Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Name:
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Robert Ludlum


There was a time when that name really meant something. Ludlum was one of the most popular writers in the world, and the notion of a big beach thriller called “The [Adjective] [Noun]” was almost a cliché. Now? Does anyone really cop to being a Ludlum fan anymore? I see his books are still in print, but I don’t ever see anybody buying them or reading them. Maybe they do, and they just hide them whenever I pass by. I’m a terrible snob that way.

Certainly he seems to have cast no real influence on thriller writers -- the stuff that can be generally classed as “espionage” today either falls into variants of Ambler/Le Carre, Tom Clancy-esque “look at my gun”, or, most interestingly, hardboiled-ish stuff (Lee Child, say). To the extent Ludlum is remembered at all nowadays, he’s probably remembered for the Bourne novels, but that equals “being remembered for the movies” -- like Peter Benchley’s Jaws, our sense of these things come from the film, not the story.

On the other hand, if there’s going to be a time for a Ludlum revival, it’s probably now. We live in a conspiracy-saturated age, and obviously the notion of sinister cabals masterminding things is comforting, in a weird sort of way, to a lot of people. If that’s what you’re looking for, Ludlum will provide it to you in spades.

Reading through a raft of this stuff recently, the thing that struck me hardest about Ludlum was that he had great ideas. Seriously great ideas. He played the “what if” game as well as any SF writer. What if you woke up one morning and discovered you were James Bond? (the Bourne books). What if the Ivy League saved itself in the Sixties by dealing drugs? (The Matlock Paper). What if somebody kidnapped the Pope and held him for ransom, one buck from each Catholic (The Road to Gandolfo)? My all time favorite book of his remains The Matarese Circle, just because of it’s killer premise. What if all terrorist groups were controlled by a shady organization intent on taking over the world? Wait, that’s not a good premise, that’s kind of corny clichéd. But wait again! The good part of it is: what if this group was a bunch of mad Corsican bandits right out of Dumas?

Yeah, you heard me. Corsican bandits.

The Matarese Circle just comes this close to be the great pop thriller epic, an ungodly smashing together of the spy story and the Dumas Romantic epic. The conception is so delightfully nutty on it’s face that I’m smiling now just writing about it.


The problem with Matarese isn’t the idea, it’s the execution. Look, Ludlum has dropped out of favor in part because the writing really blows. Or, rather, not the writing itself, which is hardly stellar but passable/serviceable enough in a pulpish kind of way. The storytelling blows. The Matlock Paper has a fun idea, but takes itself really serious in that ridiculous, now-campy late Sixties/Seventies kind of way (this is a story that somebody should really remake as a comedy) and suffers from the fact that the bad guy is ridiculously obvious. Gandolfo tries hard to be funny and is lighter in tempo to most of Ludlum’s writing, but it ain’t that funny. Matarese unwisely kills the story momentum about halfway through, splitting up the novel’s odd couple and descending, once again into preachiness. (One of the great myths of modern writing is that bad books are empty-headed, when in fact often they’re bad because they’re full of ideas -- just not very good ones. How much would’ve I paid to have Ludlum just shut up and blow something else up or do another grotty sex scene! How much! Instead lengthy descriptions of “why can’t we all just get along”, blahblahblah, all very earnest and well meant and deadly dull.)

Like many of the folk we talk about here, Ludlum was an odd duck. A popular novelist who frankly, missed his calling. This is an idea man -- he should’ve written for the movies.

There's a lot of Ludlum on the web -- if you want to read gussied up ads. They're still flogging his stuff long after his death -- and of course ghostwriters have gotten into the act too. I can't find it now, but there was a really good post out there on a blog somewhere about the ghostwritten Ludlum and whether that represents a "rip-off" for the reader or not. I've seen some of these books, and while I think they could do a better job of hinting at the reality of the situation (a lot of those Gold Eagle books put the real author's name on the dedication page, for instance) I hardly think it's something to get exorcised about. I would suspect even the Ludlum fans who are buying these books -- well, they're probably foggy about whether or not the guy's alive, but if told he was dead and it was ghostwritten? I doubt most of them would care.

Here's some weird webpage detailing how many times Ludlum used "archives" in his books:

http://www.victoria.tc.ca/~mattison/ficarch/ludlum.htm

And here's a fun page where you can generate your own Ludlum title:

http://tleaves.com/?p=844

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