Balladeer’s Blog takes a look at the espionage novels of the late Robert Ludlum. I know it’s odd for me to write about a figure as popular as Ludlum but I’m addressing ONLY his novels in terms of my rankings. Even the novels he wrote under other names.
People who know this fun author strictly from the Jason Bourne movies may not be familiar with these works because they are very different in tone and approach from the Matt Damon flicks.
7. THE GEMINI CONTENDERS (1976)
TIME PERIOD: World War Two era through the early 1970s.
I’m sure many Ludlumites will be furious that I have this novel in last place. They’ll likely be even angrier when they see which novel I ranked above it in 6th place.
HERO: WORLD WAR TWO PORTION – Vittorio Fontini-Cristi, the good-timing playboy scion of the moneyed and blue blooded Fontini-Cristi family in Italy. Vittorio’s father opposed Benito Mussolini so the dictator liquidated the family and confiscated their estate.
Vittorio was the sole survivor of the family. Sobered up into a more serious worldview over the massacre of his loved ones, Vittorio became a deep cover intelligence agent sabotaging Mussolini’s war effort. His twin sons are the major characters of the 1970s portion.
VILLAIN: WORLD WAR TWO PORTION – Cardinal Donatti, a religious zealot determined to find and destroy certain ancient documents that were entrusted to the Fontini-Cristi Dynasty.
Those documents, if made public, would supposedly shock the Christian, Jewish and Muslim worlds into potential chaos. If they fall into the wrong hands they could supposedly be used to blackmail the Vatican and other Christian power centers.
HERO: NINETEEN SEVENTIES PORTION – Twin Adrian Fontine (as the family Anglicized their surname to), a lawyer working for government investigators looking into a scandal involving Vietnam War appropriations.
VILLAIN: NINETEEN SEVENTIES PORTION – Twin Andrew Fontine, a West Point grad and a U.S. Army Major serving in Vietnam. His brother Adrian’s investigation has uncovered his (Andrew’s) role in the appropriations scandal.
SYNOPSIS: During the World War Two portion Vittorio’s work against Mussolini is interrupted by religious zealots led by Cardinal Donatti. The zealots are convinced that Vittorio’s father Savaronne told Vittorio the location of the ancient religious documents that were entrusted to his family.
Actually Savaronne died before he could pass that word along to his son but Cardinal Donatti and company refuse to believe that. They torture Vittorio to the point where he is partially crippled for the rest of his life before they are satisfied that he knows nothing.
*** During the 1970s portion, when Vittorio is on his deathbed he and his wife Jane summon their twin sons Adrian and Andrew. As a sign of the times the brothers have become bitterly divided over the Vietnam War and other issues.
Vittorio reveals to his sons what little he has figured out about the possible location of the ancient documents. He implores them to find those documents and decide for themselves if they should be made public, be hidden again or be destroyed.
Andrew immediately betrays Adrian and heads off alone for the sought-after writings. He plans to use the leverage the documents will give him to save himself from Adrian’s investigation AND to further the plot that he and his fellow officers were hatching. Adrian – in typical good guy fashion – is worried about the potential global impact of the documents and is determined to keep them out of his brother’s hands.
From there the usual Ludlum-style international chess match of move and counter-move breaks out as the Gemini Contenders try to beat each other to the coveted writings.
SPOILERS: Andrew gets killed, Adrian recovers the documents and has them translated. They are dated to the 1st Century A.D. and are a supposed confession from the Apostles that they smuggled a drugged Jesus out of prison and substituted a bewildered victim to be crucified in Christ’s place.
The furious Jesus reprimanded his Apostles and committed suicide on the third day after the death of the substitute. Adrian, his girlfriend and the scholar who did the translation decide that the documents are too shocking for the world to handle and they decide to keep them hidden.
COMMENT: Robert Ludlum beat Dan Brown to the punch when it comes to allegedly “shocking” religious secrets that are supposedly being suppressed. For starters, for CENTURIES various Apocryphal Gospels have been well-known to the world at large.
Many of those Gospels (which were rejected from the canon) contained variations of Ludlum’s tale about Jesus not really getting crucified. Others contain claims that out-scandal the writings in The Gemini Contenders by a mile.
Contentions were made that Jesus was really a Gnostic, or that he never had a physical body at all, or that he had a love affair with Mary Magdalene, or that he had a love affair with Lazarus after resurrecting him and on and on.
Far from being shocked to the point of global disillusionment, practitioners have always been quite content to simply listen to their local clergy members when they tell them to ignore such writings as counterfeits and hoaxes. This makes the significance that Ludlum’s characters attach to the documents at the end simply absurd.
At the very least the scholar doing the translation would have known the documents were just the latest in a centuries-long line of supposedly “explosive” exposes about Jesus.
In my opinion the whole Dan Brown/ Indiana Jones quest for the religious documents simply got in the way of a potentially fascinating espionage story about the Fontine Twins. The entire novel could have been set in the 1970s with Adrian’s investigation coincidentally uncovering the conspiracy his brother Andrew was involved in.
The potential was there to amp up Andrew’s plot to make him part of a conspiracy involving a coup d’état or a plan by Andrew and his fellow overzealous officers to obtain and use a nuke in Vietnam. The title of the novel emphasized the twins, not the religious writings.
The Fontine Twins nicely represent the usual hero and villain dichotomy of Ludlum’s first several novels. The villain – in this case Andrew – is the more experienced espionage figure, using their super-spy skills to run rings around the good guy at first. And the hero – Adrian – is the comparative Regular Guy forced to exert himself to the utmost, but ultimately proving victorious.
All that aside, The Gemini Contenders is nine-tenths of a pretty good espionage novel. It certainly stands above earlier Ludlum works like The Osterman Weekend and The Matlock Paper. Personally I prefer it even to The Rhinemann Exchange, but I may be alone in that.
A change I would make to the ending: Have the scholar who translates the documents for Adrian Fontine spell out how many similar writings have been publicized but largely ignored over the years.
Adrian and his girlfriend could join the scholar in releasing the translation to the world at large, accompanied by wry, cynical comments about how people’s “faith” will likely be unshaken by the documents. They could also express regret over how many people were needlessly killed or tortured over the centuries by conspirators trying to obtain the mysterious writings.
ALL religious violence is perpetrated by zealots figuratively fighting over ancient documents of very questionable provenance so Adrian could have drawn the obvious parallel as the novel came to a close.
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