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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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 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

Eye of the Needle

“Eye of the Needle” cover. A male figure seen through eye of a bloody stiletto with Nazi symbols.
That’s blood on Farber’s stiletto.

In 1944, the whole world expected the Allies to invade German-held territory on the continent soon.

The question was where.

Ken Follett’s novel Eye of the Needle is based on the hoax of cardboard ships and planes, called the First United States Army Group, that Britain created to suggest they will attack at Calais, near Belgium, rather than at their intended site in Normandy.

From that historical fact, Follett sets up a thrilling cat-and-mouse game in which a German spy, Henry Faber, called “The Needle” because of his preference for the stiletto as a death weapon, discovers the deception and tries to get his evidence back to Germany.

Farber is a professional spy. The other German spies working in England are rank amateurs; Farber has to eliminate them if they see his face.

The spies trying to catch Farber are also little more than amateurs. Percy Goldiman’s specialty is medieval history; before the war Frederick Bloggs was an inspector with Scotland Yard.

The unlikely pair come up with a scheme for getting a photograph of Farber.

Eye of the Needle contains no great philosophical truths, but Follett gets his psychological truths right.

Ordinary people rising to the occasion make this mystery-thriller extraordinary.

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
Arbor House, ©1978. 313 p.
1978 bestseller #10. My grade: A-

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Eagle Has Landed

German SS is central to The Eagle Has Landed.

The Eagle Has Landed is a World War II novel that manages to be both exciting and nuanced.

The novel is about a 1943 German plot to kidnap Winston Churchill in a commando operation, which Himmler thinks might make Hitler happy.

Himmler selects Colonel Max Radl, a terminally ill officer, to coordinate the top secret mission.

By coincidence, a spy living on a remote, unprotected stretch of English coastline reports that Churchill will be staying overnight nearby on November 6.

Radl pulls together an unlikely team led by Kurt Steiner, a German officer in disgrace for helping a Jew, with aid from Irish Republican Army operative Liam Devlin and hindrance from Harvey Preston, a captured English soldier who defected to the SS.

Steiner’s dozen commandos parachute in to join Devlin, who had already secured the necessary equipment for the snatch.

Then things start going wrong.

Novelist Jack Higgins’ characters are puzzling, contradictory personalities, not your typical war novel stereotypes. In fact, the Eagle’s battle-hardened German soldiers are too nice. Joseph Wambaugh’s Choirboys would be more believable. They’d fit in with American Colonel Shafto, who thinks nobody can run a war as well as he.

Despite that highly intriguing flaw, The Eagle lives up to his book jacket blurbs.

The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins
Pocket Books ©1975 [paper] 1st ed. 390 p.
1975 bestseller #6. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Cold-War relic

There's 1 red figure and 1 black figure among gray crowd on the cover of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
The man in the glasses is George Smiley.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a novel about ex-spymaster George Smiley’s efforts to uncover the double agent responsible for virtual collapse of the British Intelligence Service in the Cold War era.

Smiley had been forced out of the Circus, the British spy agency at which he’d been Control’s number 2, when a group of four young men rose to leadership and Control himself died.

When the novel opens, Smiley has been called out of retirement to find out which of the four is the double agent. His isn’t a cloak-and-dagger job, but a tedious search for patterns in data.

The excitement in the novel, which the film version probably captures far better than print, is provided mainly through characters’ recollections of what happened years before.

Tinker swings between then and now, telling about characters with multiple names and identities, which made me long for one of the whiteboards seen in police procedurals with photos and brief descriptions of the characters.

In his introduction to the 1991 paperback edition, John le Carré tells of the difficulties he had plotting Tinker and his sense that the story was already regarded as historical fiction.

Today it feels about as dated as When Knighthood Was in Flower.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Penguin Books [paper] © 1974, 381 p.
1974 bestseller #4. My grade: B

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Message from Málaga: Suspense for the cerebral

After a week of business related to his U.S. Space Agency job, Ian Ferrier stops in Málaga, Spain, to visit Jeff Reid. Ian and Jeff worked together eight years before, gathering evidence of Khrushchev’s rocket installations in Cuba.

Flamenco music, US flag and communist hammer-and-sickle are incorporated into art on dust jacket of Message from Malaga
Music, flamenco dancing, and politics mingle.

Now Jeff works for an American wine importer, and Ian’s current work entails scanning the skies for another Cuba-type crisis, this time satellite-based.

Jeff remembers Ian’s love of flamenco and takes him to see the local flamenco star, Tavita, dance.

Before the evening is over, Jeff meets a man claiming to be a defector from the assassination division of Cuba’s Foreign Intelligence Service. As he goes to alert his superiors to the defector’s demands, Jeff is the victim of a cyanide attack.

Barely alive when Ian finds him, Jeff confides in Ian, who becomes a de facto CIA agent when Jeff is assassinated.

Message shows why Helen MacInnes became known for “highly literate” spy novels. Readers must be as alert as the intelligence operatives.MacInnes’s story is tense but restrained. Readers seeking explosions and high-speed chases should look elsewhere.

So too should readers who want James Bond-ish sex romps. Ian appreciates beautiful women but he’s not going to risk his life to bed one.

Message from Málaga by Helen MacInnes
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich [1971] 367 p.
1971 bestseller #6. My grade: B+