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4. THE CHANCELLOR MANUSCRIPT (1977)
TIME PERIOD: From shortly before J Edgar Hoover’s death in 1972 up to early 1973. The novel’s “what if” premise depicts the 77 year old FBI Director’s death as a planned assassination to prevent the Nixon White House from getting ahold of Hoover’s legendary files. (That’s NOT a spoiler – all that is made clear in the novel’s opening pages.)
Those files contain so much “raw meat” on powerful U.S. figures that we readers are told that whoever takes hold of said files will be able to rule the U.S. from behind the scenes by blackmailing the rich and the powerful.
The novel’s naïvete shows in that premise. I despise Hoover but I’ve always considered his abuses to be the EPITOME of the behavior of “the intelligence community” (LMAO), not an aberration from it. The accumulation of private information about people carries with it the implicit intent to USE that information against them. Of course, these days Zuckerberg and his fellow Corporate Fascists cheerfully help “the intelligence community” (LMFAO) spy on all of us.
At any rate this is an escapist novel so the tale gets told in a simplistic “good guys vs bad guys” way, despite Ludlum’s attempts at a more nuanced approach.
HERO: Peter Chancellor, an up and coming novelist who is part muckraker and part conspiracy hound. His successful espionage novels have not only made him rich but have caused minor public uproars over the kind of governmental abuses we take for granted these days but which were considered shocking in this novel’s time period.
Chancellor’s notoriety also means he gets a lot of conspiracy kooks feeding him “tips” about supposedly real intrigues of varying degrees of believability. Hey, there was no Internet yet, so what do you expect?
Peter’s high public profile attracts a mysterious man who tries to convince him the recently deceased FBI Director J Edgar Hoover did not die of natural causes but was instead assassinated. Chancellor doesn’t believe it but considers the idea the perfect springboard for his next novel.
Before long Peter’s background research makes him a target of so many threats and acts of violence that he wonders if the notion of Hoover being assassinated is as far-fetched as he at first thought.
VILLAINS: Typical of Ludlum’s later novels there are multiple groups of antagonists. The main villains remain a mystery until the end of the story so I won’t spoil the identity of the people who really are behind the successful theft of Hoover’s files.
Instead, I’ll deal with the secondary but more active villains: a group of high-level conspirators who go by the code name …
INVER BRASS – Though they fancy themselves a benevolent group, they’ve become more like oligarchs, begging the question: how are they any better than Hoover himself? This group seems roughly based on the high-placed members of President Franklin Roosevelt’s unofficial “Kitchen Cabinet for Intelligence Affairs” (aka The Room).
All presidents have had such unofficial advisors who operate out of the spotlight and out of the headlines but Inver Brass and some of its members are modeled very specifically on known FDR associates who belonged to The Room. As you would expect, that makes them VERY old by the time the events in The Chancellor Manuscript take place.
Genesis: The codename for the leader of Inver Brass. The original Genesis is never given a name in this novel, but we’re told he passed away years earlier and his place was taken by the Inver Brass member who formerly used the codename Paris.
That second man to use the name Genesis also goes unnamed but I think we can all guess who he is. He passes away shortly after J Edgar Hoover does, if that helps.
Paris: Carlos Montalban, a wealthy and powerful international trouble-shooter whose family fled Franco’s fascists in Spain during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Carlos is the second Paris, recruited after the original Paris became the new Genesis. This Paris is much younger than the original members of Inver Brass.
Bravo: Munro St Clair, a diplomat and former Ambassador who has been playing king-maker around the world for decades. He has the group’s first encounter with Peter Chancellor.
Venice: Judge Daniel Sutherland, an African American judge who sits on one of America’s Circuit Courts.
Christopher: Jacob Dreyfuss, a Jewish mover and shaker in the financial world.
Banner: Frederick Wells, president of the World Bank. He is the second Banner, recruited after the first one passed away, but Ludlum never tells us anything about the original Banner. Like the second Paris this second Banner is much younger than the other members of Inver Brass. He plans to become the group’s new Genesis.
The enforcer for Inver Brass is Stefan Varak, an NSA man who has friends and contacts throughout the Intelligence Communities of multiple nations.
I’m sure we can all guess who most of them are based on or are composites of. That’s part of the fun of The Chancellor Manuscript. For a starting point, some of the purported members of FDR’s group The Room were (No, not Tommy Wiseau) tycoon Vincent Astor (probably Ludlum’s original Genesis, right down to being of Scottish descent), Judge Frederic Kernochan, banker Winthrop Aldrich, philanthropist William Rhinelander Stewart, FDR’s cousin Kermit Roosevelt and the dramatically named William C Bullitt.
There’s a virtual (speculative) consensus among Ludlum fans that Bravo was based on David K.E. Bruce.
SYNOPSIS: Our main story opens with a clandestine meeting of Inver Brass, a meeting coordinated as always by Varak. The group members make enigmatic allusions to actions they’ve taken in the past and how they’ve changed the course of history with those actions.
After a lengthy debate they decide to have Stefan Varak arrange for J Edgar Hoover’s assassination while simultaneously engineering the theft of Hoover’s secret files. By doing so they hope to stop the Nixon Administration or any other potential conspirators from getting ahold of the files, which Inver Brass wants destroyed.
The assassination goes off as planned, but Varak is stunned to see that some unknown party has already beaten him to fully half of Hoover’s files. He and Inver Brass launch a covert search for those missing files.
Enter novelist Peter Chancellor, whose previous books have dealt with the involvement of Corporate Giants in the rise of the Nazis (like in Ludlum’s The Scarlatti Inheritance), the CIA violating its charter by conducting domestic intelligence operations in the U.S. (like in Ludlum’s The Osterman Weekend and The Matlock Paper) and about conspiracies surrounding the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand (a minor story element in The Matarese Circle, one of Ludlum’s future novels).
Chancellor is selected by Stefan Varak to serve as a pawn of Inver Brass. Varak arranges for Peter to be fed information that interests him in writing a novel implying J Edgar Hoover was assassinated. As Chancellor does background research for the book and deals with leaked rumors about him doing a book about Hoover the secret parties who have Hoover’s files act to silence him.
All of that is exactly how Varak planned it, but the secret villains are SO proficient that Stefan has been unable to capture any of the men involved in the attempts on Chancellor’s life. Meanwhile Inver Brass – especially Bravo (Munro St Clair) – become aware of high-powered figures already getting blackmailed by the people who possess Hoover’s files.
As Peter Chancellor digs deeper and deeper, he learns how Inver Brass has manipulated him behind the scenes twice before: the first time was when Bravo maneuvered the much younger Chancellor into becoming a novelist. He did that to turn Chancellor away from his historical, more academic researches which were in danger of exposing Inver Brass’ existence as a behind the scenes force in global affairs dating back to the 1930s.
The second time was when Peter was working on his fourth novel – this one about the way Nazi war criminals fled to the Western World and the Muslim World after World War Two. (As in Ludlum’s future novel The Holcroft Covenant) Inver Brass’ Banner (Frederick Wells) is secretly the son of one of those Nazi fugitives and he feared exposure. Banner had Varak try to kill Chancellor but Peter survived the attempt. His fiancée wasn’t so lucky.
This aspect of The Chancellor Manuscript is ingeniously Hitchcockian. Peter was nearly suicidal for months after his fiancée’s death in what seemed like a car accident and his agent and his publisher both suspect he might be a bit nuts from the brain damage and the emotional turmoil he suffered.
Those two intimates of Chancellor are soon joined by the world at large in suspecting Peter is becoming unstable and bizarrely paranoid as the villains behind Hoover’s files pull strings to make the writer seem irrational and/or starved for publicity.
Our hero eventually finds himself wondering the same thing, especially as he begins to uncover Inver Brass’ previous involvement in his life. It all seems too far-fetched and he doubts his own sanity at times. He is pushed even closer to the edge when he finds himself believing that maybe Hoover really was assassinated after all.
Along the way Peter hooks up – in every sense – with Allison MacAndrews, the daughter of a Pentagon General who was blackmailed and murdered by the thieves who have Hoover’s files. He gains another ally in the form of FBI Agent Quinn O’Brien, who is himself being blackmailed by our secret villains.
Unfortunately those secret villains are always several steps ahead of Chancellor, Inver Brass AND Varak. Eventually the discredited Peter, Allison and Quinn are framed for involvement in murder and espionage and become fugitives. Our heroes must try to prove their innocence, expose the secret conspirators and make sure the stolen Hoover files get destroyed.
SPOILERS: Ultimately Varak is tortured and killed by the secret villains, who turn out to be led by a member of Inver Brass. Peter Chancellor pieced this together because he was free of Varak and Inver Brass’ biases regarding their own supposed virtue.
Those biases kept them blind to the obvious: the fact that to pull off the theft and subsequent actions would require inside help from someone in the same group that engineered Hoover’s assassination.
The traitorous member of Inver Brass is not Bravo, who really wants the files destroyed …
Nor is it Christopher, who was plotting with the second Paris to ensure Inver Brass was disbanded since they were guilty of abusing their own power as much as the people they opposed ever did, INCLUDING Hoover …
Nor is it Banner, who planned on taking over as Genesis and then leading Inver Brass to new heights (more like depths) in the type of “Vigilante Statesmanship” they’d been involved in for decades …
The traitor is Venice: Judge Daniel Sutherland, for reasons I won’t go into. I don’t want to spoil everything here, just in case anyone wants to seek out this novel and learn for themselves. I will be glad to answer any questions in the comments below.
At any rate, our heroes prevail, the secret organization that Venice was running is killed off and the missing half of Hoover’s files join the other half in being destroyed. Peter and Allison plan to marry and Peter has a new novel in mind.
COMMENT: I’ll remind readers I’m basing this list on my opinion of Robert Ludlum’s work AS NOVELS. As a self-contained novel The Chancellor Manuscript represents a Ludlum approaching the peak of his form.
In a perfect demonstration of how Robert Ludlum’s writing basically embodies the expression “being generous with plotting,” The Chancellor Manuscript presents such fine detail that other writers would be happy to base entire novels on this tale’s sub-plots. For instance the scandals the blackmail victims are being pressured over (especially General MacAndrews) or the way the CIA is interfering with a filmed adaptation of Chancellor’s novel about their illegal domestic operations.
Throw all that in with some of the best characterization Ludlum had produced up to this point in his career. Plus there is a fun “meta” bit at the end of the novel which implies that the events depicted in The Chancellor Manuscript are for real.
Obviously to us in the year 2017 it seems almost comically naïve to picture a figure like Hoover being the only intelligence/ law enforcement member abusing their power so sinisterly. Under just Barack Obama and George W Bush alone we’ve seen despicable examples of the apparatus of government and of “intelligence gathering” being misused to harass and otherwise prey on citizens. Even through the IRS, which Obama abused even more than Nixon did.
And as we’re learning, Obama’s politicizing of the FBI, CIA and NSA surpassed all previous abuses, especially in the area of targeting political dissent.
This is why I think it is crucial that Ludlum DID make clear that, for all their intellectual rationalizations, Inver Brass’ behind the scenes manipulation of governments is every bit as much of an abuse as the actions of their adversaries.
The time period in which Robert Ludlum wrote The Chancellor Manuscript must be kept in mind. In that post-Vietnam War and post-Watergate era the political right was being forced to confront the flaws in their vision AND in their “heroes.”
The political left STILL insists on ignoring the flaws in their vision AND in their “heroes.” I give Ludlum credit for being ahead of the curve in trying to hold the left as accountable as the right.
Names like Hoover and Nixon make it clear that Ludlum is poking the political right but some readers miss the way that Inver Brass shows Ludlum sagely poking the political LEFT as well. It might have been more obvious if the author had been free to use real names for Inver Brass, making their left-wing affiliation more clear.
At any rate, The Chancellor Manuscript examined issues that are even more relevant here in 2017. Political zealots always justify their OWN side’s abuse of intelligence data but feign outrage when the other side does it.
The Prometheus Deception (2000), one of Robert Ludlum’s weak final novels, has themes about communications and tech giants (today Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk would be Exhibit A) working with governments to form what the novel calls “a Super-FBI.”
Their conspiracy centered around systems invading the privacy of everyone on-line so that there is a global intelligence clearing-house letting governments and their corporate allies know virtually anything they want to know about us, making any resistance to them ultimately futile. Hey, we seem close to LIVING IT now.
Sadly, Ludlum gave in to temptation years later and had Varak’s nephew form a new Inver Brass in the novel The Icarus Agenda. The idea was just too cool to leave it alone, I guess, but it undercut the impact of this earlier work.
In The Icarus Agenda the new Inver Brass is manipulating the upcoming presidential election by orchestrating virtual Folk Hero status for a politician that they want as the Vice Presidential candidate on the Democratic Party ticket. From there they plan to engineer events to ensure that their favored running mates win the election.
Once they’re sworn in, Inver Brass will eliminate the President so that their VP can occupy the Oval Office. Their reason for doing all this? They have decided that this figure “deserves” the presidency and will be “a great President.” Considering what we’ve just learned Obama’s FBI and NSA did in 2016 to illegally help Hillary, this plot isn’t as far-fetched as it first sounds.
At any rate, this new Inver Brass apparently didn’t learn a thing from the crimes of their predecessors, since, just like the anti-Trump cabal in our intelligence services, they’re pompously convinced that what they’re doing is “what’s best for the country.”
On a lighter note, Robert’s wry presentation of the fake “reviews” of Peter Chancellor’s novels and the way those books parallel various Ludlum works will likely make you smile.
As a bonus, we’re told Chancellor’s Sarajevo! featured a fictional group of conspirators called “The Unity of Death.” My fellow World War One geeks are sure to love that reference to the real-life “Unity or Death,” a Pan-Serbian organization to which Gavrilo Princip supposedly belonged.
I would recommend The Chancellor Manuscript to every kind of reader. Even if you hate espionage stories this tale goes far beyond that genre. Think of it as a spy thriller version of what the novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman accomplished: critiquing the entire genre within which it operates. +++
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