The Bourne Identity: Gripping story, forgettable characters

A sea shell pierced by a nail against a black background on the dust jacket of “The Bourne Identity”
The Bourne Identity cover art symbolizes murder attempt at sea

As he did in his previous bestseller, The Matarese Circle, in The Bourne Identity novelist Robert Ludlum tells a story that will keep readers turning pages long past their bedtime.

Bourne is the identity assumed by a man pulled from the Mediterranean “more corpse than man,” unable to remember anything about his past, including why he has a piece of microfilm with a Swiss bank account number implanted in his hip.

In Zurich, the amnesiac takes a woman hostage—every spy story requires the hero have a woman to complicate the plot—and together in Paris they begin to piece together Jason Bourne’s origins in Southeast Asia.

Ludlum is a master storyteller. Plot is his forte. Ludnum gives his characters just enough depth to be recognizable. They learn what’s necessary to advance the plot, but they don’t grow.

A day after closing The Bourne Identity, readers may wonder how Bourne, even before being shot in the head multiple times, could have been expected to remember everything he was required to remember to implement the machination of the West’s intelligence services.

Two days later, readers may even be unable to recall the names of the main characters.

But while they’re reading, they will be totally immersed in this complex, fast-paced thriller.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, © 1980. 523 p.
1980 bestseller #2. My grade: B+

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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The Covenant: a novel about South Africa

A cave painting of a rhinoceros is on the cover of James A. Michener's novel The Covenant.
Rhino is from an ancient African cave painting.

In The Covenant, James A. Michener focuses as he has done in so many other best sellers* on one specific place and the character of the peoples who made that place their home over millennia.

As usual, Michener invents a cast of characters who occasionally rub elbows with actual historical figures, beginning with the brown and black populations in South Africa some 15,000 years ago.

Whites come to South Africa occasionally, but don’t stay until the mid 17th century when the Dutch establish a trading post on the Cape of Good Hope.

The first European settlers are Dutch farmers, Boers, who expand eastward toward land controlled by black tribes even as the Dutch cede their African colony to the English in 1795.

From 1800 onward, South Africa is in conflict. Whites against black, black against black, whites against colored, but increasingly Dutch against English.

The English military win the Boer War of 1899-1902, but the Boers triumph politically. They become Afrikaners.

Fiercely independent, rich and powerful, by 1979 Afrikaners dominate blacks, Coloureds, and Asians through the apartheid system.

Events since 1980 have changed the face of Africa, leaving contemporary readers with less connection to events in The Covenant than the novel would have had then, but they can’t obliterate Michener’s masterful storytelling.

The Covenant by James A. Michener
Random House. ©1980. 877 p.
1980 bestseller #1. My grade: A

*Hawaii, Centennial, and Chesapeake are three of Michener’s pre-1980 place-focused bestsellers.

 ©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

Smiley’s People: Last but not least

All-text dust jacket of Smiley's People
Like George Smiley, this cover does what it must

Smiley’s People is the last John Le Carré novel centered on George Smiley, an unsexy, unegotistical, unflappable, unheroic, and unrelenting British Cold War era spymaster.

When a former agent is found murdered after having tried to contact him with information about Sandman, Smiley is brought back from retirement to “help.”

Sandman is the nickname agents had given to Smiley’s opposite number in the Russian spy apparatus.

Smiley does a deep dive through the memories of his former staff people, seeking clues to who murdered Vladimer and why.

He also does a little sleuthing on his own.

Le Carré’s novels are always more about personalities and procedures than about high speed chases and high-caliber shootouts.

In Smiley’s People, that spotlight focus is particularly chilling. Smiley is old, alone, unloved. He’s filling time until he dies. He gets one more chance to pull off something spectacular.

Everything he’s worked his whole career for depends on getting one thing right. He must solve the murder and the problems it presents for the agency.

The secret service heads want him to succeed, but not so well that he shows them up.

Le Carré’s ending is dark and plausible with the perfect amount of surprise.

Smiley’s People by John Le Carré
Knopf, 1980, ©1979. 374 p.
1979 bestseller #10 My grade: A-

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

The Third World War: August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985 is not a real novel. It’s not about people; it’s about populations.

All-text cover in black and gray text on white background.
The text is as dull as the cover.

The book is classified as a fantasy: Tanks, submarines, and nuclear war heads take the place of wizards, elves, and magic wands.

Its authors are “General Sir John Hackett and Other Top-ranking NATO Generals and Advisors.”

They begin their book with three pages listing acronyms used in the text.

The text itself is written as a post-war analysis compiled at the conclusion of the war. It certainly sounds like a military analysis: Ponderous prose in passive voice.

Today’s readers will have difficulty getting past the first chapter.

The map of the world is very different today than it was in 1978 when the generals and advisors were concocting this tale: Germany, divided then, is once more reunited. The map of Africa has been redrawn, countries renamed.

What remains of interest are small bits, as, for example, the military men say socialist countries reject American-style democracy because they see it as substituting corporate rule for Soviet political rule or the assertion that Europeans distrust America’s judgment because it wasn’t invaded in WWI or WWII.

Skip this fantasy.

Read history instead.

There’s no humanity in this tale.

The Third World War: August 1985
by Gen. Sir John Hackett et al.
Macmillan, © 1978. 368 p.
1979 bestseller #09 My grade: C

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Establishment: Hurtling through history

The Establishment is the last novel in Howard Fast’s trilogy about the family of Dan Lavette, the son of an immigrant fisherman who made and lost two fortunes.

Front dust jacket of The Establishment is a collage of scenes from the novel
An unfocused collage fits the novel

Here, as in Second Generation, Fast focuses on Dan’s daughter Barbara who married a Jewish soldier of fortune.

Barbara’s writing produces a good income without her touching her inheritance.

Bernie operates a garage. He works very hard, barely turns a profit, and is bored.

Bernie jumps at the chance to fly planes to Israel to prepare the new nation for a forthcoming war against Arab countries with established armies.

He’s killed in Israel.

Reporting Barbara did from Nazi Germany brings her to the attention of the McCarthy hearings.

She’s sentenced to six months in a federal prison for women.

Meanwhile, Barbara’s brother Tom is becoming a power broker, part of the wealthy establishment men who select the people whom Americans will elect by popular vote to run the country.

Fast’s novels cry out for video treatment: The main characters are merely sketched, there are swift scene changes, and the historical context has been lost in the intervening 40 years.

Masterpiece could make Fast’s novels come alive.

Fast merely makes them hurtle through history.

The Establishment by Howard Fast
Houghton Mifflin, 1979. 337 p.
1979 bestseller #08 My grade: B

©2018 Linda G. Aragoni

The Last Enchantment

Merlin's harp is focus of front cover of the Mary Stewart novel The Last Enchantment.
Merlin plays his swan song on this harp.

The Last Enchantment is the final book in Mary Stewart’s trilogy about how Arthur became England’s king, subdued the Saxons, and ruled from Camelot.

As in The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills, Stewart tells the story from the vantage point of Merlin, the prophet/wizard who is cousin to Arthur and his mentor.

Merlin has lost his youthful stamina and he’s losing his ability to foresee the future.

Having lived either alone or among men all his life, without his prophetic gift Merlin is at the mercy of women.

Arthur has just won the crown. He must fight to keep it and to beget a son to carry on his line.

Arthur also has to worry about his half-sisters, who have dynastic ambitions of their own, and about his bastard son by one of those half-sisters.

For the first 400 pages of the novel, Stewart spins a fascinating yarn.

She seems then to realize she has too much history still to cover, so she sidelines Merlin while she advances the story.

Then brings him back, gives him a “while you were out” message, wraps up the story, and closes the covers.

The result is 80 percent enchantment and 20 percent disappointment.

The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart
Morrow, 1979. 538 p.
1979 bestseller #07 My grade: B

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Dead Zone is superb storytelling

Cover of "The Dead Zone" features photo of man's face partially concealed by a wheel of fortune.
The wheel of fortune sets the novel’s action rolling.

Stephen King begins The Dead Zone with a very ordinary American boy, Johnny Smith, in a small New England town.

Johnny is learning to ice skate in 1953 when he falls, knocking himself out.

Johnny comes to muttering, “Don’t jump it no more” to Chuck Spier, who the next month will lose an eye jump-starting his car.

Years later, Johnny is a high school teacher.

An accident on the way home from taking his girl to a carnival puts Johnny in a coma for four-and-a-half years.

When he awakens, he has months of excruciating physical therapy.

He also has occasional, intense, and unwelcome psychic perceptions.

Johnny unwittingly becomes a target of gullible people seeking answers.

He also becomes the target of skeptics who assume he’s a shyster out to bilk the public.

His teaching contract is withdrawn because he’s too controversial.

His widowed father, who should be retired, has to go back to work just to feed them.

Then one day Johnny shakes hands with a congressional candidate and sees the man’s evil agenda.

Even if you can’t believe a crack on the head in ’53 triggers psychic experiences, you have to admire the skill with which King builds his story.

This is superb storytelling.

The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Viking Press, 1979. 372 p.
1979 bestseller #6 My grade: B+