Tag Archives: espionage

THE MATARESE CIRCLE (1979): BOOK REVIEW

Matarese CircleTHE MATARESE CIRCLE (1979) 

TIME PERIOD: Late 1970s with investigations into events from before World War One and later.

To me this lengthy, epic espionage novel from Robert Ludlum was his finest work, partly because it nicely encapsulated how – over the course of the 20th Century – the world gradually found itself at the mercy of elaborate “intelligence communities”  (LMAO) working in conjunction with international corporate fascists.  

There’s something almost poetic about the way that – with the hindsight we have now – the bitter enmity between the novel’s central characters (one a U.S. agent and the other a Soviet agent) is washed away a mere decade before the real-world collapse of the Cold War paradigm.

And with that same hindsight it’s almost eerie how those two rivals come to realize that the real seeds of future totalitarianism lie in the New Feudalism’s ugly motto: Nations are obsolete, so wealth wedded to unchecked political power is the coming thing. Ludlum’s arch-villain Guillaume de Matarese was positively prescient.

LEAD HERO: Brandon Alan Scofield – Codename: Beowulf Agate. Forty-six year old veteran of Consular Operations, Ludlum’s fictional Intelligence Organization specializing in defections from hostile nations – mostly Communist – to the United States.

Matarese Circle 2As The Matarese Circle opens in 1979, Scofield has been with Consular Operations  for 22 years, almost since its founding. A Harvard grad fluent in multiple languages, Brandon joined the U.S. State Department right out of college. After a couple years in the “real” State Department he gravitated to State’s covert section Consular Operations (or Cons Op for short). 

In those early years Cons Op’s activities were not yet totally Top Secret. They were virtually a humanitarian organization which tried to accommodate as many people fleeing the Iron Curtain nations as possible. So many Eastern Europeans began seeking asylum in the Western World that the Soviets realized they had to take steps to cut off the flow of escapees.

Similar to the way they would later construct the Berlin Wall to prevent flight from East Berlin in particular, the Soviets clamped down on potential defections throughout Europe and elsewhere. Soviet intelligence agents – among them Vasili Taleniekov – began shutting down the almost openly- operating Cons Op defection network. Continue reading

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ROBERT LUDLUM EXPANDED UNIVERSE

masc graveyard newReader Daniel Kibblesmith requested this item about how I’d treat an expanded universe from Robert Ludlum’s espionage novels. Here at Balladeer’s Blog I’m about responding to you readers. I had sprinkled my reviews of Robert Ludlum’s Top Seven Novels with observations of what I would have liked to see in terms of offshoots or spin-off stories. So, since Expanded Universes are becoming all the rage in recent decades here’s an outline of my fan fiction-style view of an Expanded Robert Ludlum Universe.

Robert LudlumI. BEOWULF AGATE – Series of short stories or a made for cable series. The tales would be set from the 1950s to late 1970s, ending just before the events in The Matarese Circle. Ludlum’s fictional intelligence organization Consular Operations would take center stage.

Brandon Scofield, codename Beowulf Agate, one of the main characters of The Matarese Circle, would be shown pulling off his highest level defections from the Soviet Union in his best “Cold War version of the Scarlet Pimpernel” style. Every so often he would clash with his archenemy – KGB Agent Vasili Taleniekov. To up the suspense level sometimes Taleniekov would win their clashes. 

Bourne IdentityII. OPERATION: MEDUSA – Another series of short stories or a made for cable series. Ludlum’s Operation: Medusa was his fictional version of the Vietnam War’s real-life Phoenix Project. Operation: Medusa was the top-secret, paramilitary Black Operations outfit in which David Webb aka Jason Bourne got his first covert experience.

Officially disavowed by the U.S. government, Medusans spent the final few years of the Vietnam War pulling off assassinations, abducting and torturing information out of North Vietnamese movers and shakers, committing acts of sabotage AND facilitating escapes from POW camps. David Webb, his brother Gordon, D’Anjou (Codename: Echo), Alexander Conklin and “The Monk” himself, David Abbot would be the main characters but we would meet new Medusans, too. Continue reading

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SOLO (1980) – BOOK REVIEW

SoloSOLO (1980) – Written by Jack Higgins. Solo is not exactly one of my favorite espionage novels but it is definitely my favorite by Jack Higgins. It’s the story of efforts to catch an international assassin code-named the Cretan Lover. Luckily that ludicrous codename is often shortened to just “The Cretan” throughout the novel. I’ll use the same review format that I used for my look at The Top Seven Robert Ludlum Novels.

TIME PERIOD: From approximately 1960 to the late 1970s.

MAIN CHARACTER: John Mikali, a Greek concert pianist of much renown who leads a double life as the aforementioned Cretan Lover aka The Cretan. Mikali is descended from a fictional naval hero of the Greek War of Independence in the 1800s. His family remains wealthy and prominent, with his grandfather being an erudite and outspoken critic of the Colonels who seized control of Greece.

Young John himself is a gifted pianist but after getting drawn into a vendetta against the man who accidentally killed his beloved grandmother he fled into the French Foreign Legion. Despite his fey background John Mikali thrived in the Legion AND in the Algerian War, proving to be a ruthless, cold-hearted man who could kill enemy soldiers or non-combatants with equal skill and nonchalance. Continue reading

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ROBERT LUDLUM NOVELS: EIGHTH PLACE

Balladeer’s Blog previously examined my picks for The Top Seven Robert Ludlum Novels. Here’s a look at the novel that would have been in 8th place if I had done his Top Eight. FOR THE TOP SEVEN CLICK HERE 

parsifal mosaic8. THE PARSIFAL MOSAIC (1982)

TIME PERIOD: Early 1980s

Chronologically, this novel was the last Ludlum work that I really enjoyed. I found the Bourne sequels silly and most of his other subsequent works to just be tiresome rehashings of the stories he had written from 1971 to 1982.

As it is, The Parsifal Mosaic itself reuses plenty of elements from other, better Ludlum books but has just enough new touches for it to be a worthwhile read.   

HERO: American Michael Havelock, a Czech-born Intelligence Officer. Havelock’s father was retaliated against by the Nazis in the Lidice reprisal killings, just like Stefan Varak’s character in The Chancellor Manuscript. Also like Varak, Michael Havelock was just a little boy when the Lidice slaughter occurred and he spent weeks on the run in the nearby forests scavenging food and killing Nazi soldiers when he could.

And like Varak, Havelock’s father was targeted because he did covert work for the Allies, so when little Michael was brought in from the cold he was placed with well-to-do British and American families to complete his schooling all the way up through college.

parsifal mosaic 2The now-adult Havelock saw the clear similarities between Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism and in order to oppose the Communists he gravitated to Intelligence work. Michael’s mentor and fellow Czech-American (more on him shortly) had brought him into the State Department, just like Robert Winthrop had brought Brandon Scofield into the State Department in The Matarese Circle

Also like Scofield, Havelock transferred to Ludlum’s fictional Consular Operations, the State Department’s covert arm. From The Matarese Circle we readers know that “Cons Op” as it’s called specializes in defections and in running escape routes from the Iron Curtain countries.

A very high-level defector with a secret agenda outside the typical Cold War machinations will loom large in the unfolding plot.

VILLAIN: An elusive figure or organization code-named PARSIFAL from Wagner’s opera about the Knight named Parsifal (Percival to the English). Parsifal’s conspiracy at first seems limited to fairly minor yet perplexing espionage activities but when all put together the title mosaic reveals a pattern that may trigger a three-way, all-out nuclear war pitting the United States, China and the Soviet Union against each other. Continue reading

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THE TOP SEVEN NOVELS OF ROBERT LUDLUM: INDEX OF LINKS

Robert LudlumBalladeer’s Blog’s list of Robert Ludlum’s top seven novels was reasonably popular with readers. Here are links to each review of the set of seven:

NUMBER 7: THE GEMINI CONTENDERS (1976) – Click HERE 

NUMBER 6: THE ROAD TO GANDOLFO (1975) – Click HERE

NUMBER 5: THE SCARLATTI INHERITANCE (1971) – Click HERE

NUMBER 4: THE CHANCELLOR MANUSCRIPT (1977) – Click HERE

NUMBER 3: THE HOLCROFT COVENANT (1978) – Click HERE

NUMBER 2: THE BOURNE IDENTITY (1980) – Click HERE

NUMBER 1: THE MATARESE CIRCLE (1979) – Click HERE

 

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TOP SEVEN ROBERT LUDLUM NOVELS: NUMBER TWO

FOR BALLADEER’S BLOG’S SEVENTH PLACE LUDLUM NOVEL CLICK HERE 

Bourne Identity2. THE BOURNE IDENTITY (1980)

TIME PERIOD: Vietnam War era to the late 1970s.

Robert Ludlum’s most popular fictional creation – Jason Bourne (Real name David Webb) – has become as thoroughly overused, distorted and bastardized as James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. Ludlum himself already watered down the character’s original impact with two additional novels putting the amnesiac figure in increasingly ridiculous situations.

Since then other writers have churned out so many silly Bourne stories (ten at last count) to the point where Jason Bourne In Spaaaaace is the only avenue left unexplored. Or maybe a crossover with All My Sins Remembered. The Matt Damon movies use virtually nothing but the Jason Bourne name.

To me the bulk of the appeal of the original novel The Bourne Identity was that a reader only had to suspend disbelief just enough to accept an amnesiac figure surviving the unique set of circumstances presented in that story.  

Bourne Identity 2At the end it was accepted by all characters that David Webb/ Jason Bourne was in no condition to continue his intelligence work. Not only because of his amnesia but because he had found happiness with Marie, which made him lose the near-suicidal edge he had needed to succeed as Bourne.  

In my opinion Ludlum should have done PREQUEL stories of David Webb as Delta in the Vietnam War’s Operation: Medusa or his days pursuing Carlos as Cain/ Jason Bourne PRIOR to his amnesia.    

HERO: Since there are virtually no spoilers left about this character who has had everything but his own comic book series I will go ahead and lay out all the details of the ORIGINAL figure. This is for potential Bourne fans who associate him purely with the silly super-soldier nonsense of the movies and have avoided him because of that.

I think transferring Jason Bourne to more recent time periods robbed the story of a great deal of its unique appeal. Movies CAN work as period pieces. Studios still churn out spy flicks set during World War Two for crying out loud. There’s no reason why they can’t keep the period setting for stories dependent on the Vietnam War or late Cold War events for their full impact. 

So again … HERO: DAVID WEBB, an American scholar who specialized in ancient Vietnamese culture and spoke multiple regional languages. Webb had been serving in various diplomatic posts throughout Indochina and had a Vietnamese wife and children.

Bourne Identity 3When his wife and children were killed during a fly-by strafing from a plane of unknown national origin Webb left diplomatic work and volunteered for the top secret Operation: Medusa. (Ludlum’s fictional version of the real-life Phoenix Project.)

Under the codename Delta (later refined to Delta One), David Webb thrived in that Black Ops program. Delta proved ruthless and bloodthirsty, with his command of local languages and culture making him an irreplaceable asset against the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese regulars and international mercenaries in the region. 

Operation: Medusa’s operatives served as assassins, torturers, guerillas and saboteurs, often locating POW camps and facilitating escapes. On one particular mission Jason Bourne, a treacherous Medusan from Australia, betrayed Delta and his team. In response Webb killed Bourne on the spot.   Continue reading

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ROBERT LUDLUM’S TOP SEVEN NOVELS: NUMBER THREE

FOR BALLADEER’S BLOG’S SEVENTH PLACE LUDLUM NOVEL CLICK HERE 

Holcroft Covenant3. THE HOLCROFT COVENANT (1978)

TIME PERIOD: Late 1970s into the near future of the 1980s.

