The Matlock Paper: Thrills at the university level

Silver and black type on front cover tell book author and title
The paper looks innocent enough.

The Matlock Paper is a tense, carefully plotted thriller about Jim Matlock, a young English literature PhD recruited by the Department of Justice to go undercover to find Nimrod, the brains behind an organization running drugs, gambling, and prostitution and in nearly every university in New England.

The DOJ regards Matlock as “flawed but mobile” and susceptible: Matlock’s younger brother died from a heroin overdose and he holds himself responsible.

Organized crime has arranged a conference to negotiate an accommodation with Nimrod, whose extraordinary growth is taking a bite out of crime.

The same night after giving him a crash course in how to go undercover, Matlock’s DOJ contact is killed on the way to his car and someone takes a shot at Matlock.

All that happens in the first 38 pages.

Even though there are dozens of characters to watch, novelist Robert Ludlum makes his characters distinctive so that there’s no trouble remembering who’s who.

Aside from letting Matlock go more than two weeks without ever going to teach a class, Ludlum makes his inventive tale seem plausible.

You won’t gain and wisdom from The Matlock Paper, but you’ll be totally caught up on Matlock’s world for a few hours.

The Matlock Paper by Robert Ludlum
Doubleday, © 1975. 310 p
1970 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Day of the Jackal: A thriller plus history

Spring, 1963. The OAS, a secret organization of Algerian ex-military, wants Charles de Gaulle killed.

A jackal escapes the hunter's sights
Jackal narrowly escapes

Having failed spectacularly in one attempt to kill de Gaulle, OAS leaders decide to hire a professional assassin, a blond man from England who calls himself Chacal, which is French for jackal.

Chacal wants to operate entirely on his own, with no contact with the OAS except for a telephone number in Paris he can call for information on the security situation.

The OAS set off a rash of thefts across France to raise Chacal’s $500,000 fee, then await developments.

French security officials guess the thefts are to finance another assassination attempt.

They pull in the best detective in France, Claude Lebel, a homicide cop who gets results by deliberate, plodding inquiry and fact checking.

Fredrick Forsyth was a newsman before turning novelist. His knowledge of how government agencies work and his crisp, clear, just-the-facts-m’am prose style makes Day of the Jackal a real page-turner.

Because de Gaulle died of natural causes, readers know who wins, but Forsyth keeps readers up past their bedtime to see the ending.

A bonus is the illumination of European history largely unfamiliar to contemporary readers: France’s conquest of Algeria in the 1830s, her colonial operation there through WWII, and the belief of many Algerians that de Gaulle had promised them French citizenship as a reward for their military service.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Press [1971], 380 p.
1971 bestseller #4. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Tower of Babel: Terror for PR purposes

Map of Middle East with inset cover of Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel is set in the Middle East just before the Six-Day War in June, 1967.

The novel opens as an Israeli man on a tractor is killed by an exploding mine as he crosses a narrow demilitarized zone into Syria.

The Israelis suspect such incidents are trying to provoke them into military action.

They’re right.

Col. Safreddin, Syria’s director of security, has picked PLO field director Idris Jarrah to spark an incident for political reasons.

Jarrah knows the PLO is closing its Phoenician Banking Company account. He schemes to get bank owner Nuri Chakry’s help to keep from becoming Safreddin’s fall guy.

Meanwhile, Jakov Baratz, Israel’s director of military intelligence, is worried about an Israeli operative in Damascus whose cover is blown.

The characters in Morris L. West’s taut thriller aren’t particularly heroic or admirable: They are just as likely to be fighting for thrills as for their country.

West focuses on characters’ personalities and motivations, providing little physical detail from which to craft mental images. I found it hard to remember who was who without mental pictures of them.

Torture scenes in the novel are tame compared to ISIS’s latest vidotape, but I for one find state-sponsored terrorism more frightening than lone wolves inspired by ISIS.


The Tower of Babel by Morris L. West
William Morrow, 1968. 361 p. 1968 bestseller #10. My grade: B+.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Vanished resurrects Cold War era anxieties

Letters of Vanished on novel jacket in progressively smaller letters

Vanished is a Cold War era political thriller that will sound familiar to readers who grew up in that era.

White House Press Secretary Eugene Culligan relates the events.

One election year, a good, personal friend of President Roudebush vanishes from Burning Tree Golf Club.

Investigators learn Steve Greer left the country by a circuitous route.

That raises speculation that Greer’s in trouble, and that the President may be involved, too.

The President’s party gets jittery; so does Wall Street.

The President assigns the FBI to handle the investigation, which infuriates the CIA director and raises further speculation of something shady going on.

