Robert Ludlum

The Chameleon of Spy Writers

A few years ago, I was bored, so I raided my father’s library for something to read.  Having already read through his collection of Ludlum books–my father likes his spy fiction–I chanced to find a book entitled No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth.

Unexpectedly, this one turned out to be a collection of short spy / secret agent / international terrorism tales.  Now setting aside the obvious question this poses (namely, could anything be more seventies than a collection of short spy stories?  Didn’t think so), I still vividly remember the plot and twist of the title story more than twenty-five years later.  That doesn’t happen to me very often (I read hundreds of short stories every year-only a handful stick with me).

So when I picked up a couple of Forsyth books published recently, I was expecting good things.

The Cobra - Frederick Forsyth

One thing I wasn’t expecting was how well Forsyth has managed to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to writing about modern espionage and international affairs.  Though his contemporaries (notably Ludlum) have died, I watched them fall a little behind; by their final few books the seventies espionage writers had mostly become dinosaurs reliving the cold war or trying to superimpose its values on more modern conflicts.  Still fun reads, but slightly off.

The Kill List Frederick Forsyth

Apparently Forsyth is immune.  The two books I read recently, The Cobra and The Kill List, treat modern issues with a modern approach.  Well, they are modern in the sense that the people and situations surrounding the main characters are described with an extraordinary sensitivity for how society at large feels about the issues.  Fortunately, however, the main characters are still Neanderthals for whom life and death are separated by a few bullets, which is a beautiful escape from a world which has become just a little too civilized.

The Cobra deals with a creative and final solution to America’s drug problem.  It’s stunning, brilliant, violent, accurate and though I won’t spoil the ending here, I just wanted to say that I was rooting for the Neanderthal to get away with it all through the book.

The Kill List deals with the other major scourge of the era, terrorism.  This one is a bit less imaginative, perhaps, but it does what it’s supposed to: entertain from start to finish and kill a hell of a lot of people in the process.

So yeah, I’d take Forsyth over any number of newer writers.  He still has that magic that can make a story read as a teen still resonate years later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of Outside, a science fiction tale that answers the question of what, exactly posthumanity might entail.  You can check it out here.

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Another Busy Dead Guy

The Janson Command - Paul Garrison

A couple of months ago, I discussed how Tom Clancy seems to be busier than ever now that he’s dead.  Well another highly productive dead guy is Robert Ludlum, whose The Janson Command I recently read (review: it is a fun book.  Not likely to be on college curricula in 500 years’ time), and which got me thinking.

Of course, Ludlum and Clancy share a target audience which I would assume is mostly male and mostly uninterested in the finer points of, for example, the works of the Brontë sisters.

I would also imagine that their audience is aging.  The importance of violent men who live in the shadows and hurt people who need it seems to be lost on the younger generation.  I’d say the core audience for these is probably people who remember the Cold War.

Then again, I might be wrong.  There’s a series of blockbusters about Jason Bourne which I assume are not being watched only by the graying crowd…

Who knows.

The truth is that I joined both of these men with their careers already in progress, in about 1990 if I remember correctly.  Even then, Ludlum was already considered a master of the spy genre, creating the template for the bestselling novels of that type that followed.  Clancy, of course, had recently become a trillionaire with The Hunt for Red October and had written what was by far his best book: Red Storm Rising (seriously – if you read only one Clancy in your life, make sure it’s this one).

Ironically, there was already a dynamic at work between the two men: the passing of a torch.  Clancy had conquered most of the older writer’s thunder, a good chunk of his audience, and younger readers who wanted to move on from the old LeCarré-meets-dynamic-writing style perfected by Ludlum.

I say ironic because, by keeping the two alive as brand names and forcing up-and-coming thriller writers to write in universes already created, the presence of the zombies on the bookshelves is keeping the next torch-pass from happening.  And no, Dan Brown isn’t the same.

I wonder how long it will take for a new name to come into its own the way they did.  No one has come close so far, but when they do, I think these zombies might crumble to dust.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and blogger who isn’t dead (or is he?  How can you be sure?).  His latest novel is a comic romp in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.

What Happens When the Writer Dies?

A friend of mine who is also an excellent writer once told me that he doesn’t read doorstop fantasy series until they are complete.  The reason is that he is always afraid that the writer will die in the middle of it and leave him hanging.

As a writer myself, I begged to differ.  Everyone knows that we’re made of better stuff than that, and no self-respecting author would ever allow his body to fail in the middle of a series.  Priorities are priorities: readers come first, natural law a distant second.

Then, in 2007, Robert Jordan died–way too young–leaving us with The Wheel of Time three quarters of the way done.

A quick note about The Wheel of Time.  Nowadays, everyone and his kid sister like to brag about their knowledge regarding Game of Thrones.  But the show, and the series of books that it was drawn from, would have had a much more difficult path to publication and popularity if Wheel of Time hadn’t been a smash runaway bestseller.  Robert Jordan followed in the footsteps of some writers (Terry Brooks comes to mind) but the huge success of his saga opened up the doorstop fantasy sub category (for more on it, here’s my take on The Runelords, another series that likely owes its existence to Jordan).

But, despite his importance, tragedy struck and readers wondered what would happen next?

It’s a difficult decision for a publisher to make.  In some cases such as Robert Ludlum, and now Tom Clancy, the publisher simply keeps using the writer’s name and hopes no one reads the obituaries.  The real writer’s name is often featured in smaller letters saying something like “with Edward Edwardsson” (of course for sales like that, I’d gladly write a techno-thriller…).

Other publishers openly admit that their guy is gone and get another name author to wrap things up.  Think of And Another Thing by Eion Colfer.  It’s a good book, it’s a funny book. And no one is pretending the humor is anything like what Douglas Adams would have produced.  It isn’t.  But that doesn’t make it bad.

The publishers of the Wheel of Time decided to go with a more Robert Ludlum-esque approach.  They signed up-and-coming writer Brandon Sanderson, locked him in a room with Jordan’s copious notes and outlines and told him to write the last three books in the series in such a way that everyone would think Robert Jordan did it (OK, I’m not sure if they locked him in a room for the time it took him to write three humungous novels.  If they did, that had better have been one hell of an advance!).

Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson  A memory of light Brandon Sanderson

To Sanderson’s credit, he pulled the magic trick off without a hitch, and the concluding books are just as good as the preceding volumes.

This was a rare case where a tragedy was good for all the survivors.  Tor got the sales they were probably counting on from this series.  Readers got the conclusion they wanted to the series.  And Sanderson became a household name among fantasy readers (I will admit to having asked who he was when I first heard the news).  In a limited sense, even Jordan came out ahead (I assume he would rather not have died, of course): his vision and notes were used to create the final product, and his style was respected.

All of which doesn’t leave me feeling relaxed. A major problem I have is that I’m in the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire, and at the rate they’re being written, I certainly hope George RR Martin has the immortality thing figured out…

 

Gustavo Bondoni, apart from blogging, also writes.  His latest novel, Incursion, is a fun romp about what happens when a suicide mission gets really complicated.