Robert Ludlum and the realm of evil

Susan Baxter,Mark Nichols April 9 1984

Robert Ludlum and the realm of evil

Susan Baxter,Mark Nichols April 9 1984

Robert Ludlum and the realm of evil


Susan Baxter and Mark Nichols

It was 4:30 in the morning, and the blue eyes of the man seated in the study of the 200-year-old Connecticut farmhouse were as imperturbable as the waters of the Atlantic that washed the shore a few hundred metres away. Lighting a Kool menthol cigarette, he began to write in pencil on a yellow, legal-size pad. Those were the first of about 2,000 words that he would produce that day, depicting the improbable world of his imagination—a realm of spectacular evil and monstrous conspiracies, of casual brutality and gory death. Like most novelists, he has his share of unkind critics who complain of implausible plots, leaden prose and, as a caustic reviewer once sneered, an absence of “redeeming literary values to balance the vulgar sensationalism.”

But harsh critical words have not prevented Robert Ludlum, the onetime actor and theatrical producer who wrote his first novel at the age of 42, from becoming one of the most widely read and wealthiest authors in the world. Last week, to no one’s surprise, his latest novel, The Aquitaine Progression, was at the top of The

New York Times best-seller list.

“I’m just a storyteller,” says Ludlum, a friendly but somewhat reserved 56year-old with a self-deprecating manner. “I take my work seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously.” Most readers probably do not take Ludlum seriously either, but their appetite for his work is voracious just the same. Since his first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance, was published 13 years ago, Ludlum’s tales of dark and dastardly intrigue and heroic derring-do, with their now-familiar three-word titles— The Osterman Weekend, The Rhinemann Exchange and The Parsifal Mosaic are some of the others—have sold an average of about 5.5 million copies each worldwide for a total of 60 million copies in 23 languages.

Ludlum’s awesome record of success means that he is one of the most popular living authors in the English language, outselling John le Carré {The Honourable Schoolboy, The Little Drummer Girl), the other giant presence in the trench coat-and-stiletto field, and vying with the stars of quite different mass-market genres, such as Stephen King {Pet Sematary), with his eerie blockbusters on the supernatural,

and Judith Krantz {Mistral’s Daughter), the reigning queen of sophisticated soap. As a thriller writer, Ludlum has also succeeded in making a distinctly American voice heard in a literary form that has experienced an explosive growth in popularity in recent years and has been largely dominated in the past by the British accents of le Carré, Len Deighton {Berlin Game), Frederick Forsyth {No Comebacks) and the late Ian Fleming, inventor of the dashing and enduring James Bond. Ludlum, says Linda Grey, his editor at the U.S. paperback publisher Bantam Books, has “invented a whole new kind of international thriller. It is top-notch writing with a superiority of plot, originality of concept and pacing that is not really categorizable.”

Perhaps so, but Ludlum’s novels are nevertheless conspicuously open to criticism on a variety of counts. Wordy and plodding, they lack the knowing tone and stylistic elegance that the master practitioners have brought to the thriller, while placing a much heavier strain on the reader’s credulity. In Ludlum’s 1978 novel, The Holcroft Covenant, the selected children of Hitler’s Nazis have grown to maturity as geneti-

cally programmed “moles” who are trying to set up a Fourth Reich, while The Matarese Circle the following year posited a different kind of global conspiracy-one by multinational corporations. In Aquitaine a typical Ludlum story line unfolds when a young American lawyer becomes embroiled in a conspiracy by an international cabal of retired military men whose aim, of course, is to take over the world. As in most Ludlum novels, there is an echo of the Hitler era—in the person of a demented Nazi general—a string of gruesome murders and a harrowing, single-handed struggle by the protagonist against mindboggling odds, with visits to a score of world capitals and assorted other scenic locations along the way.

At times the dialogue in Ludlum’s work is as devoid of any intrinsic interest as any humdrum conversation in real workaday life, and his pronouncements to the reader can be both clumsy and obscure. “The ethics was questionable,” he writes in Aquitaine, “but contrary to accepted belief, ethics was in three dimensions, if not four. The end did not justify the means, but justifiable means that brought about a fair and necessary conclusion were not to be dismissed.” Yet, for all his imperfections, Ludlum manages—by pumping suspense into every twist and turn in his tangled plots and by demanding sympathy for well-meaning protagonists afflicted by outrageous adversity— to keep millions of readers frantically turning his pages. As a Washington Post reviewer wrote of Ludlum’s 1980 The Bourne Identity. “It’s a lousy book. So I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it.”

An unlikely literary spellbinder, Ludlum had a long and successful career in the theatre before turning to full-time writing. Born in New York City, where his father was a moderately prosperous business executive, Ludlum first fell in love with the stage when he acted in a play at Connecticut’s private Kent School. Then, at the age of 14, Robert ran away from school and won a part for himself under an assumed name in a New York production of Jerome Chodorov’s 1941 love farce Junior Miss. His real ambition was to see action in the Second World War and, when the play went on the road to Detroit, Ludlum crossed the border into Canada and, in Toronto, tried to sign on under a false name with the Canadian air force. But the long arm of authority soon caught up with the runaway. “It was on York Street in Toronto, I think,” recalls Ludlum. “I was filling out the papers for training as an aircraftsman when the sergeant-major came in and shouted, ‘Ludlum.’ I said, ‘Yes, er, no.’ And that was it.”

Back in the United States, Ludlum

eventually went back to school and, after serving with the U.S. Marine Corps in the South Pacific, he took an arts degree at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. While an undergraduate, Ludlum met and married an aspiring young actress named Mary Ryducha and for the next two decades they made their careers in the theatre. While his wife acted under the stage name of Mary Rydé, Ludlum performed in New England repertory theatres, won small parts in Broadway productions and made numerous appearances in the live television dramas of the 1950s, appearing on such shows as Studio One, Kraft Television Theatre and Omnibus. But Ludlum worried that as an actor he had too little control over his life and, he wryly recalls: “a lot of people kept saying I would make a hell of a producer. I got the message: get off the stage.”

That turned out to be sound advice. Ludlum went on to produce more than 370 plays outside of New York, including the original production in New Jersey of Bill Manhoff’s The Owl and the

Pussycat, starring Mary Rydé and a young unknown named Alan Alda. “I should have known he would write spy stories from the way he negotiated contracts,” says Alda today. “He had this trick of rattling papers into the phone and saying that he had found a way to cut you in for a percentage, which was fictitious. He was such a good actor I always fell for it.” As a producer, Ludlum was also the moving force behind the founding of a playhouse in Paramus, N.J. But, by the late 1960s, he was increasingly unhappy with the financial pressures that dominated theatrical life. Besides, he had always wanted to write, and his wife warned him, “If you don’t do it now, you will regret it for the rest of your life.”

His first novel grew out of two photographs Ludlum saw in a magazine, taken during the period of economic collapse in Germany that followed the First World War. One photo, illustrating the hyperinflation that wracked the country, showed a shopper’s wheelbarrow filled with nearly valueless currency, while the other was a group of jack-

booted precursors of the Nazi party. “I turned the pages back and forth,” said Ludlum, “and wondered. If a wheelbarrow full of reichsmarks could not buy a loaf of bread, then where did they get the money for those boots?” Ludlum’s answer, in The Scarlatti Inheritance, was that ruthless international financiers, including Americans, had helped to bankroll the Nazis. After several publishers had rejected it, Ludlum took the manuscript to Henry Morrison, a New York literary agent who still handles the author’s books. Says Morrison: “It was really very easy to see the quality of that book. Bob’s aim in life is to be an entertaining writer.”

