ROBERT LUDLUM‘S THE BOURNE DOMINION
By Eric Van Lustbader
Grand Center Publishing, $27.99, 432 pages
Writing in these pages several years ago, I unkindly commented that the literary factory of master thriller-writer Tom Clancy “seems to be showing signs of rust belt obsolescence.” Essentially, I argued, Mr. Clancy had milked the same character for so many books that his material was running thin.
Well, relax and rejoice. The master of his genre is back, with the expert insight - not to mention boom-and-bang - that has captivated millions of readers since his 1985 debut with “The Hunt for Red October.” Mr. Clancy has taken on a co-writer, Peter Telep, author of about 40 novels on his own - a man who knows the Clancy territory and writes with Clancy zest. The product is pure Clancy.
In engaging Mr. Telep, Mr. Clancy is following a strategy known in publishing as “protecting the franchise” - that is, ensuring that books bearing the name of a marketable author continue to appear long after he has unplugged his PC. He is unique in that he has found a collaborator while he is still alive. Consider the alternative: the James Bond series. Since creator Ian Fleming died in 1964 at age 56, five authors have churned out 23 new Bond books of widely varying quality and styles, none of them of Fleming quality.
Under one ghost, the urbane Bond did not drink, smoke or bed lissome women just for the fun of it. Let me be direct: Of the few ghosted Bond titles I’ve read, some absolutely stink. By contrast, the Clancy-Telep work is pure satisfaction.
Mr. Clancy is also smart enough to introduce a new main character to replace the well-worn Jack Ryan, who was the central figure in his earlier books. The new man is an ex-SEAL named Maxwell Steven “Max” Moore who is working for the CIA’s hypersecret Special Activities Division (SAD). This group is essentially the agency’s paramilitary arm, greatly enhanced the past decade because of its focus on counterterrorism operations, with presidential authority to do things considered politically unspeakable in past years.
Terrorism, predictably, is the theme of “Against All Enemies,” but with an added element: an attempt by the Taliban to join forces with powerful Mexican drug cartels. The terrorists have several motivations: to share in drug profits, to recruit adherents in Mexico and to gain easier access to the United States for operations.
Concurrently, a savage war is being waged between competing drug groups, the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, with the attendant corruption of police and other public officials in both Mexico and Pakistan. (I wager that Putnam libel lawyers made a close read of the sections pertaining to a wealthy Mexican who is also involved in the drug trade.)
The key to Mr. Clancy’s long success as a thriller writer is his authenticity. One reads him with confidence that this is the way things really are in the world of terrorism and intelligence. His book is sprinkled with insider jargon. When he refers to an operative as a “blue badger,” for instance, one knows the person is a CIA officer, not a contract employee (who would be a “green badger”). How does one produce cocaine from scratch? Or dig a tunnel under the U.S.-Mexico border? In a sense, this is a how-to-do-it book for the bad guys.
For that reason, I hope no one in the Taliban hierarchy reads the Clancy-Telep scheme for attacks against flights from airports scattered around the country. Mr. Clancy’s plots have a track record of becoming reality. Seven years before the attacks of Sept. 11, he had a terrorist crashing a hijacked 747 into the U.S. Capitol. Last year, his “Dead or Alive” outlined the circumstances under which Osama bin Laden was killed five months later. If six airliners are attacked during takeoffs in coming months … but let’s not go there. Just read and enjoy pure Clancy.
Robert Ludlum, unfortunately, did not pick a successor for his brand-name thrillers before he died. Although Ludlum wrote more than 20 books and had a publisher-claimed readership of 20 million, I have never been among his fans. I share the view of many intelligence professionals that his books stand reality on its head. Indeed, although I suffer from acute bibliomania, I once jested that my nightmare was being stranded on a desert island with naught to read but a Ludlum novel and the legend on a cereal box.
The new “Ludlum” was written by Eric Von Lustbader, author of a number of readable thrillers under his own name. But after two or so hours in “The Bourne Dominion,” I was ready to reach for the Kellogg’s Raisin Bran. Pure Ludlum, which is no compliment.
• Joseph C. Goulden’s revised edition of “Spy Speak: The Dictionary of Intelligence” will be published by Dover Books in the fall.