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 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+

 

 

Overload: Inside the power industry

A blacked-out city and list of Arthur Hailey's other bestsellers are on the dust jacket of "Overload".
O in Overload shows city blackout.

Overload, like several other Arthur Hailey’s bestsellers, goes inside an industry the public takes for granted and reveals the internal problems the public rarely sees—the ones that could change their lives.

Overload is about the fictitious Golden State Power and Light, which its critics say is amassing huge profits to the benefit of stockholders and the detriment of electric and gas customers.

Nim Goldman is the too-outspoken assistant to GSP&L’s chairman. Goldman knows California production facilities are barely adequate to meet the ’70s energy demands. Without more energy generation and diversified energy sources, Goldman predicts an electrical famine within a decade.

Davey Birdsong, a colorful and dynamic activist, leads the popular opposition to anything that raises utility rates. The Sequoia Club has formed an uneasy, and secret, alliance with Birdsong.

Goldman has the usual discretely described sexual conquests typical of a Hailey leading man.

But Overload is unusual in a two ways: Goldman is more sexually predatory than the usual Hailey hero, and two of the novel’s sub plots are awkwardly wedged into the main tale.

Despite its flaws, Overload is a page-turner whose picture of America’s energy problems and the inefficiency of government regulation of the power industry are still valid.

Overload by Arthur Hailey
Doubleday, ©1979. 515 p.
1979 bestseller #03 My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton 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 Holcroft Covenant

In the 1970s, a cottage industry of novelists emerged to exploit lingering fears of Nazi Germany.

Cover of “The Holcroft Covenant” American first edition uses Nazi colors red and black. A red bird bleeds through the book's title.
British 1st ed. featured a swastika built of stacks of money.

Robert Ludnum’s The Holcroft Covenant is a product of that movement.

A Swiss bank contacts American architect Noel Holcroft about a trust fund established by his natural father, Heinrich Clausen, and two other Nazis.

The three stole German funds, leaving instructions with their banker for disbursing the stolen money in 30 years to aid survivors and descendants of Holocaust victims.

Signatures from heirs of all trust fund signatories are required for the bank to release the funds, now grown to $780 million.

Noel is to locate those heirs.

What Noel does not know is that at the same time the “repentant Nazis” were setting up the compensation fund, other Nazis were sending thousands of their children to safety so when they became adults in the 1970s, they could establish a Fourth Reich.

Ludnum establishes all that background in the first 10 pages.

The rest of the book is a blur of action with Noel trying to play secret agent, the bad guys shooting everything that moves, and characters with the personalities of Lego blocks.

Ludnum’s epilogue leaves readers with a vision of the future, which we’re seeing come to life in the 21st century.

The Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludnum
R. Marek Publishers, ©1978. 542 p.
1978 bestseller #8. My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bloodline: Old themes revitalized

In Bloodline, Sidney Sheldon takes several tired themes, shakes them together, adds a most unusual detective, and serves up an entertaining, fast-reading mystery.

Couple embracing in front of Italian villa is image on dust jacket of "Bloodline" by Sidney Sheldon
Bloodline isn’t as sexy as the cover implies.

Elizabeth Roffe is the ugly duckling daughter of a wealthy pharmaceutical company CEO.

When her father is killed in a skiing accident, Elizabeth inherits control of the family-owned company.

Roffe and Sons is in financial difficulties and the other family members on the board of directors are clamoring for the company to be taken public.

Elizabeth wants to do what her father would have wanted.

She receives a confidential report her father had ordered which suggests someone has been deliberate sabotaging the company’s most promising projects.

Suddenly Elizabeth herself is in danger.

Elizabeth proposes to Rhys Williams, her father’s right hand man, and makes her new husband head of the company.

Into this romantic thriller, Sheldon inserts Max Hortung, an accountant, computer geek, and financial ferret whose goal in life is to be a police detective.

Max gets computers to tell him things and figures out who the villain is.

Sidney Sheldon has no great message for humanity, but it doesn’t matter.

Bloodline is fun to read and Max deserves to star in his own series of detective novels.

Bloodline by Sidney Sheldon
Morrow, 1978, ©1977. 444 p.
1978 bestseller #4. My grade: B+

©2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni