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5. THE SCARLATTI INHERITANCE (1971)
TIME PERIOD: Pre-World War One Era on up through the start of the Great Depression with an epilogue set during World War Two.
This was Robert Ludlum’s very first novel and it’s a shame that the planned movie starring Ingrid Bergman never panned out. In my opinion there has never been a very good screen adaptation of a Ludlum novel. Or at least not when it comes to adaptations that are actually like their source material.
The successful Jason Bourne movies bear virtually no resemblance to the trilogy of novels that inspired them. Other films or mini-series’ adapted from Ludlum’s writings have tended to be so far off the mark that some of them qualify as classically bad, for instance The Osterman Weekend.
HEROINE: (This novel has a female and a male protagonist) Elizabeth Wyckham Scarlatti, an 1890s adventuress from American Old Money who – in her youth – spurned plenty of bloated rich pigs for not being as high-spirited and daring as she was.
Her heart and loins are finally stolen away by Italian-American Giovanni Scarlatti, a laborer in her father’s factory. Though he speaks broken English, Scarlatti’s mechanical genius is first-rate. The rebellious Elizabeth combines her own business acumen with Giovanni’s aptitude for inventions and before long the two lovers are married and have taken over the companies run by her father and plenty of his friends.
The Scarlattis continue to thrive financially through the expected hardball methods and after having three children they change the family name to Scarlett. Eventually Giovanni dies of natural causes and eldest son Roland is killed during World War One.
Making her own version of Sophie’s Choice, Elizabeth allows her brawling, bullying wastrel of a son Ulster to enlist in the Army to romantically take Roland’s place in the World War while keeping third son Chancellor in America with her to prep him to take over Scarlett Industries when she dies.
HERO: Matthew Canfield, an accountant and investigative agent for the American government – specifically Group Twenty, Ludlum’s fictional agency. Group Twenty was operative during the 1920s, when the bulk of this story takes place. Their agents specialized in uncovering financial hanky-panky in that gray area where dishonest business practices and outright criminality mingle.
Canfield has a kind of James Garner appeal. He is very skilled at unraveling the Byzantine – but often mundane – conspiracies hatched by plutocrats and criminals, but is the worst shot in Group Twenty and uses his gun more as a bluff than an actual weapon. He’s damn good with his fists, however.
Matthew is a very intriguing hero compared to Ludlum’s later characters. Canfield is like a Film Noir Detective anachronistically working in the Roaring Twenties. The Group Twenty agent is not above being bought but he does have a certain fundamental decency.
VILLAIN: Ulster Scarlett, the cruel and vicious son of Elizabeth and Giovanni Scarlatti. His service in World War One unleashed the full measure of his treachery, brutality and thirst for blood.
Ulster’s magnum opus came when he took advantage of the fog of war to frag some of his own troops, blame it on a German machine-gun nest whose men were already dead, then take credit for “single-handedly” killing the Germans in that nest to “avenge” his slain comrades.
His mother Elizabeth – like the rest of the world – believed in Ulster’s war hero status and wondered if she had misjudged him. When Ulster feigned an interest in learning how Scarlett Industries operated Elizabeth told her subordinates to instruct her son, little dreaming what Ulster’s real intentions were.
SYNOPSIS: As the 1920s roll along, Ulster Scarlett works away, plotting a figurative Armageddon in his financial warren. Pretending to be mastering the intricacies of Scarlett Industries so he may one day help his brother Chancellor take over for his mother, Ulster instead plans to destroy his family’s empire.
To deepen the level of spite involved, Ulster is determined that the beneficiaries of his family’s destruction be his new, secret allies: the upstart Nazi Party of Germany. Ulster takes on a second identity as a German man named Heinrich Kroeger.
As Kroeger he and his terrified new wife Janet Saxon Scarlett hob-nob with the uppermost levels of the seedy Nazi conspirators. In his real identity of Ulster Scarlett our villain lures some of America’s most bloated rich pigs into helping him finance the Nazi Party in the name of the “stability” and profit opportunities that lie ahead if the Nazis rise to full power.
