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Robert Ludlum is a prolific author of best-selling thriller novels that hook readers with intrigue and action from their opening pages. With complicated plots and high-powered suspense, Ludlum’s books deal with political scandal and espionage, often involving real historical figures enmeshed in intricate schemes. The premise of almost all of his novels revolves around individuals who find themselves caught up in a web of intrigues, uncertain about whom to trust. Despite criticism that his plots are formulaic and his prose overwritten, Ludlum remains a popular author who has sustained the interest of millions of readers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Military and the Theater
Born in New York in 1927, Ludlum grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey. After leaving home as a teenager to become a stage actor, he enlisted in the United States Marines when he turned seventeen and served as an infantryman from 1945 to 1947. This military experience proved to be a rich source of material for his novels.
Following his military service, Ludlum majored in fine arts at Wesleyan University, where he met Mary Ryducha. When the couple married in 1951, the year Ludlum graduated, they both pursued acting careers. For the next twenty years, Ludlum was an actor, as well as a director and producer. In the 1950s, in addition to having minor roles on Broadway, he appeared in approximately two hundred television dramas and also did voice-overs for commercials. In 1960, he and his wife opened New Jersey’s Playhouse-on-the-Mall, the country’s first theater in a shopping center. There, Luldlum’s most notable production was Bill ManhofPs The Owl and the Pussycat, which featured a then-unknown Alan Alda, who later gained fame for his role in the television series M*A*S*H.
A Successful Novel at First Attempt
After serving as producer at the Playhouse for ten years, Ludlum found himself bored and frustrated with theater work. Eventually, he followed his wife’s suggestion that he try his hand at writing. Using an old story idea and outline he had drafted years earlier, Ludlum wrote The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971). Based on Ludlum’s curiosity about how the early Nazis were financed, the novel follows several financiers, including some Americans, who funded Hitler’s Third Reich. Establishing the pattern for Ludlum’s career, this story of espionage and corruption became a bestseller.
Encouraged by the success of The Scarlatti Inheritance, Ludlum moved his family from New Jersey to Long Island and became a full-time writer. His novels written in the 1970s typically involve international conspiracies and reflect the political climate of the Cold War, a period following World War II and lasting until the mid-1980s that was marked by competition and distrust between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The Matarese Circle, for instance, centers on a CIA agent who must work with a KGB equivalent to stop a worldwide revolution. Many readers believed that Ludlum, who traveled widely doing research and gathering material for his works, had worked as a spy himself.
Focus on Terrorism
As an end to the Cold War drew near, Ludlum switched his focus to international terrorism. For example, in The Icarus Agenda (1988), the world anxiously awaits the fate of two hundred hostages held in Oman, while The Scorpio Illusion (1993) tells of Middle Eastern terrorist plans to overthrow the United States government.
By 1984, Ludlum, suffering from osteoarthritis, spent half of each year at his second home in Naples, Florida. Despite heart troubles that led to quadruple bypass surgery in the mid-1990s, Ludlum published six novels in that decade. He died of a heart attack in 2001.
Works in Literary Context
Ludlum himself attributed much of his success as an author to his background in the theater. Besides influencing his methods of character development, Ludlum’s theatrical training helped him create novels characterized by intricate plots filled with intriguing, complicated conflict. He is often credited with setting the stage for other spy thriller writers, including David Morrell and Gayle Lynds. During the Cold War, Ludlum popularized the idea of American and Soviet covert operations, as well as the conception of illegal operations on American soil by the CIA.
The Spy Thriller Genre
Soon after the first modern government intelligence agencies were formed, the spy thriller emerged as a literary genre. The key elements of Ludlum’s spy thrillers—corruption in high places, elaborate secret plans, and unsuspecting civilians drawn into the fray—are what draw readers to Ludlum. The novels’ diverse settings and historical periods are enhanced by their main characters, typically ordinary people either accidentally propelled or manipulated into acting as spies. Although they face powerful adversaries who control corrupt global corporations and questionable government and military organizations that threaten international relations, Ludlum’s protagonists emerge victorious.
In several of his works, Ludlum unfolds speculative accounts of conspiracy in various aspects of American society. The Matlock Paper (1973), for example, is about the criminal activities of a group of New England college professors and the reluctance of the school’s dean to assist a government bureau in exposing the teachers. In The
Chancellor Manuscript (1977), Ludlum alters history in his story of the assassination of J. Edgar Hoover by a group of government officials who seek control of his private files. International terrorism is also a prominent feature in many of Ludlum’s novels, as seen in such works as The Bourne Identity (1980), which centers on a Vietnam veteran named David Webb, alias Jason Bourne, who is manipulated by American intelligence officials into becoming a counter-assassin in an effort to eliminate a notorious terrorist.
Works in Critical Context
According to reviewers Susan Baxter and Mark Nichols, Ludlum ”has his share of unkind critics who complain of implausible plots, leaden prose, and, as a caustic reviewer once sneered, an absence of ‘redeeming literary values to balance the vulgar sensationalism.”’ In addition, many reviewers often point to Ludlum’s use of mixed metaphors and illogical statements as serious flaws in his books. Despite the abundance of negative evaluations, however, readers have repeatedly voiced their approval of Ludlum in sales, and have made him one of the most widely read writers in the world. As Baxter and Nichols note, ”For all his imperfections, Ludlum manages—by pumping suspense into every twist . . . in his tangled plots and by demanding sympathy for well-meaning protagonists afflicted by outrageous adversity—to keep millions of readers frantically turning his pages.”
The Icarus Agenda
The Icarus Agenda features a plot similar to other Ludlum novels. In this particular work, five wealthy and influential individuals arrange the election of the next United States president. Reviewer Peter L. Robertson acknowledges the power of the novel’s storyline: ”Ludlum is light-years beyond his literary competition in piling plot twist upon plot twist until the mesmerized reader is held captive, willing to accept any wayward, if occasionally implausible, plotting device.” Comments Julie Johnson, ”There is a sufficient amount of energy and suspense present in The Icarus Agenda to remind the reader why Mr. Ludlum’s novels are best sellers.” In his review of The Icarus Agenda, journalist Bob Woodward summarizes the media’s view of Ludlum: ”Ludlum justifiably has a loyal following. Reviews of most of his previous books are critical but conclude, grudgingly, that he has another inevitable bestseller.”
The Bourne Trilogy
The Bourne Identity, the first in a trilogy of Bourne books, was received more favorably than Ludlum’s other novels. The trilogy follows Jason Bourne, a spy who awakens in a doctor’s office with amnesia; the story is played out as a remarkable number of killers and organizations attempt to finish Bourne off before he realizes his true identity. ”Some of Mr. Ludlum’s previous novels were so convoluted they should have been packaged with bags of bread crumbs to help readers keep track of the plot lines,” reviewer Peter Andrews writes. ”But The Bourne Identity is a Ludlum story at its most severely plotted, and for me its most effective.” Similarly, critic Don G. Campbell praises the third Bourne book, The Bourne Ultimatum, as an example of ”how it should be done,” concluding that ”in the pulse-tingling style that began so many years ago with The Scarlatti Inheritance, we are caught up irretrievably.” As a result of the their popularity, the Bourne novels were each made into successful movies, and have spawned several literary sequels by Eric van Lustbader.
- Macdonald, Gina. Robert Ludlum: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
- Andrews, Peter. ”Review of The Bourne Identity.” New York Times Book Review (March 30, 1980): 7.
- Baxter, Susan, and Mark Nichols. ”Review of The Bourne Identity.” Maclean’s (April 9, 1984): 50-52.
- Campbell, Don G. ”Review of The Bourne Ultimatum.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (March 18, 1990): 8.
- Harwood, Richard. ”Hooked on the Lure of Ludlum. Book World (March 23, 1980): 3.
- Johnson, Julie. ”Review of The Icarus Agenda.” New York Times Book Review (March 27, 1988): 16.
- Robertson, Peter L. ”Review of The Icarus Agenda.” Chicago Tribune Books (February 28, 1988): 7.
- Woodward, Bob. ”Review of The Icarus Agenda.’ ‘Washington Post Book World (February 21, 1988): 1.
- Books and Writers. Robert Ludlum (1927-2001). Retrieved October 22, 2008, from http://kirjasto.sci.fi/ludlum.htm
- Times Online. The Times Obituary: Robert Ludlum. Retrieved October 22, 2008, from http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article2262997.ece.
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