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  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Ambler Warning

Reviewed: March 8, 2007
By: Robert Ludlumª
Publisher: St. Martins Paperbacks
632 pages, $12.99

The late Robert Ludlum burst onto the thriller scene in the 1970s with a string of New York Times bestsellers about people who were working for covert intelligence agencies. Most often these people would face some sort of moral crisis in their work, would be pitted against forces within their own agencies, would be betrayed by their own people and would have to struggle to redeem themselves, both operationally and personally.

Ludlum wrote 22 bestsellers in 29 years, starting in 1971 with The Scarlatti Inheritance and ending with The Prometheus Deception in 2000. He died in 2001. Since then, his name has been trademarked as Robert Ludlumª and affixed to an additional 14 books, some of them with co-authors listed in smaller type on the covers. Others simply have Robert Ludlumª on the cover, and for those we have no idea who the ghostwriter may have been.

The claim made by his estate and publishers is that Ludlum, who was an actor before he started writing, left a lot of notes and outlines in his files and that other hands have simply finished what he began. So Robert Ludlumª continues to produce bestsellers that pretty much duplicate the formula he concocted while he was living.

Even the covers of these books look similar. Generally there’s a man on the cover. He’s running away from something that seems to be indicated by a bright light behind him. We can’t quite see what it is.

Consular Operations Agent Harrison Ambler is in just that situation for most of this book. We meet Hal in a government run psychiatric facility called  Parrish Island where, in a scenario something like that of the old TV show, “The Prisoner”, unreliable agents are warehoused against future needs. Drugged and stunned, Hal has big holes in his memory, and when he manages to escape with the aid of a nurse who takes pity on him, he has no memory to tell him just why he was taken and sequestered.

Ambler has but one thing going for him. He has an unusual talent. His perceptions work rapidly on a nearly unconscious level, making him a human lie detector. He picks up tics and quirks that most people would miss, and these allow him to judge whether someone is lying to him or not. He is nearly infallible at this, which is one of the things that caused him to be locked away and drugged into losing some memories

The amnesiac agent is a favorite thriller staple of mine, and Ludlum used it to good effect in The Bourne Identity (1980). While trying to find out what happened to him, Hal stumbles onto an international plot to help Chinese hard-liners return that country’s government to its traditional Maoist roots by assassinating its reformist leader. Just who is behind the plot and what it has to do with Hal are things that it takes him most of the book to uncover, and much of the story is taken up with his attempts to evade capture while pursuing this plot. He has the assistance of his rescuer, Laurel Holland, and an unlikely ally, Clay Caston, from the auditor’s branch of the CIA. These three have to stop a black op that threatens world peace.

If you’ve watched episodes of “24”, the five year run of “Alias” or the Mel Gibson/Julia Roberts movie “Conspiracy Theory”, the plot devices that drive this book will be familiar to you. It’s safe to say that Ludlum’s influence on the thriller genre can easily be seen in shows like these, and in the Matt Damon versions of his Bourne trilogy which have done so well at the box office.

There’s something appealing about watching a damaged and conflicted protagonist battle against seemingly overwhelming odds to do the right thing, even while he or she tries to work out just what the right thing is.

Whoever penned The Ambler Warning has done a very good job of catching the Ludlum style: the action, the double crosses, the cliff hangers and the pregnant foreshadowing that were so much a part of his work. I enjoyed the book during a recent pause between heavier reading. It was fun and the pages seemed to turn themselves.

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