Robert Ludlum 1927–
(Also wrote under pseudonyms of Jonathan Ryder and Michael Shepherd) American writer of spy-thrillers.
Ludlum's best-selling formula novels deal with political scandal, espionage, and intrigue, often involving real historical figures in far-fetched, but plausible, schemes.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
J. R. Frakes
It's hard to believe that novels like [The Scarlatti Inheritance] are still appearing in 1971. But maybe you've been longing for a revival of those Lanny Budd goulashes, in which historical figures rub elbow-patches with fictional creations, all of them in the process being rendered not a little incredible: Cordell Hull ("this good and honest old man"), Hess ("darkly cherubic"), Ludendorff, Goebbels ("this unattractive little man"), Hitler ("something cheap about him, something opportunistic"). So it goes. The technique of prefabricated characterization extends even more depressingly to the imaginary figures like old Elizabeth Scarlatti, one of the world's richest women, who is alternately a "legend in her own time," "a crusty, patrician eagle sweeping the infinite meadows of her own particular heaven," and a "cold but intense … killer." Matthew Canfield, minor government field-accountant, is "positive, sure, capable, fun … vulnerable … and expendable." The ultimate computerized product is Heinrich Kroeger (nee Ulster Sterwart Scarlett), now (in 1944) part of Hitler's elite corps, otherwise "the scion of Scarlatti—the charming, handsome graduate of the cotillions, the hero of the Meuse-Argonne … a schizophrenic madman … a fever-ridden clown … a pleasure-seeker."
Put them all together and they spell Saturday night at the old Bijou, complete with Terry-Toons and a Pete Smith specialty, the main feature pulsating like...
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It's too late, fortunately, for Ulster Scarlett and his vile plans. And much too late for the reader to take seriously yet another lurid melodrama. Mr. Ludlum peppers his dynastic shenanigans with real persons—Cordell Hull, Joseph Goebbels, Gregor Strasser. But he doesn't breathe reality into the fictional characters he invents as their peers.
Martin Levin, "Reader's Report: 'The Scarlatti Inheritance'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 4, 1971, p. 49.
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The New Yorker
["The Rhinemann Exchange" is an] espionage thriller set in the desperate last year of the Hitler war. The situation that ignites the action (nearly five hundred sanguineous pages of it) is preposterous but intellectually undemanding. Germany has perfected a gyroscopic airplane-guidance system but lacks the industrial diamonds needed to complete its terrible rocket missile; the United States has access to tons of industrial diamonds but its aerophysicists can't get the kinks out of its top-priority gyroscope. So a corrupt military-industrial cabal on both sides agrees to a secret, treasonous exchange, and Rhinemann, a German Jew (an "expatriot," in the author's vocabulary) living in Buenos Aires, is selected to handle the transfer. The United States, being no fool, sends a top agent, Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx may be amused to learn), to Buenos Aires to look after its interests but (as is classically customary in spy stories) refrains from telling him the whole truth. Mr. Ludlum reads like a Hearst feature writer of the twenties—staccato sentences, one-sentence paragraphs—and he expresses himself with some abandon…. The result, nevertheless, is reasonably entertaining. (pp. 202-03)
"Briefly Noted: 'The Rhinemann Exchange'," in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. L, No. 34, October 14, 1974, pp. 202-03.
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Those magic words in a title: "connection," "transfer," "exchange." We know immediately where we stand before opening the book, and so it is in ["The Rhinemann Exchange"]…. Not the details of the plot, of course, but there has to be espionage, counterespionage, action, supermen types (even if supermen in reverse), complication of plot, double-dealing.
"The Rhinemann Exchange" is going to be a paragon in the field. It has everything—espionage, professional killing, the Gestapo, the German High Command, Zionists, Big Business, supercapitalists, infiltration, double-crossing. Name it and it's there. Romance, too….
"The Rhinemann Exchange" is a little too thorough. Ludlum has written a big and ambitious book. He has been loath to drop anything out so it is a bit undisciplined and could have benefited from some cutting. And it is written in breathless, edge-of-Armageddon prose that pants relentlessly along. But … a real storyteller is at work. You'll go along.
Newgate Callendar, "'The Rhinemann Exchange'," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 27, 1974, p. 56.∗
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Irma Pascal Heldman
[The Gemini Contenders by Robert Ludlum begins in the dead] of night, Salonika, Greece, December 1939. A vault is being moved from its ancient monastic hiding place to protect it from the Nazis. It is loaded on a train for shipment to northern Italy. There, a rich and powerful padrone, Savarone Fontini-Cristi, one of the leaders of the anti-Fascist movement, will safeguard it. In the vault is a document that could rock the foundations of the civilized world and change the destiny of mankind. Its implications, it is hinted, could make the holocaust pale by comparison….
Three decades pass. A dying Victor [eldest son of the padrone] discovers the key to unlocking the secret. His deathbed charge to his [twin sons] is to find the vault. In so doing, he unwittingly pits the Geminis against each other and the secret is unleashed upon the world.
The secret? Absolutely within the realms of authenticity and fascinating to contemplate.
Irma Pascal Heldman, "'The Gemini Contenders'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1976, p. 18.
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[With "The Holcroft Covenant"] Robert Ludlum is back among the Nazis for his new conspiracy. The Nazis stand, of course, for unambiguous evil. It is a relief to be rid of ambiguity, which is an inflated currency in literature as in life. Solid evil, black gold, can be relied on. The good guys will be very, very good; and bad guys will be very, very bad; and everybody in between will be either a dupe or a victim. Instead of having to think, we will be tortured with surprises.
