Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Trajectory of Robert Ludlum's Career

In 1971 Robert Ludlum became a name in the spy genre with The Scarlatti Inheritance. Counting the works he produced under two pseudonyms (Jonathan Ryder and Michael Shepherd) he published another eleven books in the next nine years--a dozen books in all over the course of the decade.

In the next two decades Ludlum was not to match that output, at least from the count of titles. One can chalk this up, in part, to the already large books (Ludlum boarded the post-Forsyth "super-thriller" train early) getting bigger, and individually demanding more work. But one can chalk it up to other factors too, among them the fact that the '80s was less fertile soil for the sort of thriller he wrote, in part because of the rightward shift of its politics. Ludlum espoused a centrist liberalism, which deemed anyone who questioned the structure of society an "extremist"; equated extremism with mental illness (the words "Madness!" and "Maniacs!" come up in his prose with tiresome frequency); and hewed to the orthodoxy of the Cold War, which had the Soviets a genuine threat to the West. And as one might guess from all this he was by no means anti-Establishment, but in fact quite genteely pro-Establishment. Still, he took the principles of liberal democracy sufficiently seriously as to hold that there were lines which should not be crossed, that the Cold War spy game was very far from black and white, that "Watergate" and all the rest associated with that term were an outrage, a view widely shared in the country. It must be remembered, too, that if the malefactors got off with a comparative slap on the wrist, the aftermath of the scandal still saw a Vice-President do time, and a President head off impeachment only by resigning his office.

In the next decade, however, the expectations and the reactions were quite different. As Arthur Liman, chief counsel for the Senate during the Iran-Contra hearings remarked, the hearings thoroughly exposed the crimes committed--but as one may observe of the aftermath, to far less consequence. (Exemplary of the lot, Elliott Abrams was convicted on mere misdeameanors, his punishment a fifty dollar fine and some probation and community service, and Bush the First pardoned him, sparing him the full consequences even of that--while he has since continued in his dubious career, the man now Special Representative for Venezuela.) Indeed, many of the chief participants in those crimes were openly and widely cheered as heroes by much of the public. That face of the scandal, Oliver North, put in TV appearances as himself in shows like Wings and JAG, the latter in particular flattering him as International Man of Mystery, while notable among those contributing to his defense was the writer who trumped Ludlum as the commercial colossus in the spy genre that decade, Tom Clancy, whose uncritical, "populist" flag-waving was much more in fashion.

Indeed, Ludlum not only became less prolific, but also more repetitive. He published five new novels in the next decade (1981-1990)--of which three were sequels, following The Bourne Identity with The Bourne Supremacy in 1986 and The Bourne Ultimatum in 1990, and The Chancellor Manuscript with The Icarus Agenda in 1988. There were some new touches here--the East Asian setting of The Bourne Supremacy, the Middle Eastern action with its whiff of Chuck Norris in The Icarus Agenda (Evan Kendrick gets to be popularly known as "Commando Kendrick" after helping resolve an embassy siege in Muscat), and the final showdown between Bourne and Carlos behind The Iron Curtain in the last days of the Cold War. Still, this was a matter of Ludlum following the fashion rather than setting it, and there was usually more old than new here, with the same going for the two books that were not obvious retreads. The Parsifal Mosaic (1982) and The Aquitaine Progression (1984) were variations on the theme of his next-biggest success, The Matarese Countdown, large and largely European-set tales of international conspiracy at the highest levels, with the Cold War sides interpenetrated in The Parsifal Mosaic, and generals instead of corporate overlords plotting world domination in The Aquitaine Progression.

As one might imagine, this was even more the case in the next decade, which saw five more books, two of them sequels, and one a clear repetition of a prior theme. His crack at comedy in The Road to Gandolfo got a follow-up in The Road to Omaha (1992), while after squeezing the last of the juice out of the Bourne saga (the third book did not sell like the first, and anyway Jason was fifty now, in a time before septugenarian action heroes were all the rage), Ludlum produced a sequel to what appears his second-biggest success, The Matarese Circle, The Matarese Countdown (1997). And again the "originals" were less original than their predecessors. The Scorpio Illusion (1993) once more had terrorists as corporate pawns, while in The Apocalypse Watch it was a neo-Nazi takeover plot that could not but recall The Holcroft Covenant on the level of premise, if updated after two decades and with a good deal of spy-fi about it (1995), while they seemed comparatively slight, shallow things compared with what came before--a tendency evident, too, in The Prometheus Deception (2000). And after that, the very last book completed by Ludlum himself, The Sigma Protocol (2001), once more returned to familiar ghosts of World War II.

Moreover, commercial exhaustion followed creative exhaustion, as an examination of the bestseller lists demonstrates. Where in the '80s, even amid the repetitiveness and other signs of decline, a Ludlum novel could still be expected to last six months or more on the New York Times' bestseller list, spending several weeks at #1 (the original Bourne Identity managed an astonishing 16 such weeks), then go on to rank high among its era's top-sellers (The Bourne Ultimatum, the weakest performer, still made #6 on the Publisher's Weekly list), they faded fast through the following decade. Not one of the five novels of the '90s made the #1 spot on the NYT list for a single week, while The Scorpio Illusion was the last to make Publisher Weekly's list (barely doing so at #10), afterward the NYT list appearance at any rank dwindling. (The Prometheus Deception lasted a mere nine weeks.)

Still, the Ludlum name was not so weak that Big Publishing, in its ever-greater ardor to milk any past success, even one fast-fading (anything beats looking at, you know, anything NEW) built the name into a veritable imprint just as Ludlum himself was passing from the scene. Thus followed a string of four more big Ludlum novels not actually written by Ludlum. Following The Sigma Protocol were more big books that looked just like their predecessors, starting with The Janson Directive (2002), and the launch of the "coauthored" Covert-One series with The Hades Factor (2001).

All of this, of course, was helped massively when Doug Liman (yup, Arthur's son) achieved what the legendary Sam Peckinpah and John Frankenheimer did not, turning a Ludlum novel into a really popular feature film.* Liman's The Bourne Identity (2002) launched a cinematic franchise and broader multimedia franchise (four more films, a video game in The Bourne Conspiracy, now a Bourne TV show in Treadstone, with more likely on the way) which of course had as one of its first consequences the reinvigoration of the print franchise (with eleven more Bourne novels to date, and two more to follow next year, not counting the apparent TV tie-in, The Treadstone Resurrection). That helped the other series' to flourish as they have, with the Covert-1 novels now numbering a dozen, and The Janson Directive having turned into a franchise in itself, with three more sequels. And so Ludlum's name, like Fleming's or Clancy's, appears mostly on books he never had anything to do with, and that largely because of the successes to which they led in other media consumable by people who never pick a book, with the pattern continuing decades after their writing their last. And likely to continue decades hence with, I suspect, artificial intelligences churning out new ones just like the originals, for whoever still enjoys that sort of thing. And still other artificial intelligences churning out new ones not at all like the originals for those who don't.

* Sam Peckinpah directed a feature film version of The Osterman Weekend which hit theaters in 1983, John Frankenheimer a version of The Holcroft Covenant (with Michael Caine an exceedingly unlikely Noel Holcroft) that appeared in 1985.

No comments:

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon