Tag Archives: spy novels

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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SOLO: 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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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 ONE

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

Matarese CircleNUMBER ONE: THE 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 here in 2017 – 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.

Violence escalated on both sides and eventually Consular Operations was forced to act more and more covertly. The organization was no longer able to accommodate asylum requests from the scores of people who appealed to them daily, hoping to escape to the U.S.

Now Cons Op had to narrow their scope exclusively to high-level defectors who were deemed sufficiently “valuable” to U.S. Intelligence, Military, Political and Scientific pursuits. Brandon Scofield proved proficient at the covert skills and the violence necessary to carry out Cons Op’s narrowed mission but was disillusioned by the changes.

Scofield was set to transfer to a different section of the State Department, intent on pursuing a career as a Diplomat. Unfortunately, shortly before that transfer could be finalized, KGB Agent Vasili Taleniekov (who knew nothing of the planned transfer) engineered the hit and run death of Scofield’s wife Karine, as a message to Beowulf Agate and his colleagues in Consular Operations.

Brandon Scofield’s fury over his wife’s fate steeled his resolve rather than intimidating him or making him careless. He canceled the transfer request and went on to be Cons Ops’ most effective field agent in Europe and the U.S.S.R.

Not only did Beowulf Agate thrive on stinging the Soviets by pulling off the most high-level defections he could, but he also took a more personal revenge by killing the brother of Vasili Taleniekov, the KGB man behind his wife’s murder.

From then on the professional and personal enmity between Scofield/ Beowulf Agate and Taleniekov/ The Serpent helped write the history of both their organizations. The two men clashed all over the map, with Scofield and his fellow Cold War versions of the Scarlet Pimpernel helping as many defectors as possible while Taleniekov and his KGB colleagues thwarted them whenever they could.

SECONDARY HERO: Vasili Vasilievich Taleniekov – Codename: The Serpent. (I’ve always felt the Viper would have made a better codename since it would reflect the “V” for Vasili just like Beowulf Agate’s codename matched the B.A. for Brandon Alan in Scofield’s name.)

As this novel opens Taleniekov has been with the KGB for 25 years. Like Scofield he was a brilliant student but the Soviet government decreed that with his aptitudes he would serve the State better as an intelligence agent rather than as an historian like he wanted. Continue reading

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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 FOUR

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

Chancellor Manuscript4. 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 hold 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 manuscript 3Chancellor’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.

chancellor manuscript 2Instead, 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. 

The members: Continue reading

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