Mr. Ludlum stuffs more surprises into his novels … than any other six-pack of thriller-writers combined, out on a narrative toot…. [He] finds his characters on the backs of cereal boxes, his prose in movie magazines, his sex in the want ads and his paranoia in our dental cavities. Nevertheless he pleases and seduces, telling his story like a man who must get it done before the house burns down around us. I sprained my wrist turning his pages, and didn't notice until an hour later, when I was hungry again for some ambiguity.
John Leonard, "Books of 'The Times': 'The Holcroft Covenant'," in The New York Times (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 13, 1978, p. C19.
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Allan A. Ryan, Jr.
Robert Ludlum writes spy thrillers the way the rest of us play Scrabble. Ludlum has 25 tiles, with words on each—words like World War II, secret documents, Nazi war treasure, CIA, Vatican, Rio/Buenos Aires, Geneva/Zurich, Berlin, MI-5, Maserati, beautiful blonde, Gestapo, double agent, international banker, false passport. Each year Ludlum chooses half the tiles, face down, and turns them over, arranging them this way and that until some reasonably plausible sequence appears. He then plays them on a board whose red and blue squares are marked violence (lots of them), sex (less), doublecross, disguise, assassination, fear of insanity, and so forth. Fill in the details and you have a Ludlum thriller. A CIA agent in a sexual encounter with a disguised beautiful blonde in Moscow? No problem. A chase through Geneva in a Maserati for Nazi war treasure? Voila. When the book is finished, Ludlum takes one tile from "names" and one from "nouns," and thus is born The Scarlatti Inheritance, The Ostermann Weekend, The Matlock Paper, The Gemini Contenders, The Chancellor Manuscript and now The Holcroft Covenant.
The Holcroft Covenant is a story of Nazi war treasure, but with a twist: the treasure in this case was accumulated during the war by a small group of high-ranking German officers appalled at Hitler's desecration of humanity; shortly before their deaths they entrust the riches to a Geneva bank to gather interest...
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What if there were an organization more sinister and powerful than the Mafia, the Central Intelligence Agency, the K. G. B. and Coca-Cola rolled into one?
That's the pleasant if slightly shopworn premise of Robert Ludlum's hefty new thriller ["The Matarese Circle"], which pits the joint talents of a C.I.A. operative and a K.G.B. killer against a Corsican terrorist group that may have been behind the murders of such diverse worthies as Archduke Ferdinand and Leon Trotsky. Now they're out to embarrass both the United States and Soviet Governments by killing off each country's V.I.P.'s and making it look as if the other country had done it….
The fans of Robert Ludlum, as numerous as the leaves on the trees, will delight in "The Matarese Circle," which strictly adheres to formula. Others may feel that the novel is longer than its premise warrants and that the symmetry of the plot is more dogged than shapely.
Richard Freedman, "Killer Thrillers," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 8, 1979, p. 14.∗
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The Matarese Circle, the eighth of Ludlum's popular novels, is 601 leaden pages long. Out of reviewer's hangup, I grimly read each one. Slaughter, mayhem, rape, and everyday sadism are casual events. In the first 100 pages, I tallied six murders, a pornographic episode, three instances of mayhem, and two of sadism. Since the flow of blood and the crunch of limbs quicken in the remaining five-sixths of this lumpy volume, it is conservative to estimate a grand total of at least 36 homicides, and similar amplifications of other categories of nauseating events.
As usual, Ludlum is high on the best-seller charts. Stacks of his latest effort greet browsers in the bookstores. To a cultural snob, such as myself, something exceptionally depressing is addressed by the fact that the Book-of-the-Month Club has adopted The Matarese Circle as a main selection….
Ludlum supplies no redeeming literary values to balance the vulgar sensationalism that would animate the chronicle, if anything could. Like a graduate of the Famous Writers School, he fills his pages with simple, declarative sentences compounded of clichés. Rain falls in "continuous sheets," enemies are cornered in their "dens," heroines flaunt "innate taste," evil (but salvageable) types include the "filthiest killer in the Soviet," tactics are "desperate," thuds are "sudden," "loud" or, most powerfully, both, orders are "direct" and frequently "backed up...
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Is there really any point in deploring Robert Ludlum, whose nine novels might as well be called "The Ludlum Formula," instead of "The Scarlatti Inheritance," "The Matarese Circle," and so forth? Should we wail that his violence is excessive, not to say downright implausible? Should we object that his sex scenes are curiously chaste for a writer who seems to be so obsessed with physical contact? Or that his plot developments aren't so much plot developments as signals reminding us of clichés?
In fact, one often wonders why he even bothered to write out a particular scene. Wouldn't it be more economical if he simply provided us with references to a "Standard Dictionary of Ludlum Plot Developments," in which we could look up the entry "The hero ambushed in an elevator" and read: "X leaned to his right—a sudden gesture of fear—then abruptly, without warning, swept his left foot off the floor, pivoting, his heel plunging into the armed man's hand, sending his gun upward, reeling the man backward out of the enclosure. Two muted gunshots preceded the closing of the doors, the bullets imbedding themselves in the thick wood of the ceiling."? Or look up the entry "Love-making" and read, "She came to him."? Pretty soon, he could write his novels with numbers.
Or should we object that his prose is overwrought—witness the opening paragraph of his latest thriller, "The Bourne Identity."… (p. 210)
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Ludlum's new master conspiracy [in The Bourne Identity] is the terror network built by Carlos the assassin. Some nice tradecraft around using a Paris couturier as a communications HQ, and a credible background of the CIA's Phoenix assassination programme in Vietnam, but at the centre of the plot is a cunningly-manipulated American counter-assassin, who labours through the book with amnesia. He can't remember who he is, and we are never persuaded to care. (p. 973)
Martin Walker, "SAS, SIS, SOS," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2571, June 27, 1980, pp. 972-73.∗
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