Meanwhile, some of Ulster’s sub-rosa financial hanky-panky has caught the attention of the Group Twenty agent Matthew Canfield. At the outset Canfield has no idea that the shady dealings that he’s uncovered will lead all the way to a corporate giant like Scarlett Industries and its prodigal son Ulster.
Eventually Matthew Canfield and Elizabeth Scarlett catch on to the way Ulster has been abusing his mother’s trust to fuel an international conspiracy. Soon Elizabeth realizes that the economic forces her son has unleashed may bring on a financial apocalypse even if his Nazi allies don’t rise to power.
Ulster has fled the country, abandoning his wife Janet and their son. Elizabeth has no choice but to ally herself with the wily Agent Canfield, who has already learned far more than she is comfortable with.
The Scarlatti matriarch bribes Canfield: she will pay him far and above his normal salary to let her decide which information he turns over to the U.S. government and which he keeps secret. He’ll continue to collect his normal paychecks, too, as their secret arrangement goes forward.
Matthew and Ulster’s abandoned wife Janet become romantically involved as the trio travel the world tracking down the missing villain. Elizabeth and her travel-mates eventually learn the full scope of her son’s conspiracy, a conspiracy which will gift-wrap the global economy for the rising Nazis.
SPOILERS: Elizabeth grimly resigns herself to pursuing the only course of action that will stop Ulster/ Heinrich. With Canfield keeping her safe from assassination by her vile son’s thugs, Elizabeth strikes before Ulster/ Heinrich’s plans can come to fruition.
Her strategy, though successful, has repercussions that spread across the globe, ultimately bringing on the Great Depression itself. Elizabeth and many of the rich pigs who were financing Ulster’s German allies, are, naturally, able to keep their own involvement out of the headlines.
Matthew Canfield does compile all the information – especially the names of the corporate “giants” – in a file for his government superiors. By doing so he hoped they would be held accountable. Unfortunately the bloated rich pigs use their financial pull to convince consecutive U.S. Presidents to keep that file labeled Above Top Secret, ensuring that the contents will not see the light of day.
EPILOGUE: This epilogue finishes up the novel’s wraparound story that started with a 1940s prologue. The rest of the story was sandwiched in between these two wraparound segments. In the closing months of World War Two Ulster/ Heinrich – who is a big wheel in Hitler’s outfit – offers to defect to the Allies.
The conditions that Ulster has negotiated:
a) the American Agent that he turns himself over to MUST be Matthew Canfield, who has risen to a high level in Army Intelligence,
b) Canfield must bring his step-son (Ulster’s REAL son) along to meet his blood father
and c) Canfield must bring Ulster a copy of the Above Top Secret file so that he (Ulster) has protection for himself after he defects. With that file he can expose all the captains of industry around the world who financially aided the rise of the Nazis if any of them threaten him after his defection.
There are, naturally, a few more twists in those final few pages of the novel as Ulster at last gets his.
COMMENT: Most Robert Ludlum fans seem to rank this debut novel near the bottom of his published work, but I love it. I’m a geek for the time period in which the bulk of the story is set: the 1890s through the Roaring Twenties.
Even with that aside, I feel that The Scarlatti Inheritance holds up as a novel better than much of Ludlum’s later works. The situation is fully resolved within one book, the characters are intriguing and – most importantly in terms of a true novel – the hero Matthew Canfield is far more realistic than many of the impossibly talented Intelligence Agents that would fill Ludlum’s pages later in his career.
In addition to that, The Scarlatti Inheritance entertainingly deals with the way many big financial names in the U.S. and elsewhere were complicit in the rise of the Nazis. Naturally, since this is escapist fiction it’s all presented as melodrama, but if you research the time period when this novel was published, that complicity was not discussed as much as it is these days.
There is no denying that Elizabeth Scarlatti is a fascinating character. She, too, is not a cut and dried “good guy” but a complex, layered figure with both faults and virtues. She puts me in mind of the prime time soap opera character Angela Channing on Falcon Crest.
I appreciate this novel more each time I read it. Even now I’m still second-guessing myself that maybe it deserves to be ranked at number four instead of number five. If your taste in espionage stories runs more to Reilly, Ace of Spies or Sandbaggers rather than the Bourne novels you might enjoy The Scarlatti Inheritance.
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