Monday, June 30, 2014

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

Title: The Bourne Identity
Author: Robert Ludlum
Publisher: Grafton Books (1980)

It's hard to believe that Michael and I are already past the halfway mark for our annual joint reviews. In fact, we're past 2014's halfway mark, as well. Is this year flying by for anyone else? I'm just happy we're past the winter solstice down here as the days are getting longer again (even if I can hardly tell:). It's also a fun time of year as the Matariki constellation is up in the nightsky which signals the Maori New Year. It's celebrated with a weeks long festival and many different events and activities. But, anyway, on to this post, shall we?

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.
Click here for Michael's film review of The Bourne Identity

This title was my pick and I chose it for the movie. I don't even care for the book all that much (this is my second read-thru). I realize that's pretty goofy since I get the book assignment but I wanted to chat about the movie with Michael so obviously this was the only way. Ok, probably not, but I like any excuse to watch the film again and am really excited for its review. But for now I'll commence with AW's trusty format that always saves my bacon in situations like these.

At what point does an author get to pass by the excitement of consistently publishing and move on to the thrill of being so successful that the author font is bigger than the title font? I've always wondered that. In any case, this cover is pretty forgettable design-wise.

A man is fished out of the Mediterranean with serious gunshot wounds and no memory. Lucky for him, an exiled British doctor takes an interest in the man's health and works hard to keep him alive. The doctor's interest derives from the fact that he's deduced the man is a government agent (most likely American due to his dental work:) from his language proficiency and the surgically implanted negative in the man's hip. The negative (which gets read using a slide projector - hee!) has a Swiss bank account number on it. The man could be the doctor's ticket out of exile. So, recovered, off the man goes to Zurich to try to discover his identity and access his bank account. Almost immediately after obtaining the account funds, people start trying to kill the man who has amnesia. He has learned his name is Jason Bourne. That doesn't do anything for his memory but at least he still remembers how to be a spy and stay alive.

What Works:
The plot. The premise above does not do justice to the twists and turns of this story. I'd include more details but if you're familiar with the work you don't need them and if you haven't read it I don't want to ruin anything. It's a long enough book without me spoiling the reasons to keep going. Suffice it to say he is a spy but when almost everyone you encounter is out to kill you (including those representing your own government) you have to start to wonder just what kind of spy you are.

The psychoanalysis. This aspect of characterization/characters isn't as popular as it once was because, I think, laypersons understand so much more about psychology these days. However, the late 70s and early 80s are peppered with these asides and it works well here. Almost everything about this novel is over-written but don't hold that against this aspect of the book. It serves the character and plot well and doesn't feel like a convenient device.

What Doesn't:
The writing. I'm sure the not-so-subtle hints from above let this one out of the bag already but it's not well-written. And if you thought those italics were annoying consider it my way of preparing you for this title. I don't think I've ever seen so many italics in one book. Also, dozens of paragraphs started with Now! I kept wondering if Ludlum didn't have any faith in me as a reader. On top of the italics everyone shouted or roared or screamed all the time (even when being quiet was really, really important) and usually with !!!!!!!

The length. The copy I read had 566 pages and I think 350 would have been a whole lot better. It makes for a really repetitive read. I wanted to get lost in the action and the suspense but it was hard to do amidst the constant plot recaps. You definitely will not get confused by the plot. It will be explained many times. You will not ever wonder why characters do what they do. You will be told multiple times. You'll never forget what Bourne does or does not remember; he will tell you over and over.

This is a book with a great premise and an awesome plot. Sadly, it gets in its own way making it more of a slog to read than a page turner. I'm tempted to look into Ludlum's earliest books going on the assumption that he was probably more heavily edited in his early days. If his plots were always this good, I could definitely go for something shorter and more tightly constructed.

