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.
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.
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.