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6. THE ROAD TO GANDOLFO (1975)
TIME PERIOD: 1970s, Post-Watergate
I have a feeling many Ludlum fans will be ticked off that I ranked this novel – for which Robert used the pseudonym Michael Shepherd – above the seventh novel on my countdown.
HERO: Sam Devereaux, a handsome and brilliant lawyer who works for the United States Army and has risen to the rank of Major. Sam hates Army life and can’t wait to get out.
In his final days before leaving the service he becomes drawn into the schemes of General “Mac” Hawkins, who establishes grounds for continuing to extort cooperation from Sam even after his return to civilian life.
VILLAIN: General MacKenzie Hawkins, living legend and a cross between George Patton and Peter Falk’s manipulative CIA agent in the original version of The In-Laws.
During World War Two, the 19 year old Hawkins was a decorated hero of the Battle of the Bulge and an instant folk hero. After the war Mac went to West Point, where he became an all-star Running Back for the football team.
During the Korean War, Hawkins moved up in the ranks and – shrewdly reading the emerging geo-political landscape – pursued his further career in the Far East. A General by the height of American involvement in the Vietnam War, MacKenzie eventually gravitated to covert operations, specifically Black Ops.
Exiled to a diplomatic post over his tendency to make waves the General’s hard-drinking Bad Boy behavior caused an international incident between the U.S. and China.
When Major Sam Devereaux’s combination of legal brilliance and street-savvy saves Hawkins from hard time at Leavenworth or in China the General coldly and calculatingly makes the clearly talented Sam an unwilling accomplice in his plot TO KIDNAP THE POPE FOR FOUR HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS IN RANSOM.
SYNOPSIS: Fresh out of the service, Sam Devereaux’s plans to resume working for a Boston law firm are scuttled by Mac Hawkins who calls on his extensive experience in Black Ops to arrange grounds for blackmailing the lawyer. Sam is forced to serve as the attorney for Hawkins’ newly-founded front corporation called the Shepherd Company.
With Mac pulling off the usual Ludlumesque intrigues and the reluctant Sam serving as his international bag man the pair extort $10,000,000 each out of an East Coast Mafioso, a British blue-blood who betrayed England during World War Two, a Nazi war criminal hiding under an assumed name and a tinpot Muslim dictator with certain uncomfortable ties to Israel.
It’s not all uncomfortable for Sam Devereaux, however, as General Hawkins’ huge-breasted ex-wives – “Hawkins’ Harem” as the four ladies call themselves – each show up at Sam’s side in his travels across the globe.
If the overall tone of this tongue-in-cheek novel is reminiscent of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder stories then these ladies are pure Russ Meyer material as they shepherd Sam to his covert appointments and just generally intimidate, manipulate and seduce him every step of the way.
Hawkins uses the $40,000,000 in blackmail money to fund his REAL plan of kidnapping the Pope for $400,000,000 ransom, simply for the thrill of the challenge involved in pulling off such an impossible caper.
Once he realizes what Mac is up to, Sam hatches a secret counter-plot of his own to try to thwart Hawkins’ plans. Complications arise when the General’s youngest ex-wife Ann falls in love with Devereaux and attaches herself to him just when Sam and Mac’s conflicting plans are coming to a head.
SPOILERS: Ultimately, Sam’s efforts to stop Hawkins would be successful if not for Mac’s plan being saved by cooperation from a most unlikely source: the Pope himself. He’s tired of the pomp and circumstance of the Papacy, so he helps Mac replace him with his (the Pope’s) look-alike cousin, a hefty, failed opera singer.
The Pope then basically just escapes with Hawkins, Sam and Ann. The plot for ransom is abandoned and while the fake Pope relishes all the ceremony and respect that go with the office the real Pope is spared all that while living in hiding.
The Pope and Mac maintain covert radio contact with the phony Pope regarding what the real Pope’s policies are, so both Popes win. Sam and Ann plan to marry and move to Boston, where Sam will work for the Aaron Pinkus Law Firm.
COMMENT: Though titled in honor of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” movies The Road to Gandolfo is more like one of Donald Westlake’s novels about the brilliant but luckless master thief Johnny Dortmunder. Some reviews compare Gandolfo to Inspector Clouseau movies but the humor is never that broad. Well, seldom that broad, anyway.
The novel is a very enjoyable change of pace for Robert Ludlum, and I’m young enough that he had publicly accepted credit for this work by the time I discovered his writing. There is genuine chemistry between Hawkins and Devereaux as well as Sam and each of the ex-wives, and it’s made clear the ladies really do find Devereaux very attractive. They’re not being pimped out by Mac.
The time is long past when The Road to Gandolfo would work as a movie. So much of the humor is grounded in the historical geo-political realities of the 1970s. That material could not be jettisoned without affecting the overall tone. The more topical humor balanced out the story’s bawdiness and the sprinklings of broad comedy.
I’ll compare this novel once again to the original movie version of The In-Laws with Mac as the manipulative but lovable puppet master a la Peter Falk in that film and Sam as a much younger and sexier version of Alan Arkin. (Talk about damning with faint praise!)
Too many years later Ludlum penned a sequel novel titled The Road to Omaha (1992). Not to be cruel and not to anger any Robert Ludlum fans who may like that book but I thought it was an inept and often shoddy piece of work that I’d have thought Ludlum would be embarrassed by. No offense.
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