Image via WikipediaI recently finished Robert Ludlum’s The Janson Directive and The Bourne Supremacy and years and years ago I read The Bourne Identity (you may recognize the names of the last two, as a trilogy of films based on the Bourne series were made, starring Matt Damon. There was also a made-for-TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain and Jacquelyn Smith — and that was how I became fascinated with memory, and why I sought out the Bourne Identity book).
If you’ve never read any Ludlum novels, here’s a short wikipedia description of his stories:
Ludlum’s novels typically featured one heroic man, or a small group of crusading individuals, in a struggle against powerful adversaries whose intentions and motivations are evil, adversaries capable of using political and economic mechanisms in frightening ways. His vision of the world was one where global corporations, shadowy military forces and government organizations all conspired to preserve (if it was evil) or undermine (if it was good) the status quo.
Having real only a few of Ludlum’s numerous titles (he actually died in 2001, and recent novels are ghostwritten off his manuscripts or notes), I can say there must be a Ludlum style, which I shall try to distill:
- Realism – a lot of what drew me into Ludlum’s novels is his depiction of the world. On the surface, his world is exactly like ours — cities and nations, economics and politics, etc. However, underneath the surface are forces we know nothing about: secret government organizations, clandestine operations, conspiracies and puppeteers who control the puppeteers who manipulate our hero, etc. The way Ludlum describes procedures and policies, weapons and tactics all seem real because of the “technobabble” he deftly uses, enabling readers to suspend their disbeliefs. (Technobabble is what we hear in sci-fi, such as Star Trek, when terms like “structural integrity field” and “Heisenberg compensator” are used to explain concepts to advance the plot). He describes operations, tactics and motives of organizations, governments and economic mechanisms such as secret bank accounts with such detail that they all seem more than plausible — it’s like we’re getting real-life lessons on how things (may) work.
- “Evil” Characters – by using the third person narrative — and a most omniscient narrator at that — we are many privy to the thoughts of major characters. As such, we learn about the motivations for them, and realize that while the characters that are “evil”, we know that they do not think of themselves as such. Rather, they have their own justifications and motivations for their actions. In D & D parlance, they tend to have an chaotic-evil alignment, meaning these antagonists see only themselves as being right, being the smart one, and that the end justifies any means needed.
- Intense Action – we are so used to the “summer blockbuster” movies, filled with special-effects, THX sound, etc. Well, Ludlum novels are also filled with action, although it’s all described in words. Car chases, hand-to-hand combat, gunfights, you-name-it it’s probably in one of his novels. Reading the sequences sends my heart pounding, and I start reading faster and faster, eager to find out what’s happening next. No wonder they’re called thrillers.
- Exotic Locations – in typical James Bond-ish style, Ludlum’s characters invariably need to travel the world, and here again, the author inserts an “in the know” travel guide for the location he uses, describing places in such detail that we can easily picture the natives, hear the foreign tongues in the markets, smell the scents, etc.
- Plot Twists – the hallmark of any good mystery thriller is its ability to keep the reader guessing. Sure, there must be clues so that we can develop their own suspicions as we read, but at the same time, we don’t want the story to be too predictable. It’s a fine balancing act, one that Ludlum seemed adept at.
- Good Guys prevail – at least so far, in the three novels that I’ve read. I know this may not happen in real life all the time, and you certainly will find less of this in the plots of foreign movies — good guy wins, gets the girl, etc., is what’s known as the “Classic Hollywood” ending — but I usually go watch movies or read books because I like to feel good at the end.
What I’ve described is certainly not limited to Ludlum novels — but for developing the Ludlum “brand” so that readers expect a certain type of story in a certain type of style, his novels certainly deliver the goods.