Jan 18, 2013

Book Review: The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum (1986)

Is the lead character named Bourne? Yes. (Sort of, anyway.)
Is there a supremacy? Yes! The title makes sense.

The Bourne Supremacy is a highly worthy sequel to Robert Ludlum’s most famous book, The Bourne Identity (review here). The original novel was certainly left open to a continuation (though the author had never revisited a character before), but Ludlum does not go the expected route and deliver another round of Bourne vs. Carlos. Instead he puts the Carlos plot on hold for the time being (that would be resolved in The Bourne Ultimatum), and delivers an entirely new sort of Bourne adventure in a different direction with an unexpected catalyst and an unexpected antagonist. The result is a highly satisfying follow-up with no rehashing.

Readers of The Bourne Identity will be well aware that the assassin known as Jason Bourne never actually existed. Bourne was an identity assumed by David Webb, a grief-stricken veteran of a Vietnam-era Black Ops outfit known as Medusa, in order to draw out the real assassin Carlos the Jackal as part of an ultra-classified intelligence operation called Treadstone 71. After the events of the first book, Webb has retired from the spy game to a tranquil academic life as a professor of Oriental Studies at a liberal arts college in Maine. He’s now married to Marie, the woman who helped him discover his true identity. But the tranquility of his new life is quickly disrupted by that old thorn in his side, Jason Bourne.

The deadly assassin Bourne has resurfaced in the Far East, using all his old methods and leaving all his old calling cards. Clearly it’s an imposter, but Webb is once more caught up in the world he thought he left behind when Marie is abducted and spirited off to Hong Kong. A mysterious and powerful Tai-Pan is using Webb’s wife as collateral to force the Webb to once more assume the Bourne identity in order to trap the younger man who’s masquerading as him and causing chaos that could disrupt the 1997 turnover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese and plunge the world into war. Whew!

Last time Bourne was a man alone, with only Marie to aid him. This time, he has the support of some of the very people who were after him in the first book, most notably CIA agent Alexander Conklin. Conklin became convinced in The Bourne Identity that Bourne/Webb had gone rogue, and tried to kill the amnesiac agent who had once been his close friend. Now he’s a drunk, but eager to atone for his past mistakes, he readily answers David Webb’s call for help. Conklin’s expanded presence really benefits the sequel, because he’s one of Ludlum’s greatest characters. Thanks to a Vietnam injury, Conklin walks with a cane, which gives him a huge chip on his shoulder. On top of that and being a drunk, he’s the best at what he does and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. From that combination comes his humor; nearly every line he delivers to anyone he thinks is incompetent (which is pretty much everyone except Bourne and Marie) is a cutting putdown laden with colorful language—and hilarious. Conklin is the sort of character that the author must have had a blast writing. Fill a room up with typical Ludlum stuffed-suit bureaucrats and then set Conklin loose on them: finding out what happens next must have been as rewarding for Ludlum as it is for his readers!

There are a lot of other interesting characters populating the pages of The Bourne Supremacy as well, from Conklin’s fellow Bourne Ally Dr. Morris Panov to Britain’s top intelligence officer in the territory, the enormous Chinese-born Major Lin Wenzu, to Marie’s Hong Kong connection at the Canadian embassy, Catherine Staples, to Bourne’s fellow Medusan and sometime mentor Phillipe D’Anjou (another refugee of the first novel) to the impostor himself. All of these characters are well-developed and a pleasure to spend time with. The final crucial element is the city of Hong Kong itself. Ludlum always excels at transporting his readers to exotic locations, but Hong Kong seems to have struck a nerve with the author like few other cities. His vivid descriptions of the city and its various sections, rich and poor (especially its infamous Walled City within), certainly succeeded in making me want to travel there when I was first reading this book at 13, and they still do today.

The reader is aware that the Tai-Pan controlling Bourne is running a classic false flag operation, making Bourne think he’s working for one party in order to achieve the aims of another. Pulling the strings of the whole affair is an American diplomat of the slimiest sort, Ambassador-at-Large Havland. Whenever a refined old white man with an Ivy League background is introduced in a Ludlum novel, you can be reasonably sure he’ll turn out to be part of some horrific conspiracy. And that goes double if the author ever describes him as part of “the best and the brightest.” Ludlum despises the so-called “best and brightest,” and the class that ruled America for the entirety of his writing career. Havland is the ultimate example of a classic Ludlum villain—even if he’s not filling the role of “villain” here in its purest sense, merely “manipulator.” The fact that the reader knows more than the protagonist doesn't hurt the novel's suspense (as it did in The Holcroft Covenant); instead here Ludlum expertly uses that formula to make readers turn the pages even faster, eager to see Bourne discover the subterfuge and exact punishment of some sort.

All of these characters give Ludlum a much wider number of stories to tell and people to cut away to, so even though The Bourne Supremacy is notably longer than its predecessor (Ludlum novels ballooned in the mid-Eighties to those bookstore bricks I tend to think of them as), it never feels wayward or padded, despite Ludlum's fondness for repeating certain phrases and mantras as Bourne recalls his dimly remembered past. (The same cannot be said, sadly, of the final novel in the trilogy.) In fact, more characters open up more narrative possibilities to the author, who was stuck cutting between a mere handful in the first book.

Like its characters and locations, the setpieces in The Bourne Supremacy are also memorable, and the action is vivid. There’s an excellent sequence in which Bourne tracks down the imposter’s contact at a Macau casino and then fights him, a thrilling shootout in Mao’s mausoleum in Beijing (where Bourne creates a macabre diversion so shocking readers aren’t likely to ever forget it!) and a chilling confrontation in a Chinese bird sanctuary where the real Bourne, Webb, finally comes face-to-face with the impostor. (The travelogue aspects to these Beijing and Macau visits are just as appealing as those in Hong Kong.) It’s a shame, however, that the impostor, who’s been set up as being such a deadly adversary, turns out to be more of a clown in person, played largely for humor. (At one point he even gets shat on by a duck. Seriously. No, Ludlum isn’t above using a cheap gag like that.) He’s not, however, the real villain of the book either, merely a stepping stone on the way to the true mastermind.

Whereas the “Bourne Identity” of the first book’s title was an elusive part of the puzzle Webb was trying to assemble of who he was, in the second book it becomes an entire aspect of Webb’s character. There’s a real Jekyll and Hyde dynamic at play. The married professor, mild-mannered David Webb, fears what will happen to him when he lets Jason Bourne take over completely, but at the same time he knows that he needs Bourne’s fine-tuned assassin’s skills to rescue his wife. He thinks of Bourne as an entirely different character, and worries about losing all of the identity he’s forged for himself in the years since the events of the first novel if he slips completely into the Bourne Identity once again. Each moment he spends as Bourne threatens to erase Webb forever, and indeed by the novel’s climax, Webb is once again unsure of who he really is. This Jekyll and Hyde aspect allows Ludlum to have his cake and eat it too: he gets both a cold-hearted professional and a wide-eyed amateur at once as his protagonist. While he varied between the two sorts of lead characters, Ludlum never seemed to completely trust professional spooks. I suspect that having the audience surrogate David Webb to comment on some of Bourne's deadly expertise allowed him to be more comfortable with an expert assassin as a hero. And, of course, it's a great premise—almost as great as the original amnesiac assassin premise of the first novel and almost as frequently copied. (Remember that short-lived Christian Slater TV show My Own Worst Enemy?)

The Bourne Supremacy is a first-rate Ludlum novel and a nearly perfect follow-up to The Bourne Identity. An ideal sequel, it further develops themes and ideas from its predecessor while setting its protagonist loose in a whole new world and an entirely different sort of adventure. It succeeds on every level, combining fascinating characters, colorfully depicted exotic locales, and a fresh, original and compelling story. I can’t help thinking it would make a great movie… except it’s already been one that bears zero resemblance whatsoever to the novel it’s ostensibly based on. Whenever I read an interview with Matt Damon lamenting the lack of ideas for another Bourne movie, I want to shout at him, “Go back to the books!” They have a perfect Bourne sequel right there in their hands if they’re willing to swap female leads (since the Tony Gilroy-scripted movie made the mistake of killing off Marie), along with fresh locations we never saw Damon’s Bourne operating in. Go back to the books, Greengrass! The result would be amazing.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.


teeritz said...

I always loved the Ludlum books and was saddened by his death prior to the release of the first Matt Damon Bourne movie. It's a shame that Ludlum never got a chance to see the finished product. When thinking about a name for my blog, I wanted something that sounded thriller-like, something...Ludlumesque.
I read through the Bourne Trilogy back in the '80s. Great stuff. I've picked up the first of the Lustbader sequels, but have yet to read it. The first 50 pages of "The Ninja" left a bad taste in my mouth fifteen years ago.
Great review here. I haven't read it all, but so far, nicely done.

Tanner said...

Me too. He died way too soon (and, sadly, in very tragic circumstances--especially considering the fate of a character in his last finished novel, The Sigma Protocol). It's weird for me every time I think that the two popular, contemporary authors I read most in middle school, Ludlum and Crichton, are now both gone--both too soon.

I've never had any interest in the Lustbader Bourne continuations. Bond kind of worked for continuation writers, because he's an agent employed by Her Majesty's Secret Service, assigned mission after mission. Bourne seems an ill fit, as he is NOT an active secret agent in the employ of a government, and he's really in no shape ever to be one again by the end of Ludlum's final novel. His story was concluded there as far as I was concerned. Also, I always liked that he aged in roughly "real time" in Ludlum's novels, and thirteen years passed between the first one and the last. Bourne was 50 when Ludlum finished with him in 1993--and totally feeling his age. I'm doubting Lustbader's Bourne is 70 now, so I assume his aging was eventually arrested? That's too bad.

Tanner said...

And, yes, the Ludlumesque title formula certainly says "spy thriller" like little else! I definitely got that allusion in your blog title. (Hence "The Ludlum Dossier" as well, of course.)

teeritz said...

I'll have to read The Sigma Protocol, if it's Ludlum's last book. The spy novel genre began to get cloudy in the late '90s when long-established authors began to co-write books with other writers. Tom Clancy was the biggest culprit. His Covert Ops series seemed to have numerous co-authors and I began getting cynical about all of this so that, by the time we had the Robert Ludlum/Gayle Lynds books, I had become very wary indeed.
Shame. These days, I don't know who is worth reading, although "Rememberance Day" by Henry Porter was a great read, and his last three books have featured the same MI6 operative as the main character.
Re: the Lustbader books, it's always a worry when a continuation author churns out more titles (in a very short time, too) than the original author. But then, it's a business, after all.
As for Ludlummy (your phrase;-)) titles, even something like THE BURNT SOUFFLÉ sounds like a spy thriller title if printed in a bold, black upper-case font.

Tanner said...

Yes, definitely read The Sigma Protocol! Not only is it the last book he completed, but it's also one of his best. Just a really entertaining read. Check out my review of it from the link above for more of my thoughts on that one.