Born: July 15, 1931;

Died: February 24, 2020.

CLIVE Cussler, who has died aged 88, was a hugely prolific and successful author whose output included no fewer than 25 thrillers starring the intrepid Dirk Pitt. Cussler’s books sold 100 million copies in total, and were translated into more than 40 languages. He often published four titles a year, and he became known as the Grand Master of Adventure.

It was the Pitt novels that made his name. Pitt was a cool, courageous and resourceful marine engineer officer, employed by the fictional National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). Dirk (the name was that of Cussler’s then-infant son) narrowly avoided death on many occasions; he enjoyed the company of exotic women, regularly saved the world, and settled issues with ne’er- do-well-baddies. And, like his creator, he drove only the smartest of cars.

Clive Eric Cussler was born in Aurora, Illinois and grew up in California. He opted out of college to serve in the US air force during the Korean war. He then wrote copy for an advertising agency, winning awards for his radio and television commercials. Dismayed that his earliest books were rejected by publishers, he sent the manuscripts to an agent by pretending to be another agent who was about to retire but had a good author on his books.

The other agent, Peter Lampack, immediately acquired the book, which turned out to be The Mediterranean Caper, the first Dirk Pitt thriller. It was published in 1973. Two years later another novel, Iceberg, followed and both sold well.

Pitt was Cussler’s alter ego. In 2000 he said, “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.”

Cussler knew how to tell a story and build up tension: he had the knack of capturing the imagination of the reader on page one. His books were all page-turners and rattling good yarns. His commercial breakthrough, Raise the Titanic!, another Pitt adventure, in 1976 was a best-seller.

He had less success, however, when it came to his books being adapted for films. Raise the Titanic! became a film in 1980 starring Jason Robards and Alec Guinness, and was produced by Lew Grade. But it bombed at the box-office and Grade admitted at the Cannes Film Festival that “it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic”.

Cussler was so disenchanted with the film business that he refused to allow any more of his novels to be adapted for the screen, until 2005, when he permitted his bestseller, Sahara, to be filmed, starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz. It turned out to be one of Hollywood’s biggest box-office flops.

Cussler sued the producers (who counter-sued) for not honouring his script approval. He said at the time, “I don’t know whose book they think they’re adapting but it sure isn’t mine. I can’t approve what they’re doing. They insist on doing it their way.”

In 1979, Cussler had founded the real-life National Underwater and Marine Agency to “preserve maritime heritage through the discovery, archaeological survey and conservation of shipwreck artefacts.” The exploration of shipwrecks became his passion and he himself led many of the dives. At least 60 wrecks were discovered through his endeavours including the Carpathia (which had saved many survivors from the Titanic) and had subsequently been sunk by U-boats in 1918.

His first non-fiction book, The Sea Hunters (1996) detailed his exploits discovering artefacts from wrecks, many of which he donated to museums. The book was, again, a bestseller and he was awarded a PhD by the New York Maritime College.

Another major hobby was classic cars. His collection includes over 115 exceptional examples of unusual and rare models and are on display in Colorado. One of the most valuable cars in the collection is a Talbot Largo, which Cussler had Pitt drive with much gusto in one of the books. “To the consternation of some of my readers", Cussler remembered, "near the end I had it blown up!”

Though seldom reviewed by critics, his books sold in their millions; readers loved the fights, the escapes and the chases that Cussler wrote for Pitt and his energetic side-kick, Al Giordano. Perhaps the most fantastic moment was Pitt’s discovery of Atlantis, in Atlantis Found (1999). Cussler remained defiant. “My job is an entertainer,” he said. “I hope when the reader finishes the book they got their money’s worth.”

He remained active to near the end of his life. He continued to write (often with his son, Dirk) and this year he published the Wrath of Poseidon, co-written with Robin Burcell.

Cussler married, in 1955, Barbara Knight, who died in 2003. Their son and two daughters survive him, as does his second wife, Janet Horvath.

Alasdair Steven