The crowded sub-genre of espionage tales about fugitive Nazi war criminals working with a younger generation of acolytes to launch a Fourth Reich probably reached its height with this Ludlum novel. Every entertaining element of that sub-genre came into play in The Holcroft Covenant, all of them woven into one epic-length story.

Take The ODESSA File, Marathon Man and The Boys From Brazil and roll them in with the Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie plus the real-life files of Nazi Hunters like Simon Wiesenthal. Now stir in Robert Ludlum’s supreme talent for making implausibly melodramatic espionage plots seem chillingly possible and enjoy!   

PLEASE DON’T JUDGE THE HOLCROFT COVENANT BY THE HORRIBLE FILM ADAPTATION FROM 1985. THAT MOVIE IS A SILLY AND INEPT BUTCHERING OF THE NOVEL.

HERO: Noel Holcroft, an American architect who is secretly the son of the fictional Heinrich Clausen, a masterful economist whose financial acumen was a cornerstone of Hitler’s Third Reich. Noel’s mother fled Germany when she found she was pregnant and did not want her hated husband Heinrich raising their child. She married an American man who raised Noel with her as if he was his own child.

Holcroft Covenant 2All of that seems like ancient history to thirty-something Noel Holcroft, a successful New Yorker going into business for himself after working as an architect at various prestigious outfits. From out of the blue, representatives from the Grande Banque de Geneve contact Noel about a numbered Swiss Bank Account which his father left to him and the children of two associates.

Holcroft initially wants nothing to do with the bloody, tainted fortune of nearly 900 million dollars but the bankers from Geneva let him read documents from his father. In those aged documents addressed to his then-unborn son, Heinrich Clausen states he regrets being part of Hitler’s organization and – now that he has learned of the ongoing Final Solution at the death-camps – he wants to make amends. The secret account is the tool.

If Noel carries out his father’s wishes, he will inherit two million dollars from the bank account, with the rest going to Holocaust survivors or their families. All of this must be done in secret to prevent the Swiss Bank Account’s funds from being tied up in court for decades by claims against the Nazis from other individuals and nations victimized by the Third Reich.

This story element shows Ludlum at his best: the lure of two million dollars provides the very real incentive to Noel to go along with all the secrecy surrounding this strange Covenant of his father’s. More cynically, readers could say that it actually provides a rationalization for Holcroft to play along.

Our protagonist can assure himself that “Hey, if I don’t go along with this plan then hundreds of millions of dollars will never reach their intended beneficiaries … THAT’s why I’m cooperating, NOT just because of the money coming to ME.” This self-deceiving motive makes Noel Holcroft seem more real than many other Ludlum heroes.

Holcroft Covenant 3VILLAIN: Johann Von Tiebolt, the son of one of Heinrich Clausen’s cohorts in diverting funds to the Geneva Account. Johann is known to the world at large as John Tennyson and is the designated New Fuhrer who will lead the Fourth Reich.

Yes, as would have been suspected by anyone whose mind wasn’t clouded by the possibility of two million dollars and a life of financial independence, the Geneva Account is REALLY intended for a global network of Nazi descendants and new recruits.

Johann Von Tiebolt/ John Tennyson has emerged as the ideal leader of the conspiracy. Blonde, blue-eyed and in excellent physical condition this New Fuhrer poses as a journalist. That cover lets him roam the world secretly committing political assassinations and otherwise furthering the goals of the gestating Fourth Reich.

SYNOPSIS: The 900 million dollars in the Geneva Account will finance the finalization of the decades-long plans the Nazis’ network has been working on. Those plans are for literal world conquest by way of political, financial and media manipulation. Noel’s father was lying to his son when he wrote about his Covenant.  Continue reading

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ROBERT LUDLUM’S TOP SEVEN NOVELS: NUMBER FIVE

FOR BALLADEER’S BLOG’S SEVENTH PLACE LUDLUM NOVEL CLICK HERE 

Scarlatti Inheritance big5. 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.

Scarlatti InheritanceHer 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.     Continue reading

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