Culligan gets nervous because he can’t get information.

The press is hounding him, but he has nothing to say because he knows nothing.

Eventually, Culligan learns everything, but not before the American public and Fletcher Knebel’s readers do.

Knebel draws all his characters well enough that they are distinguishable but not particularly memorable. The focus is the story of what happened to Steve Greer and who’s going to break the story.

The ending fits its Cold War setting, but may sound a little simplistic today.

None the less, Vanished will entertain without deadening the brain cells.


Vanished by Fletcher Knebel
Doubleday, 1968. 407 p. (Book Club Edition). 1968 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Preserve and Protect taut political thriller

Washington DC buildings, 1st edition jacket of Preserve and Protect
First edition cover.

Preserve and Protect is a logical development  of the political landscapes Allen Drury envisioned in Advise and Consent (1959),  A Shade of Difference (1962),  and Capable of Honor (1966).

Allen Drury plunges readers into American politics as it might be played if violence becomes a political tool.

Sometime in the post-LBJ era, Air Force One has crashed, killing an American president on his return to Washington after garnering his party’s nomination.

The Speaker of the House, William Abbott, assumes the presidency until elections can be held. He carries on the policies of his predecessor, Harvey Hudson, keeping American troops in Africa and Panama and retaining Orrin Knox as Secretary of State.

That continuity brings Abbott into direct confrontation with a coalition of extremist groups out to control the presidency by electing Ted Jason, a man they think they can control.

Preserve and Protect is a stronger novel — there’s less author commentary — than the other three novels in Drury’s series.

Readers are left in no doubt as to Drury’s position, but here they have the pleasure of thinking they figured it out themselves.

The characters met in earlier novels seem to have grown more complex, the issues less clear.

The book slips from political novel toward political thriller.

Drury pulls all the threads together skillfully in a shocking — but totally logical — conclusion.


Preserve and Protect by Allen Drury
Doubleday, 1968. 394 pages. 1968 bestseller #6. My grade A-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Salzburg Connection is high voltage spy story

jacket of The Salzburg Connection shows swastika over Austrian landscapeIn The Salzburg Connection, Helen MacInnes returns to a theme she explored in her earlier bestseller The Double Image: Nazi activity in the Cold War era.

This time, Nazis are protecting records that they can use for blackmail purposes when the time is right.

Like her earlier book, Connection has an unlikely hero.

Lawyer Bill Mathison is in Salzburg on business for a client, a science book publisher.

Photographer Richard Bryant had written them about a book contract he’d signed and for which he had received an advance.

The publisher had never heard of Bryant, doesn’t publish art books, and the check for the advance was written on a New York bank account used for undercover activities against the U.S.

While Mathison is trying to sort things out, Bryant’s car is found crashed in the Austrian Alps with two bodies in it burned beyond recognition.

Bryant’s wife, brother-in-law, and a family friend all know bits of the story about why Bryant was in the Alps.

Mathison has to figure it out.

MacInnes writes cerebral espionage stories with minimal violence tastefully conveyed and the obligatory love interest handled discretely.

MacInnes has little to offer beyond the plot, but dishes up that bit superbly.


The Salzburg Connection by Helen MacInnes
406 p. Harcourt, Grace & World, 1968. 1968 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Plot: A novel great in its day

Section of dust jacket for *The Plot* shows Paris site of peace conference at night.

The Plot is a novel about a handful of characters trying to recreate their picture of themselves at their best.

It’s set against the background of a Paris conference aimed at keeping China from acquiring a nuclear bomb.


The Plot: A Novel by Irving Wallace
Simon and Schuster, 1967. 828 p. 1967 bestseller #8. My grade: B.

The story is, as blurb-writers say, “ambitious” and “monumental” — which means slow-starting and agonizingly complex.

Irving Wallace is a good story-teller, but there’s simply too much story to tell in one novel.

The lead character, Matthew Brennan, is an American who worked for the State Department until wrongfully accused of treason. He’s in Paris hoping to get one of the two people who can clear his name to speak for him.

Former political columnist Jay Thomas Doyle is in Paris to see his old girl friend who knows the man who can say who really killed JFK — and give Doyle material for a book to resuscitate his career.

The old girl friend is writing color pieces for a news service at the Paris Summit.

There’s also a heart-of-gold whore trying to get home to England, an incompetent who was America’s president at the time of Brennan’s troubles, and a host of other characters too numerous to remember.

Few readers who aren’t baby boomers or older will have the background knowledge to appreciate this great-in-the-day novel.

©  2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni