Clive Cussler’s ‘Isaac Bell’ series
One series that is a bit different from the rest is his Isaac Bell series. Unlike the others, this one is set in the early 20th century and focuses on Bell, the lead investigator for the fictional Van Dorn Detective Agency. Also unlike the prior series, nautical matters don’t play a big part.
One element of this series, we often see the villain in action without knowing who he (or she) is at first. And usually there is a follow-on part set years or decades after the main action, to sort of put an end to the story.
The first novel was written by Cussler, the rest have been co-authored by Justin Scott, who holds the record of not only co-authoring the most novels with Cussler, but being the sole co-author of one of the Cussler series.
At present, the series consists of:
- The Chase (2007, set in 1906)
- The Wrecker (2009, set in 1907)
- The Spy (2010, set in 1908)
- The Race (2011, set in 1910)
- The Thief (2012, set in 1910)
- The Striker (2013, set in 1912, with flashbacks to 1902)
- The Bootlegger (2014, set in 1921)
- The Assassin (2015, set in 1905)
- The Gangster (2016, set in 1906, with a flashback to 1895)
- The Cutthroat (2017, set in 1911)
As can be seen, the series came out at first in order of internal chronology. Over that time the characters aged and had minor changes. (Bell marries his fiance in The Thief, and his main associate was injured in one novel and continued to have the scars in further ones.) The Assassin kind of resets this, being set before the first novel, with Bell a junior detective working a case against a dangerous foe. Subsequent novels seem to follow on from that. However, The Striker does have a bit of the novel set in 1902, when Bell is a very junior detective, though has the conclusion to the case in 1912. And The Gangster has a bit set in 1895, when Bell is a college freshman.
Isaac Bell, chief investigator of the Van Dorn Detective Agency, is the main character. He’s actually the son of a Boston banker and financier, who expected his son to follow in his footsteps. But he had other plans. Bell is financially independent, thanks to his grandfather. This ensures he is incorruptible.
The Van Dorn Detective Agency is clearly based on the real Pinkerton Detective Agency, and is headed by Joseph Van Dorn, who had worked as a spymaster for the U.S. government during the Civil War. The Agency has several divisions. There is a protection branch that basically has plainclothes security guards for hotels, railroads, etc., and a detective branch, of which Bell is a top man in through most of the series. There is also a research branch that Bell often calls upon. Bell’s right-hand man and best friend is Archibald “Archie” Abbot IV, a blue-blood New Yorker, whose family is broke. And in most cases he brings in some other Van Dorn associates he trusts.
Marion Morgan is Bell’s fiance and later wife. A very much liberated woman, she is an actress and a bit of an adventurer, but doesn’t play a role in Bell’s investigations. Even after getting married she continues with her career, becoming a director. From the codas at the end of the novels, we know they are both still alive by the 1950s.
The novels make use of what is going on at the time: bootlegging, the criminal underworld, spies, labor and civil unrest, and the like. Bell and associates must make use of the technology of the time to solve their cases: using railroads to get around, telegraphs to get information. Bell seems enamored of “future tech” of the time, such as automobiles and aircraft. So in its own way, we could call this series “techno thriller”.
As noted, unlike other series, there is no nautical theme. And setting it in the past makes in interesting. I enjoy the series and always look for the next one. Am currently reading Gangster now, and a bit surprised at how it’s “broken the mold” on how prior books went. Curious to see if the next one follows in this new style.