Robert Ludlum Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Ludlum Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Robert Ludlum established both his writing style and his literary themes in his first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance. Although his style and themes were to be subsequently refined, what he discovered then has proved to be successful in his later novels. Long an avid reader of history, Ludlum considered the question of how the Nazis came to power in Germany. His answer, in fiction, was that they were supported by a small number of ruthless and ambitious international financiers, including Americans, who hoped to create an economic superpower. The conspiracy was discovered by a lone American intelligence officer who successfully dealt with the threat in an equally ruthless and violent manner. As with his later books, no reviewers praised Ludlum’s style, but most were captivated by the energy and entertainment of the fast-moving story. The plot was convoluted and improbable and the writing melodramatic, but the formula worked. Various themes in his first novel would reappear in later ones: the relatively powerless individual who accidentally stumbles across a larger-than-life conspiracy to do evil, historical issues regarding the Nazi movement, and various international settings.

The Osterman Weekend

His next two novels saw Ludlum restrict his locale to the United States. He possibly perceived that in spite of the success of his first book, he was not yet ready to deal fully with such broad historical and international topics, even through his imaginative fiction. The Osterman Weekend (1972) continued the precedent established by his first novel of a three-word title (which was followed in all the novels published under his own name), but instead of ranging over years and countries, the story is played out in only a few days in a New Jersey suburb. Four couples are invited to the home of John Tanner, but just before the party Tanner is approached by a supposed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent who warns Tanner about an international conspiracy of financial fanatics known as “Omega” and tells Tanner that it is likely that at least some of the invited guests are members of that secret order. Over the course of a few hours, tension and paranoia become paramount, violence occurs, the CIA fails to protect the innocent, and Tanner is forced to save the day himself. Ludlum, who has identified himself as a political liberal of the 1950’s, has stated that “What I don’t like in the world is largeness—large corporations, large governments.” His moral anger at such conglomerations of power is a recurring theme in his novels.

The Matlock Paper

In his third novel, The Matlock Paper (1973), Ludlum keeps his scenes in the northeastern United States. James Barbour Matlock, a young English professor at Carlyle University (possibly modeled on Ludlum’s own Wesleyan), becomes involved in a conspiracy, known as Nimrod, which aims to control the narcotics trade in New England. Both college officials and students have been sucked into the corrupt maelstrom of Nimrod. Matlock is approached, as was John Tanner, by officials of the United States government, but the government agency is unable to protect Matlock, and he is forced to become increasingly involved, resorting to violence to expose and defeat Nimrod.

The basic plots of Ludlum’s earliest books were improbable but compelling. If professional historians remained doubtful about the existence, much less the efficacy, of the various conspiracies that Ludlum proposed, nevertheless he had succeeded in touching deep chords in many modern readers. Since the end of World War II, questions concerning the rise of communism in China, the acquisition of atomic secrets by the Russians, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the motives for American involvement in Vietnam, and the Watergate conspiracy have puzzled Americans. Most persons refused to believe that these situations were the result of mere chance, accident, bad luck, long-term historical trends, or abstract forces. Instead, they were seen as the result of conscious human actions inspired by alien ideologies, immoral ambitions, superhuman greed, or fanatic commitments. In the bureaucratic world of the mid-and late twentieth century, the antagonist was not merely a single individual but a group of dedicated fanatics, acting together, secretly, with unlimited goals and demands aiming toward total power. Ludlum understood these fears: “We’re living in a time when you can’t take things at face value anymore. This is no longer the age of Aquarius—it’s the age of conspiracy.” To that insight he added fast-paced writing, complex plots, exotic locations, and considerable violence. His books became international best sellers.

Trevayne, The Cry of the Halidon, and The Road to Gandolfo

After the success of his first three novels, Ludlum, for some unexplained reason, published two novels, Trevayne (1973) and The Cry of the Halidon (1974), under the pseudonym Jonathan Ryder, a variation on one of his wife’s acting names. Both novels concerned conspiracies engendered by international finance, and both were set on the exotic Caribbean island of Jamaica. In an interesting if not entirely successful change of pace, during that same period he also published The Road to Gandolfo (1975), under the pseudonym Michael Shepherd, in which he seems to be spoofing his own work, or at least his chosen genre. The plot revolves around the kidnapping of a pope by a military figure aiming at financial and political power, but the typical Ludlum theme is handled humorously and satirically. Under his own name, Ludlum always...

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