By Robet Ludlum
535 pages
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2001.
ISBN # 0312276885

Comments of Bob Corbett
April 2002

Many years ago I began to read the novels of Robert Ludlum and couldn’t wait for each new one to come out. Of his 23 novels I must have read close to 15-17 of them, then a few years ago I quit reading them. There were several things going on. First I was getting bored with Ludlum’s novels themselves because of the tendency I saw of the bad guys having too much knowledge of the actions and plans of the good guys, and technologies of spying and eavesdropping that were just too sophisticated to believe. Independent of Ludlum I was moving into a pattern of using my limited reading time to read works I considered more “serious” in nature. I had always read my Ludlums and similar works with great joy, but acknowledging that these were pure entertainments and not an advancement of my knowledge or thinking.

A few days ago I went to the local Barnes and Noble store to hunt a book on a local bike trail and happened to see Ludlum’s latest novel, The Sigma Protocol, on display. Having some time free I picked it up, headed for a comfortable lounge chair and took a look at it. In no time I was hooked again, and delighted that this work seem more a throwback to the earlier Ludlum, without the bad guys being quite so powerful and all knowing. Perhaps more importantly one of the central characters of goodness, Ben Hartman, was not a trained field agent and didn’t have the super powers of Jason Bourne. Even the other key character, federal agent Anna Navarro, while a trained agent, was not quite the all-super hero, but just a quite talented agent, almost believable.

I settled in for a while there and then spent much of the next three days reading the novel.

There is a sense in which there is no need to tell the story in its particulars. First that would ruin it for others who might read these comments but want to read the book, and in Ludlum, it is only the pleasure of the reading and the story itself which matters, and secondly, it is basically the same story as virtually every Ludlum novel. One reads the same story over and over with delight since it is the pleasure of the reading and the triumph of good over evil, albeit usually a mixed evil, which makes Ludlum so appealing.

The Ludlum formulae is that there is a secret cabal of a few dozen people, at times fewer, who have generally begun a process many years earlier to somehow control the world. At times it is with military might, but the more interesting stories for me are those in which the control of the small elite will come via economic manipulations. These are, however, always backed up by a fairly large and well-trained and overly informed troop of killers and enforcers.

In each story the hero good guy, usually a man, thus Anna Navarro’s role in this novel is quite refreshing, plays a sort of John Wayne role as superhero who ultimately defeats the forces of evil and saves the planet from some form of paternalistic dictatorship.

The forces of evil, while clearly evil, are usually mixed with some dash of appeal from the leadership that humans are incapable of democracy, that war, cruelty and other meanness dominate our world, and that these folks are really planning to do good for the world by providing us incapable humans with some sort of absolute rule that will lead to goodness and prosperity for all. But, the hero somehow saves us for our more messy worlds of freedom and the human error, meanness and greed that go with it.

In several of the novels, and The Sigma Protocol is one of them, there are more heroes than one. In this novel we have two, Ben Hartman, super rich early thirties business man and similar aged beautiful Anna Navarro, a U.S. federal agent. They don’t know each other at the outset, and each has some set of friends, Anna’s, of course, within the U.S. intelligence community, and Ben’s (usefully) within the business world and often folks who can do rather extra-legal acts which provide Ben and Anna with information.

Ludlum comes close to elevating this theme of paternalistic dictatorship to a philosophical level, but never really reaches it. He knows what he does best – thrills us to the core of our being with our ability to participate in the heroic deeds of the good folks, who are facing death on every third page. I am astonished at myself, whom I would think is a modestly typical reader, but probably more skeptical than most, and yet I am sucked in and am catching my breadth on at every attempt on the life of our saving hero or heroes, when I know the formula well and know, in general terms, the outcome. No matter, Ludlum sucks me in generally, and in this work under discussion, more than most of the later ones I read before I quit Ludlum about 6 or 7 years ago. This is really much more like “early” Ludlum than a work of 2001.

There is a side of me that wishes I could say: skip it. Read something more substantial, and all that. But I can’t. I read it in just a few days, was utterly sucked in, enjoyed it all the way through and had so much fun. It was a delight to find a Ludlum who could once again spellbind me in that way. I recommend it for an exciting read even if it is intellectually slim pickings.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett