Nov 20, 2012

Book Review: The Holcroft Covenant by Robert Ludlum (1978)

Is the lead character named Holcroft? Yes.
Is there a covenant? Most definitely! And mentioned often.

The Holcroft Covenant is notable as the first of Robert Ludlum’s truly globehopping contemporary international thrillers. If The Chancellor Manuscript the year before had signified the transition from more localized action (The Osterman Weekend was more or less limited to a single location, and The Matlock Paper took place entirely in Connecticut) to at least a cross-country chase, then The Holcroft Covenant represented the full-on plunge into the man-on-the-run-around-the-world type of thriller the author would define and dominate over the coming years. (His next novel, The Matarese Circle, was the beginning of his most creatively fecund period.) Taken on its own, however The Holcroft Covenant isn’t one of the author’s better books. That may prove a somewhat controversial statement among Ludlum fans, many of whom consider it a favorite. I'll grant it’s still Ludlum, to be sure, which automatically places it head and feet above most of the imitators, and it’s got a very memorable surprise ending, but it meanders too much along the way. Certain subplots go nowhere; characters are introduced and then disappear. And, worst of all, the hero is profoundly irritating!

Ludlum heroes are all either disavowed professionals or rank amateurs plunged into the world of international espionage who find themselves in way over their heads. But few of his amateurs take so long to learn the ropes as Noel Holcroft—or whine about their predicament so much along the way. (Well, Bourne whines a lot, but his predicament is so awful that it seems more forgivable.) It doesn’t help that Ludlum provides the sort of reveal that usually comes late in his books less than a third of the way into the 512-page tome, and from that point on the reader is always ahead of the hero. It’s nearly impossible not to get frustrated with a hero so far behind you in terms of the plot! (Though in other novels Ludlum uses variations on this device to generate suspense instead of frustration.) Never able to catch up on his own, Noel has to rely on other characters to provide the exposition necessary to get him up to speed. Often, however, that information is stuff that the reader already knows from previous scenes, and functions as boring filler when read again. Noel blunders his way through the plot as a pawn, never sure who’s his friend and who’s his foe, but not dissuaded because of that position from acting (rashly) first and asking questions later. Making matters worse, his hopeless actions generally get his friends and anyone who helps him brutally murdered. And he stubbornly dismisses anyone who can provide him real help! If the book were a movie (and it was, later—but different enough from the book so as not to share all the same deficiencies), the audience would constantly be shouting at the character not to do stupid things.

Granted, it’s hard to blame Noel too much because of the awkward position he’s thrust into at the novel’s opening. Holcroft is an architect with a failing firm who’s enjoyed an all-American upbringing, even though in truth he’s the son of a high-ranking Nazi officer. His mother, Althene Holcroft, vehemently disagreed with her husband’s politics and bravely fled Germany with her infant son before the war. She hasn’t hidden the identity of Noel’s true father from him, but he doesn’t dwell on a past he never knew. He fully identifies with his mother’s second husband, the man who raised him, as his dad. Therefore, it’s a surprise and a bit of an inconvenience when he’s summoned to Switzerland to be told by a secretive banker that he’s the beneficiary of a very unique trust fund. In the final days of World War II, he’s told, his father made a covenant along with several other ranking Nazi officials. These were men who loathed Hitler, and attempted to assassinate him. Failing that, they secretly funneled hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Reich. The funds were to be used after forty years had passed to compensate for all of the Nazis’ horrible crimes against humanity. As the son of the leader, it falls to Noel to track down and bring together the other Nazis’ offspring and, with htem, start a non-profit corporation dedicated to distributing this money where it’s most needed. He’d be doing the right thing, atoning for his father’s sins… and, ultimately, collecting a not-insignificant payday for himself—enough to save his failing business. That final incentive—along with a genuine belief that he’s doing the right thing, and a newfound respect for his biological father—convinces Noel to go along with some very unusual conditions, which threaten some particularly dire consequences should the terms of the covenant not be carried out in total secrecy. But how could those threats bear any weight forty years later? Surely there’s no one left associated with these Nazis now, he figures….

Noel’s quest to find the other inheritors takes him back to New York, down to South America, and ultimately all over Europe. Along the way, people start violently dying in his wake. And in New York, he finds his apartment broken into and rearranged—not burglarized, just rearranged. (It’s a subtly chilling scenario, which has the desired, maddening effect on Noel.) A man claiming to work for MI5 calls him up and tells him they need to meet urgently, but then he’s killed on the other end of the line as Noel listens, unable to do anything to prevent it. It’s one of many very tense, effective suspense sequences. Even lower-shelf Ludlum is still rousing excitement.

In Europe, Noel’s mission brings him into contact with the Von Tiebolt family. Among this uber-dysfunctional group, he must pick a sibling worthy of the Covenant to be a co-inheritor. Unfortunately, the family includes a crazy, nymphomaniac elder sister, Gretchen, a younger sister, Helden, who lives in hiding because her denouncement of her Nazi lineage has made her a target for extremists on both sides of the equation, and a brother, Johann, who may or may not be the international assassin known as the Tinamou. (By the way, has there ever been a less scary-sounding assassin name than “the Tinamou?” Sure, it’s explained that he’s named after a bird with a remarkable ability to blend into its surroundings, but still. Ludlum would do much better with his next torn-from-the-headlines international assassin, even if the real-life Carlos the Jackal had to borrow his scary-sounding animal nickname from the fiction of another spy author!) Oh, and Johann and Gretchen are also involved in a creepy incestuous relationship. Yep, it’s slim pickings to find a worthy heir, yet all is not what it seems with any of them. Clearly, Ludlum had a blast creating this mad clan, and they’re collectively the best creations in the book, far more interesting than the bland and annoying Holcroft!

Partially by default, given the drawbacks of the other siblings, Noel ends up on the run with Helden in tow, and she becomes the romantic interest. Luckily, she’s got far more experience than he does when it comes to living on the run, and she’s able to give him a crash course in evasive techniques. By the time everything comes to a head in a rousing Swiss finale involving the Von Tiebolts and Althene (among others), Noel’s finally starting to learn how the game is played. But is he already too late? Will the funds really be used for the purpose the thinks, or has the covenant been co-opted by others with a more nefarious purpose? Or was its stated purpose all just a ruse to begin with?

The final chapter brings the book to a truly shocking conclusion unlike anything else in all of Ludlum’s body of work, and it’s for this that the book remains most memorable. But it’s undoubtedly a keystone in the evolution of the author’s career. Not only does The Holcroft Covenant mark his first contemporary international thriller, but it also serves as a blueprint for all his (generally better) international thrillers to come. Of course, it’s worth reading beyond its historical context. Like nearly all of Ludlum’s books, it’s a real page-turner, even if some setpieces are better than others, and even when packed with more filler than most of his books. And the conspiracy Noel finds himself up against is just as harrowing and creative as any of Ludlum's nefarious conspiracies. But Ludlum would revisit the same theme a few more times in his career, and The Sigma Protocol is a much more satisfying variation that theme.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.


Quiller said...

Another great review, and I'm really enjoying the Ludlum Dossier series. I have to agree that Holcroft is not one of the maestro's better works. This in spite of the fact that it seems to be the quintessential Ludlum novel (that doesn't have "Bourne" in the title), and that it does seem to be a fan favorite.

I read the novel in 1994 and haven't read it since, so I'm probably not the ideal person to assess it at this late date. But my issues have less to do with Noel Holcroft himself as a character, and more to do with an awkwardly conceived conspiracy, and one conflicting faction too many.

(SPOILER WARNING) Certainly the idea that the children of the top Nazis were spirited out of Germany at the end of World War II, and that thirty years later they have formed a world-wide underground neo-Nazi organization, is provocative. And the thought of them getting their hands on almost a billion dollars' worth of Nazi loot is not an encouraging one. But the ultimate intended use of the funds -- to buy elections and take over governments -- seems to me like Ludlum didn't think it all the way through; it doesn't seem like it would be that easy.(END SPOILER)

While I do like a lot of competing secret factions and interests in a thriller, I also think Ludlum goes too far in Holcroft. I recall reading a contemporary review alluding to "the machninations of no less than eight secret organizations." And dear Lord, it's true (the true Wolfsschanze! The false Wolfsschanze! The Rache! The Nachritendienst! Not to mention the various international intelligence agencies involved). By the end I still wasn't sure who really worked for who, and who wanted what.

It is interesting to consider Holcroft in the context of the larger "Fourth Reich" sub-genre, which came to the fore in the mid-'70s. I've read most of them, and what I find unusual, in retrospect, is how few of them I actually liked. Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil is a masterpiece, but Thomas Gifford's The Wind Chill Factor, Allan Folsom's The Day After Tomorrow, and Glenn Meade's Brandenburg, to say nothing of many others, all vary in quality. Ironically enough, I thought Ludlum had better luck with the same themes in 1995's The Apocalypse Watch.

To those of us living seventy years' after the defeat of Nazism, the concept of a "Fourth Reich" seems so remote as to be hardly worth fearing. Sure, every now and then you hear about neo-Nazi or otherwise right-wing parties making gains in the parliaments of European countries like France or Austria, but they never seem to achieve any real power and when they do, they don't hang onto it for very long. Yet I suppose the generation that fought World War II, as well as the generation that came of age during it (Ludlum belongs to the former) simply couldn't forget the horrors of the era, nor could let go of their fears that the most appalling murder machine in history might rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Well, I can hardly blame them for that.

Anyway, great review, and I really like the "Ludlum Dossier" banner you worked up. Always liked the "concentric circles" covers of the late-'80s Ludlum paperbacks.

Tanner said...

I'm glad you like the banner! I love it too, but I can't take credit for it. It's the work of my good friend Josh Kushins, who does most of the banners you see on the Double O Section. This is a good opportunity to give him a shout-out. Thanks, Josh!

I've always been a big fan of the concentric circles Ludlum covers, too. For me they were the current ones when I started reading him, and the first ones I read. So I consider them the classic Ludlum look. Interestingly, though, when I told Josh (who's also a big Ludlum fan) "classic Ludlum paperback," he pictured the earlier Bantam editions with a single, curved-corner rectangular photo at the bottom. He paid tribute to that line in his image, too, with a similar "Ludlum" font.

Tanner said...

Thanks, Quiller! To reference your spoiler point (without any spoilers), I agree that the particular plan definitely seemed ill thought out. And, honestly, that's not terribly uncommon with Ludlum. I think it goes along with what you were saying in another post about him just making things up. It's not just spy details, but often his plots seem a bit made up as he went along. He got away with it a lot, but sometimes there are a lot of loose ends or things that don't stand up to close scrutiny. However, the books are so chock-full of STUFF that readers are often distracted from the things that don't work or aren't adequately explained, because so much else DOES. Like, in the case, the initial conspiracy you mention, which is DEFINITELY provocative!

I'm kind of torn about the whole Fourth Reich sub-genre of not only books of the Sixties and Seventies, but also movies of that era. I have to admit, I haven't actually read any of the ones you mention (I know The Boys from Brazil is something I should one day), but with others I HAVE read, like your namesake in The Quiller Memorandum (aka Berlin Memorandum), or The Odessa File, or a few Sixties le Carres, I have to admit I don't find the neo-Nazi stuff nearly as compelling as the Cold War stuff. I've thought about that a lot, and come to the same conclusion you did: it must have been particularly harrowing to that generation that lived through the horror of WWII and the Nazi regime. But read today, the notion of a Foruth Reich springing up in the Sixties or Seventies seems too preposterous for serious spy literature. That's probably why I like it better when it's presented more fantastically, as in some of the over-the-top Eurospy movies of the era. Or, in Ludlum, in The Sigma Protocol. (Or in that episode of the '89 Mission: Impossible revival that borrows heavily from The Holcroft Covenant!) Because there's no question that Nazis make great villains. Everyone hates Nazis--and quite right, too. So they work wonderfully as the bad guys in pulpier stories, where shorthand for the worst of the worst is called for. For the most part, though, I like the way they summarized all that Fourth Reich stuff in the parody OSS 117: Lost in Rio: the baddies want to skip 4 and establish a FIFTH Reich, because all that Fourth Reich stuff is so played out!

Back to the seriousness of the Nazi threat in the Sixties, however, I find it much more interesting and credible when it's a subplot in these books and not the driving antagonist. Nazism plays a crucial role in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, for instance, without being the primary thrust of the narrative. I think le Carre's commentary on it is far more biting the way it's presented there than had it taken center stage. In Ludlum, the fear of a Fourth Reich is a recurring theme in almost all of his books. And, again, I tend to prefer it when it's in the background a bit. Matlock, for example, is terrified by what he sees as Gestapo traits in the Black Panther movement. Chancellor by the strains of Nazism in Hoover's FBI. Even in The Bourne Supremacy, it's no accident that the most severe insult Conklin can pay to the nefarious intelligence maven is calling him "Herr General" with the hard G. Those all represent far more reasonable fears than the actual rise of a Fourth Reich: currents of Nazism within established societies. I think Ludlum was terrified of that, and obviously had good reason.