Feb 25, 2014

Book Review: Trevayne by Robert Ludlum (1974)

Note: There is no call for my usual LTA, or Ludlum Title Analyzer, because this is one of the few books that doesn’t follow the classic title formula.

What would a Robert Ludlum novel be like with all of the conspiracy, but none (or very little) of the action?  It would be like TrevayneTrevayne is still an expertly crafted detective story as the self-made hero Andrew Trevayne heads up a Senate subcommittee to unravel massive malfeasance in government defense contracts, but it’s not exactly the page turner that most of Ludlum’s novels are.  (In case the words “Senate,” “subcommittee,” “malfeasance” and “contracts” didn't already tip you off.)  Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in page after page of conversations discussing various views on government spending, but overall I still found the novel quite compelling.  While this post-Watergate diatribe (written in fury and originally published under the pseudonym of Jonathan Ryder) is quite dated in some ways, it remains unfortunately applicable today in many others. 

Andrew Trevayne is a wealthy and successful businessman with a loving, devoted wife and two teenage children.  His life is upended when he’s recruited to chair a new bipartisan Senate subcommittee on unchecked military spending, a task he initially wants no part of, partly because his own firm is a defense contractor and partly because he realizes it’s a thankless, no-win position.  But he’s essentially forced to accept, and as soon as he does bad things start happening to his family.  His son is arrested on trumped-up drunk driving and hit-and-run charges.  His daughter is set up in a drug bust.  And his wife is drugged and very nearly raped while waiting for him in a posh New York hotel.  Obviously, someone doesn’t want him reaching any damaging conclusions in his investigation. 

Politically, Trevayne is the very model of the Independent.  I don’t get the feeling that Ludlum did this so as not to alienate readers on whichever side, but because the author himself was genuinely disgusted with the two-party system and with just about everyone in Washington following the Watergate revelations.  Independent or not, the military are naturally suspicious of this outsider scrutinizing their spending, afraid he’ll recommend killing programs they see as crucial.  The Army assigns a disgraced Major, Paul Bonner, to be Trevayne’s liaison, but they also task Bonner to spy on his boss for them.  Bonner seems as surprised as the reader when the two men don’t fall neatly into the expected hawk and dove stereotypes (a relationship Ludlum attempted much more directly in another pseudonymous novel of the same era, the overtly comedic Road to Gandolfo, with its co-heroes Hawk and Dev).  The issues that Trevayne is investigating and Ludlum is exploring are complex ones, and hence the relationship between these two men proves complex as well—and ultimately one of the things that makes the novel so rewarding. 

The author is less successful at nuance when it comes to Trevayne’s teenage children.  I appreciated that he wanted to get the younger point of view into his story at a time when youth movements and anti-war protests were an undeniable force in American politics, but I wish he hadn’t attempted to capture what he saw as the youth “voice” as well.  Sure, some of the terms like “far out” and “with it” seem rote today because they’re so dated, but I have a feeling that actual teens of the time didn’t speak even then in quite the way Ludlum has them speak, which sounds decidedly more like a middle-aged man trying to write for a youth demographic.  (Sort of like when Paris goes undercover as a hippie student on Mission: Impossible.) 

Some Ludlum readers complain about the comparative lack of action in Trevayne.  It’s true that the novel falls far short of the explosion and gunshot quotient we expect of the author, but it’s no worse off for that.  It still manages to feel undeniably and gloriously Ludlum even without those elements.  (And when they do come, they have more impact in this kind of story.)  I was completely drawn into the procedural elements of Trevayne’s committee’s investigation, and found them every bit as compelling as the car chases and shootouts I’m more used to from the author. 

While short on car chases, Trevayne still packs all the plot twists readers expect from Robert Ludlum.  The political intrigue is genuinely engrossing, and many of the twists (which come fast and furious in the book’s final third) just as genuinely surprising.  In my opinion, the author stopped one twist short though.  Here I am going to discuss the ending of the book in broad strokes, but perhaps not broad enough if you’re about to read the book yourself, so if you’re particularly concerned with potential spoilers you may wish to skip the rest of this paragraph.  Not all of Ludlum’s novels end happily, and a few pack some final surprises calculated to leave the reader alarmed or stirred to political action—or at least awareness. But for a moment toward this novel’s conclusion, I actually thought the author might go even further in that direction than ever before and have his hero actually become the very thing he’d spent the course of the story crusading against.  I thought Trevayne might fully succumb to the Dark Side, to speak in Star Wars terms.  Had he, Trevayne might pack enough satirical punch to be regarded as a subversive classic.  Instead, Ludlum pulls his punches just a bit at the finale.  The conclusion is still designed to leave readers unsettled, and the character is forced to compromise but allowed to maintain the integrity of his convictions.  Perhaps I’m happier that way as a reader.  The conclusion is satisfying and the book completely works as a thriller, the details of its complex plot destined to become murky in my overall positive memories of the book.  Had it gone that other direction, I probably would have been pissed off at end and tempted to hurl the paperback across the room.  But days, weeks, and months later, it would have stuck with me and grown in import in my mind.  Of course it’s unfair to criticize the author too much for what he doesn’t do.  For what he does do, he accomplishes very successfully.