NB: This book is dated in its technology and in its demographics. While the demographics thing did bother me I don't mind books with older technology. I was entertained by the microfiche and switchboards  and telegrams (and not just because I remember using them, well maybe not the telegrams:). Oh yes, it was also written at a time when the US dollar had considerably more value.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series


  1. I read the book after seeing the movie, and remember thinking that it had been adapted/modernized pretty well for the film. But I agree that it felt like it dragged on and on, and needed an editor not afraid to be brutal with the red ink. (Full disclosure: I enjoy the movie and am sidetracked into watching it whenever I happen to flip past it on tv. But I do not like where the series went in the last film. And the science was ridiculous.)

  2. Hiya jmc - I can't tell you how often I was wishing for a good editor while reading. It's such a great set-up but it is severely lacking in editorial finesse. Sounds like you and I had very similar reading experiences with this one.

    I agree that it's wonderfully adapted to film. Not one of those faithful adaptations of course but one in which the essence of a story is captured almost perfectly while very different devices are used to tell that story. I love this movie and queue up my copy quite often. In fact, I think I'll watch it again tonight with some wine while the fire is going. :)

    The Bourne Legacy was weird, wasn't it? The mind simply boggles at the science. I kept trying to make it work with the movie's rules (forget reality) but even then it didn't make any sense. I did like how the pills were manufactured in another country. Of course that didn't actually make sense for their use (how many of these super expensive, highly trained time bombs are out there? enough to justify a factory?) but I liked how it highlighted that aspect of drug production.

  3. Well, I’m certainly glad you picked this one, Rachel. For the movie and the excuse to re-read this old spy thriller of my youth. Allow me to response to each of your points in order.

    Cover: Yeah, the more recent covers are really open to criticism. However, its first edition book cover was simple, elegant, and IMO, one of the great ones of the era (damn Blogger is not letting me embed the link to it, please Google it though).

    What Works: Again, I have to agree with your points. The decades old method of analyzing what’s happening to our hero, and the suspicions thrown his way, was something that worked well. Mostly, because it hadn’t been done in such a way as Ludlum concocted. And the author’s style, one very theatrical (but then again he came from the theater), drew a lot of fans back then. Me included.

    What Doesn’t: Admittedly, Ludlum was more of a grand storyteller than an accomplished writer. Now on this side of a relatively new century, that part was fairly clear to me when I returned to the novel. Somehow, I’d forgotten about the novel’s length! But, Ludlum does cover a lot of ground. Makes me wonder what a modern day editor would have done with this. I wonder if Elyse is listening ;-). Let me guess about this part:

    "Alpha, Bravo, Cain, Delta ...
    Cain is for Charlie, and Delta is for Cain.
    Get Carlos. Trap Carlos...
    Kill Carlos!"

    You got pretty sick of this passage, huh? I did by the mid-point in all its utterances. However, strangely, by the end, it kinda worked for me. Afterwards, I’d have wished for fewer of them written.

    Overall: it was an awesome bit of plotting by Robert Ludlum. I still think it’s his best novel. All of them are long-in-the-tooth nowadays, I’m afraid, but did portray their time fairly well. He did, too, come up with a thoroughly intriguing character. Unsurpassed in this book — the sequels were disappointing. But it’d be hard to have the same amount of fun and revelation with Jason Bourne afterwards.

    I’m so very glad you suggested this one, Rachel. Many thanks.

  4. I love your comments! It was like another review. Very nice for any readers. :)

    Thanks for the cover comments. I'm going to look up the original. And you did hit on one of the lines that got really old. ;) Did you do this one on audio? As I was reading I was able to skip over some of the repetitive bits and it made me think I definitely would not have enjoyed it on audio because it's much harder to get past that type of thing when listening.

    Glad we did this one, too. It was fun to revisit the story and chat about the plot and the movie. Thanks!

  5. Yes, this time it was an unabridged audiobook for the reread, with Scott Brick as the narrator. A good fit given Brick can be fairly 'theatrical' in his readings, but it did bit tiresome. Especially with "Alpha, Bravo, Cain, Delta ...: ;-)