Monday, July 21, 2014

1979: The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum

The Author:

Robert Ludlum (1927-2001) was born in New York City and attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut. After graduation, Ludlum served in the U.S. Marines.  After that, he held a career as a theater producer.  In 1960, he opened his own theater, Playhouse-on-the-Mall, in Paramus, New Jersey.  A decade later, he left the business to pursue a career in writing.  His first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance (1971), set the tone for the rest of his ouevre.  It was not long before Ludlum became one of the best-selling authors in the world.  Ludlum published 22 novels before his death, while five were published posthumously.  Of the thirty-six years from 1971 and 2006, only ten did not feature a new book by Robert Ludlum.  The Matarese Circle marks Ludlum's third book on the top ten annual bestsellers list.  Seven more appear on the top ten, yet none other take the number one spot.  

Ludlum's death is itself the focus of controversy and conspiracy.  A few weeks after changing his will to leave his second wife millions of dollars in cash and real estate, Ludlum caught fire in his home. Complications from his burns led to his death.  Ludlum's nephew has since launched an investigation into Ludlum's demise.

The Book:

Length: 601 pages
Subject/Genre: Conspiracy/Spy Thriller

The Matarese Circle centers on two of the world's top spies, America's Brandon Scofield and the Soviet Union's Vasili Taleniekov.  In addition to their bitter professional rivalries, Taleniekov had Scofield's wife killed, and Scofield killed Taleniekov's brother in retaliation.  But, when Taleniekov becomes aware of a threat to the continued survival of both nations, a secret organization composed of important figures from across the world bent on total domination, he and Scofield must put aside their differences and work together to save the world.    

I read several Ludlum novels when in high school, and they all follow the same basic formula, for everything including the title.  The title will start with the word "The" and be followed by a proper noun, either a last name (e.g. Matarese, Bourne, Ambler, Scarlatti) or something mythological (e.g. Icarus, Gemini, Apocalypse).  This will be followed by a non-object noun (e.g. Circle, Ultimatum, Identity, Covenant, etc.).  Of the twenty-four novels he published under his own name, only 1992's The Road to Omaha doesn't follow this naming structure.  

The novels themselves also follow the same general plot.  A man is in some way connected to an intelligence agency.  Said man is frequently, but not always, too old for this shit.  He discovers or is made aware of a secret cadre bent on some form of world domination.  With the help of  a beautiful woman who possesses some skill or background necessary to his success, the man manages to thwart the evil plot (winning the girl in the process, of course).  Ludlum doesn't break the mold at all in this novel, so you get exactly what you'd expect: a fun page-turner that really doesn't reward close reading.  

Ludlum is a popcorn novelist, plain and simple.  His plots are contrived at best, character motivations often don't hold up under close scrutiny.  The Matarese Circle, in particular, has some pacing problems.  Most of the first two hundred pages focuses on the main characters figuring out things the reader already knows, and the information about the conspiracy comes in spurts.  You'll get twenty pages of Scofield moping, twenty of things blowing up, then an info dump.    

It's interesting to compare and contrast Ludlum with le CarrĂ©.  The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is by an actual MI-6 agent and deals with the moral bankruptcy and disillusionment of the Cold War from the perspective of someone who was honestly disillusioned by the Cold War.  The Materese Circle deals with the disillusionment in the way an action movie Hollywood studio executive would deal with it.  Scofield and Taleniekov have to deal with disillusionment and betrayal, but Ludlum trades depth for frequency.  It's just something for Scofield to dote on between the gunfights.  

The Matarese Circle itself is not a cultural touchstone and doesn't has already been lost to the realm of forgotten pop culture (although IMDB shows a film version in development).  However, like Zane Gray, Ludlum's influence is based on his entire oeuvre more than any particular work.  For one, Ludlum is one of the first trademarked dead authors.  While Fleming's Bond series still lives on through licensed sequels, the sheer number of Ludlum sequels since his death is impressive.  Since 2000, there have been twenty-three books marketed as "Robert Ludlum's..." where Ludlum's name is often bigger than the title.

While Tom Clancy has his own 'apostrophe series',  this is becoming more of a trend.  There are now four Sidney Sheldon apostrophe novels.  And of course we have to mention James Patterson, whose name has been on the cover of over one hundred novels since 1995.  The bestsellers list has been getting more and more homogeneous.  Looking at the annual top ten list for the 1910s, 52 different authors show up across the decade.  Looking at the 1970s, 59 different names show up.  Looking at 2000-2009, if we count things like "James Patterson with ____" as James Patterson, there are only 33 different authors over the 100 available slots.
I realize I've gone a bit off topic, but this is the point where the bestseller lists really starts to shift from the Michener/Uris/Hailey infotainment trifecta to the formulaic airport novel.  

Anyway, as far as The Matarese Circle goes, if you're looking for entertainment and nothing else, this will do just fine.

Bestsellers of 1979:

1. The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
2. Sophie's Choice by William Styron
3. Overload by Arthur Hailey
4. Memories of Another Day by Harold Robbins
5. Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
6. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
7. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
8. The Establishment by Howard Fast
9. The Third World War: August 1985 by John Hackett
10. Smiley's People by John le CarrĂ©

Also published in 1979:

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
if on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer


  1. I read my father's Ludlums and Le Carres in high school, and quite enjoyed them, then tried them again 20 years later and found the Ludlum unreadably bad. I'm glad that Le Carre gets the recognition he deserves for really knowing how to write, but if there were true justice, Ludlum would be forgotten.

    I hope you won't be offended if I say that the "Also published" section is often my favorite bit of this blog. Thanks for including that.

  2. I love Ludlum's stuff (by the way, the word "circle" is misspelled in the title), The Bourne Identity is my favorite. Haven't gotten much into the "Ludlum like" books (those that carry his name but were written by someone else.

    1. Thanks for catching that!

      For me, Ludlum is like a stupid action movie. I enjoy it, but it doesn't do well under scrutiny.

  3. After getting out of bed with subject accidents in his coming back, a man (Matt Damon) with no storage space locations out to discover who he is and where he's from. He progressively finds out that his name is Jerr Bourne, but several issues still remain. Even more issues happen once he finds a gun, a lot of money and several us us passports in a financial concern that's in his name. Bourne is progressively followed by several people who don't appear to have his best interest in ideas and he comes to know that he can't believe in anyone. Ludlum's The Identity