The Scorpio Illusion by Robert Ludlum

Title on all-text dust jacket appears to be burningThe worst thing that can be said about a Robert Ludlum novel is that readers must pay close attention.

In The Scorpio Illusion western government leaders aren’t paying attention.

A secret group calling themselves Scorpios are plotting to throw the US, Britain and France into turmoil concurrently, precipitating a public outcry for stability that will catapult them to virtual dictatorship.

The Scorpios are positioned to make it happen. They have money, power, and the protection of the most sophisticated technology and most ruthless assassins that their money can buy.

Meanwhile, a beautiful terrorist intent on revenge for the deaths of her parents and her lover is planning to kill the US President. She and the Scorpios make common cause.

To stop her, the intelligence community calls on a former naval intelligence officer, Tyrell Hawthorne, whose wife was shot as a spy because of a mistake made by inept higher-ups.  As he begins his work, Hawthorne runs into a beautiful woman who comforted him as he grieved; he vows not to lose her again.

Ludlum complies with the requirements of thrillers—sex, romance, blood, explosions—but his real interest is on how decent people can be hoodwinked because of the very traits that make them decent people.

Scorpio Illusion by Robert Ludlum
Bantam. ©1993. 534 p.
1993 bestseller #10; my grade: A-

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

The Russia House (novel)

all text cover on black and red backgroundThe Russia House, is, as one expects from John le Carré, is set in the Cold War era.

In the novel, a salesman at a Moscow book fair is slipped a document by a frightened woman who wants it delivered it to Barley Blair, who she says has agreed to publish it for a unnamed friend of hers.

The salesman sneaks the manuscript through customs. Unable to find Blair, he delivers it to British Intelligence, whose CIA counterparts find it details the Soviet’s nuclear capabilities and atomic secrets.

The Service finds Blair, and presses him turning spy.

Barley stays sober long enough to be trained in the rudiments of spy craft, and sent into Russia to find the unnamed author and verify the authenticity of the document.

He contacts Kayla, trying to reach the author through her.

Before he gets to Yakov, Barley and Kayla are in love, and Yakov appears to be under KGB surveillance.

On what’s supposed to be his final effort to find out if the documents are authentic, Barley disappears.

Russia House has all the complexity of earlier Le Carré novels, but a far less gloomy setting and an almost upbeat ending.

The Russia House by John Le Carré
Knopf. ©1989. 353 p.
1989 bestseller #7; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Icarus Agenda

“The Icarus Agenda” dust jacket White House appears target of electrical storm
Is Kendrick White House material?

Robert Ludlum’s The Icarus Agenda is not escape reading.

Ludlum’s tale is a series of inter-connected, world-wide plots further connected by a journal typed into a computer by an unidentified man who records the events for his own mysterious purposes.

In book one of the novel, terrorists have already killed 11 hostages and threaten to kill the other 236 Americans they hold hostage in the US embassy in Masqat, Oman. They demand release of 8,000 terrorists belonging to organizations ranging from the IRA to the PLO.

Evan Kendrick, a newly-elected, “accidental” Colorado congressman, convinces the State Department’s covert operations director to let him try to raise the siege using connections he made—including connections to the Sultan of Oman—while doing construction work in the Middle East.

The man at DoS agrees only because Kendrick’s offer is predicated on his role never being known to any other person.

The hostage incident is over page by 221 of the novel. After that the Ludlum’s story  gets complicated.

Although the novel is action packed, Ludlum’s characters are believably complex characters whose motivations are as complex as their personalities.

This 1988 bestselling political thriller requires—and deserves—readers’ full attention: The plot Kendrick uncovers is altogether too plausible to be dismissed in 2019.

The Icarus Agenda by Robert Ludlum
Random House. ©1988. 677 p.
1988 bestseller #4; my grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

 

The Cardinal of the Kremlin

Star-Wars style laser weapon is centerpiece of “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” book jacket.
Lasers aim to destroy

The Cardinal of the Kremlin was Tom Clancy’s fourth bestseller in a row.

It follows what by 1988 had become Clancy’s signature blend of Cold War politics, espionage, military technology, and the presence of CIA analyst Jack Ryan.

The “Cardinal” of this novel is a Colonel Mikhail Filitov, thrice awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for service in battle; unknown to Ryan, he’s been a CIA spy for 30 years.

Ryan is in Moscow as a technical advisor for arms negotiation. There he stumbles across information that the Soviets are very close to having a working, missile-based laser system.

Far to the east on the Afghanistan-Russia border, an Afghan freedom fighter glimpses a flash of green light that proves the Soviet technology works. He passes his observation along to the CIA along with documents taken from Russians he and his men slaughtered.

Clancy runs multiple story threads simultaneously, switching the scene from one continent to another, and the focus among dozens of characters.

You can read Cardinal for relaxation, but you can’t relax and read it. That is part of its attraction. Clancy expects each reader to do his/her duty.

You won’t want to disappoint him.