With his first best seller, Ludlum joined the top rank of thriller writers at a time when novels trafficking in espionage and apocalyptic plots—perhaps in response to the frightening realities of the nuclear age—were gaining rapidly in popularity. The recurring theme of his novels, says Ludlum, is “the abuse of power,” and he once explained that “What I don’t like in the world is largeness—large corporations, large

governments____ I would say I have one

true loathing—for fanatics of all persuasions, right or left.” Washington, D.C. thriller writer James Grady, author of 1974’s Three Days of the Condor, thinks “the reason that fiction involving intrigue is so popular is that it is easier to believe in unseen hands and conspiracies. Real events tend to be a little too large and a little too complex for most people.” Said Tim WynneJones, secretary of Crime Writers of Canada, who is also the author of a pair of thrillers (Odd’s End and The Knot): “I think there is a tremendous fashion for paranoia thrillers, and Ludlum is the perfect example of this. There is the idea that It is everywhere, and It is going to get you. They are a very violent and simplistic reflection of the times.”

If North Americans, other than Ludlum, have generally lagged behind the more successful British thriller writers, that is probably because the form was virtually born and nurtured in the United Kingdom. The early English classics—Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands in 1900, John Buchan’s The Thirty-nine Steps in 1915 and Somerset Maugham’s 1928 Ashenden, or the British Agent—set the stage for Eric Ambler’s invention, virtually single-handedly, of the plausible and literate modern thriller with the publication of The Dark Frontier in 1936. While a handful of American writers—including Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise), Donald E. Westlake (Kahawa) and Ross Thomas (Missionary Stew)— have turned out well-crafted thrillers, British authors like le Carré, Deighton and a host of lesser lights (Ted Allebu-

ry, Gerald Seymour, Peter Driscoll and Alan Williams are among the best) still dominate the genre.

Canadians increasingly are trying their hands at thrillers. Vancouver writer Rohan O’Grady and journalist Shaun Herron took to the field in the 1960s, and Vancouver’s Tom Ardies fol-

lowed with a string of successful thrillers, including This Suitcase is Going to Explode and Kosygin is Coming, in the early 1970s. But 1979 was the year Canadian thriller writers arrived. There was William Deverell’s well-received Needles, a tale of the international drug trade set in Vancouver; Peter Such’s Dolphin’s Wake, which

dealt with Greek political intrigue in the 1960s; and David Gurr’s Troika, a moody novel in the le Carré style that sold well in the United States and Britain. Today, writers like Dennis Jones, a London, Ont., computer scientist whose Rubicon One sold well last year, are being promoted more aggressively in the U.S. market. If Canadians have yet to break into the higher echelons of the thriller field, the success of some of their compatriots in the related, but distinct, detective field augurs well for the future: last month Toronto mystery writer Eric Wright won Britain’s prestigious John Creasey Memorial Award for his much praised The Night the Gods Smiled.

Meanwhile, Ludlum has convincingly demonstrated that just about anyone can write a thriller. Lacking any personal experience in espionage, although he admits he has “friends in the intelligence community,” Ludlum reads books on contemporary history such as The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Baio and hunts for tips on the spy trade in works like David Kahn’s The Codebreakers, one of the definitive works on cryptology. When Ludlum and his wife, Mary, are not travelling to search out new locations for his novels, they live quietly at home and entertain a circle of close friends (among them actors Jason Robards and, until he died last October, Pat O’Brien) in their spacious converted farmhouse, with its landscaped grounds and a tennis court. Mary, who, notes Henry Morrison, “has been an ongoing influence in Bob’s life,” acts as unofficial manager and creative consultant, gently bullying and organizing her easygoing husband.

Ludlum is devoted to her and to his three children. Michael, 30, is a university music teacher and Glynis, 21, is a student in Boston. Jonathan, 29, who plans to study law, is also following in his father’s literary footsteps and is writing a thriller. Mary, notes the proud father, “says that he is going to shove me right off the lists.” Actually, Ludlum’s commanding position in the thriller field seems unlikely to be challenged in the immediate future, so long as the prolific storyteller continues to put pencil to paper. Nor does Ludlum worry much about writing a great novel. “If anyone had asked Charles Dickens,” says Ludlum, “he would say, T write what I can.’ I don’t think great novels are set out to be that way. I think they happen.” If literary greatness never happens to Robert Ludlum, he can at least console himself that he is helping millions of thriller addicts to make it through the night.

Margaret Cannon

Anne Nelson

With Margaret Cannon in Toronto and Anne Nelson in New York.