The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

October 21, 2012 at 15:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller)


It is a simple and solid fact that any author who places an exclamation mark and a question mark immediately side by side should have his pen confiscated from him until he ceases to be disagreeable, and that anything written in his delirium ought to be treated with supreme suspicion and prejudice. Probably because of the extreme success of the motion pictures based on this book, it demands to be treated with a little more respect than any common-or-garden spy thriller. It insists upon being given a chance to thrill with smooth and professional plot twists, fluid writing and an effortless understanding of what it’s like to be a spy on the run. These expectations, however, are not borne out in the slightest.

Put quite simply, Robert Ludlum is at best an amateur writer with a totally unwarranted streak of luck. It might well be considered that the sort of people who generally read spy novels are unsophisticated boors; the same rationale behind seeing purveyors of science fiction as exclusively acne-ridden boffins. But if that is the case–and if indeed The Bourne Identity can honestly uphold the claim by Publishers Weekly that it is the second best spy novel of all time–then this is a genre badly in need of a shakeup.

“He dove to his right, spinning on the rug, shoving a heavy floor lamp toward the cripple, spinning again until he was at the far side of the wheelchair. He crouched and lunged, crashing his right shoulder into Chernak’s back, sending the legless man out of the chair as he reached into his pocket for the gun.”

-The Bourne Identity

It is not just the elementary grammar mistakes that litter the book; it is the embarrassing fact that these grammar mistakes are the sort of mistakes made by people whose literary ambition stretches little further than a shopping list. It is not just the tedium of the unnecessarily twisted plot; it is the nagging suspicion that the plot was dreamt up by a man who sought complexity for complexity’s sake. The depressingly regular fighting scenes are full of words like “pivoted” and “propelled”, and are as jumbled a bag of past, present, and future tenses as anyone might care to avoid. Reading the interior monologues is like watching a hammy actor on a stage, fully aware that the one thought running through his head is, “Act! Act as hard as you can!”

It might be suggested that in a spy novel, one should not look too hard for verisimilitude or deep and believable characters. The sort of person to say such a thing does the entire genre a gross disservice, and promotes the very attitude that enshrines slovenly rubbish like The Bourne Identity in the first place. Every reader should have a right to expect great literature, whether picking up a romance, a thriller, a fantasy, an historical piece or a book about a depressed butler. For a maladroit like Ludlum to achieve the status he has on the back of such a generally incompetent piece of drivel is unacceptable. The Bourne Identity might have inspired a multi-million dollar franchise, but it makes Tom Clancy read like Voltaire.

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