The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy
G. P. Putnam. ©1988. 543 p.
1988 bestseller #1; my grade: A

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

A Perfect Spy: the novel

Background color pattern of "The Perfect Spy" suggests a flag.In A Perfect Spy, novelist David John Moore Cornwell, known to his fans as John le Carré, rummages through the debris of the British boyhood of Magnus Pym to explore what turned an eager-to-please lad into a spymaster.

The novel opens with Magnus Pym’s disappearance into a bolt hole in Devon shortly after his father’s funeral. It’s a refuge he’s been preparing for years.

Rick Pym had been an engaging rogue who made his living by conning people out of theirs.

Magnus grew up trying to win his father’s approval by being the sort of man Rick professed to admire and being it by using all the deceits he learned from observing his father’s behavior.

Magnus mastered the arts of deceit so well that the British hired him for what they viewed as his natural talent for espionage.

It’s only after his father’s death that Magnus feels free to look back on his life and assess his own personal culpability.

In his Devon room, Magnus writes his life story, addressing much of it to his son, Tom.

Le Carré intersperses Magnus’s story with perspectives from his wife and colleagues.

The result is a novel as complex, fascinating, and ambiguous as Magnus himself.

A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré
Knopf. © 1986. 475 p.
1986 bestseller #10; my grade: A-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Parsifal Mosaic

Robert Ludlum’s The Parsifal Mosaic is aptly named: The novel seems composed of millions of bits of information.

front of “The Parsifal Mosaic” suggests gun pointed toward woman in the dark.
A woman on a beach in moonlight

The central story is rather simple. The White House has been infiltrated by a Russian mole who is not an ordinary KGB mole. This mole works for the VKR, the fanatical wing of the KGB.

This much information is suggested obliquely to Michael Havelock, an ex-field agent for a clandestine branch of the U.S. State Department, by his KGB counterpart, Peytor Rostov.

Rostov knows Havelock was in love with a woman who was murdered, accused of being a Soviet spy.

Rostov also knows the woman never had any KGB affiliation. He can’t understand why the kill was made to look like she did.

Havelock rejects the story until he spots his lover across the platform in a crowded Rome train station.

After that—which all happens in the first 40 pages—Havelock has to find Jenna and learn what happened that night on the beach and who is behind the deceptions.

Ludlum twists and turns and jackknifes his plot. He kept me turning pages, but I’m still not sure I got the entire story straight.

Perhaps The Parsifal Mosaic has just a few too many pieces.

The Parsifal Mosaic by Robert Ludlum
Random House © 1982. 630 p.
1982 bestseller #3. My grade B

© 2019 Linda G. Aragoni

The Key to Rebecca

 a woman's photo, swastika are opposite ends of a key
Photo within the key shows woman with mask over her mouth

You’ve seen the plot of The Key to Rebecca in a dozen movies. It’s a World War II thriller with the bad guys coming within a hair’s breadth of beating the good guys.

In Key, the really bad guy is Alex Wolff, an European-trained Egyptian returned home to spy for the Germans.

Wolff’s job is to provide Field Marshall Rommel with information that will allow him to destroy the British in Egypt once and for all.

The really good guy is Major Vandam, a British officer whose knee wound sidelined him to intelligence work.

Wolff slipped up returning to Cairo and killed a man; Vandam is after him.

Vandam meets a beautiful Egyptian Jew, Elene, whom he uses to lure Wolff out where he can grab him.

Wolff has a friend and sometime sex partner, Sonja, who is the most famous belly dancer in Cairo.

He cajoles her into helping him steal documents outlining the Brits’ plan to defend Cairo.

Once he has the documents, Wolff must encode the information and transmit it to the Germans using a code based on the novel Rebecca.

Instead of reading The Key to Rebecca, read Follett’s The Eye of the Needle. It’s a far more original work.

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
Morrow, 1st ed. 1980. 381 p.
1980 bestseller #6. My grade: B-

©2019 Linda G. Aragoni

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

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, un-egotistical, 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 Matarese Circle

Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle is an edge-of-the-seat thriller that will hold your attention to the final full stop.

Black background of dust jacket sets off white type and circular blue mark of The Matarese.
The blue mark identifies Matarese members .

The lead characters are an American spy, Brandon Scofield, and his Soviet counterpart, Vasili Taleniekov.

The two are deadly enemies. Scofield holds Taleniekov responsible for his wife’s death; Taleniekov blames Scofield for killing his brother in retaliation.

When the Russian stumbles upon a secret organization that’s financing terrorists around the world, he can’t discern the Matarese’s motive, but he knows the Matarese must be stopped.

To stop them, Taleniekov has to get Scofield to work with him.

Both men are the best in their respective nations’ intelligence communities.

Both are considered mavericks.

Both are tired.

Both are beginning to doubt that their lives’ work has made any difference.

Once they agree to cooperate, the pair go to Corsica where the Matarese is legendary but never spoken of to outsiders and not often mentioned among Corsicans.

Whispers suggest the organization dates from the eleventh century.

Intelligence services know the Matarese provided assassins for hire until the 1930s.

No one knows what they are doing in the 1970s

Ludlum spins a good yarn.

The unlikely collaborators deal the Matarese a death blow.

Or do they?

The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
R. Marek Publishers, ©1979. 601 p.
1979 bestseller #01 My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni