwhile, in an (apparently) separate plotline, ''brown crud'' -- a vaguely described toxic mineral soup -- has been polluting the oceans. As Dirk's brave, beautiful daughter, Summer, nobly investigates the crud, she happens upon a coral cavern containing Celtic artifacts. What are Celtic artifacts doing in the Caribbean? What do they have to do with Homer and crud? With fuel cells? And global climate change? And a mysterious network of tunnels Specter is boring underneath Nicaragua? And human sacrifice? This new volume looks positively bloated and creaky next to some of Cussler's more lithe earlier work. And the denouement, demented and beyond incredible, will appeal only to his most dedicated fans. Yup, looks like Cussler has yet another best-seller on his hands.