Jan 18, 2013
Book Review: The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum (1986)
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!
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.
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.
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.