Trevayne is a bit of an oddity in the Ludlum oeuvre, from its non-standard title to its pseudonymous origins to its comparative lack of action to its atypically political bent.  But all of the author’s favorite themes are present and accounted for, as are his patented labyrinthine plot construction and myriad twists and turns.  It’s an interesting—and ultimately quite successful—experiment, and should be required reading for the author’s fans.

The Ludlum Dossier
Read my book review of The Bourne Ultimatum (1990) here.
Read my book review of The Parsifal Mosaic (1982) here.
Read my DVD review of The Holcroft Covenant (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Janson Directive (2002) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Supremacy (1986) here.
Read my book review of The Holcroft Covenant (1978) here.
Read my book review of The Sigma Protocol (2001) here.
Read my book review of The Bourne Identity (1980) here.


Quiller said...

The Ludlum hits just keep on coming! Trevayne is certainly an atypical book in the canon but that allows it to grow in ways that Ludlum-esque thriller fiction usually doesn't.

You wrote that you see Trevayne as more of a mystery that a superthriller in the Ludlum manner. My feeling is that Trevayne actually works best as a morality play of sorts. The question isn't whether or not there's a big giant conspiracy -- there absolutely is -- or what the conspiracy is -- that's revealed earlier than in most Ludlum novels. The question in Trevayne seems to be what to do about it. And the bad guys make a pretty convincing case that they should be allowed to keep on doing just as they are, pointing to the genuinely good, humanitarian things they're doing as justification for keeping on keeping on. And just as you say, in the end (BIG GIGANTIC SPOILER WARNING) Trevayne makes his own deal with the bad guys in order to control them (END SPOILER), reflecting that he agrees with the goals, just not "the method” – even though he then turns around and uses those same methods to his own ends.

This brings up something unique and distinctive about Ludlum's villains almost across the board: they almost always have benevolent motives. That sets them apart from the villains in most thrillers. I recall Ludlum saying in an interview that, pace George Bernard Shaw, he always tried to give his villains the best arguments. One of the most fascinating scenes in The Matarese Circle comes when Brandon Scofield and the master conspirator have their big confrontation, and the conspirator makes a very compelling case for his actions – and then Scofield rejects it in no less convincing terms philosophically. Trevayne is no different, and it’s actually interesting to reflect that in the later Inver Brass novels Ludlum reuses some of the same actions and justifications.

The one thing that bugs me about Trevayne is the whole long sequence early on involving Trevayne's Senate confirmation hearing. In the first place, why is a civilian being appointed to head a Congressional subcommittee? Why is the President appointing anybody to a Congressional anything? (Separation of powers, anybody?) If Trevayne was heading a presidential commission like the Warren Commission or the 9/11 Commission, it makes all the sense in the world that the President would have to personally pitch him the job. But then why would he need Senate confirmation? My best guess is that Ludlum, writing in a fit of anger at Watergate and wanting his book to parallel reality as much as possible, felt that a book about shady Washington double-dealing and skullduggery had to have a Senate committee hearing in it. So we get Trevayne's confirmation hearings, and all the shucking and jiving that goes with them.

And I’m fascinated by the title. “Trevayne.” Not “The Trevayne Objective,” or “The Trevayne Factor,” or something Ludlumy like that. Now I’m not going to pretend that the one-word title is anything other than an attempt to maintain “Jonathan Ryder’”s cover. But at the same time – and I know this is going to sound crazy – the title “Trevayne” puts me in mind of those Sinclair Lewis novels with the main character’s surname as the title – Babbitt or Arrowsmith or Dodsworth. It’s almost as if Ludlum wants us to know that this isn’t going to be about the unravelling of a diabolical conspiracy and the eventual subjugation of the master fiends behind it – it’s going to be about the lead character’s journey and how his values and integrity are put to the test. Which, come to think of it, is exactly what it’s about, and in that sense Trevayne is indeed sui generis within the Ludlum canon, and worth reading for that reason.

Quiller said...

By the way, Tanner, I also left comments in your Parsifal Mosaic and Bourne Ultimatum reviews.

Tanner said...

The Sinclair Lewis comparisons might be a bit of a stretch, but I agree about reading Trevayne as a morality play. And it's certainly true about Ludlum's villains that he gives them understandable motivations. (Except in The Bourne Ultimatum.) I've seen him say that in interviews, too, and it's perhaps nowhere more evident than in Trevayne. (Though, as you say, it's certainly clear in the Inver Brass books as well.)

Also--great point about a civilian heading up a Congressional subcommittee! I hadn't really thought of that.