When co-authors Clive Cussler and Paul Kemprecos brought their novel Serpent to the world in 1999, they introduced a new dynamic duo from NUMA. Kurt Austin and his sidekick Joe Zavala head up NUMA's Special Assignments Team, basically an arm of the agency devoted to undercover operations. They take on projects similar to Dirk Pitt's Special Projects Team, but tend to work more in the shadows, as intelligence agents and special forces operatives.

Early on, the reader will realize that Kurt Austin is actually a clone of Dirk Pitt, with a few small details changed. Where Dirk's most often described distinguishing characteristic seems to be his green eyes, Kurt's is his prematurely white hair. Kurt came to NUMA from a background in underwater demolitions and the CIA instead of being an Air Force pilot, but he can still fly or drive most any vehicle he encounters. Like his counterpart, he is a collector, but collects antique firearms rather than classic automobiles. His home is a converted boathouse, similar to Pitt's converted aircraft hanger, and he races boats instead of cars as a hobby. Kurt also has a sidekick, Hispanic Joe Zavala, to fill the place of Pitt's Italian sidekick Al Giordino.

The Kurt Austin novels, to date Serpent, Blue Gold, and Fire Ice, are all still classic Cussler stories, and follow the standard Cussler formula: a mysterious historical event ties into a modern plot for a powerful man to try to take over or destroy the world, only to be stopped by our heroes efforts. Don't get me wrong, the Cussler formula works and each of his novels (in both series) are great fun to read. The differences that fill in the blanks and spaces in between in the plot outline make each book a unique and entertaining experience. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the new main characters. When reading the Kurt Austin novels, one can almost hear the soap-opera voice over: "The role of Dirk Pitt is now being played by...." Having read all of the novels in both series, most more than once, I occasionally have trouble remembering which heroic pair saved the world from which threat.

It almost seems like Cussler might have been getting ready to retire Dirk and Al after following their adventures for almost 30 years. While they have showed no sign of slowing down, their exploits will become ever more difficult to swallow the older they get. Other authors in this situation have worked around the problem in different ways: Robert B. Parker allows Spenser to age "non-linearly" by no longer mentioning his age in the more recent novels. A more dramatic solution would be to kill the characters off, as Arthur Conan Doyle tried (and failed, thanks to his fans demands) to do with Sherlock Holmes. However, even with three Kurt Austin adventures already out, Cussler shows few signs of actually retiring Dirk Pitt. It would not be terribly surprising to see a crossover novel sometime in the future, when he comes up with a plot apocalyptic enough to require both heroes.

Cussler, Clive and Paul Kemprecos. Serpent. Pocket Books. 1999.
-----. Blue Gold. Pocket Books. 2001.
-----. Fire Ice. Putnam Pub Group. 2002.