The Scarlatti Inheritance, 1971
The Osterman Weekend, 1972
The Matlock Paper, 1973
Trevayne, 1973 (as Jonathan Ryder)
The Cry of the Halidon, 1974 (as Ryder)
The Rhinemann Exchange, 1974
The Road to Gandolfo, 1975 (as Michael Shepherd)
The Gemini Contenders, 1976
The Chancellor Manuscript, 1977
The Holcroft Covenant, 1978
The Matarese Circle, 1979
The Bourne Identity, 1980
The Parsifal Mosaic, 1982
The Aquitaine Progression, 1984
The Bourne Supremacy, 1986
The Icarus Agenda, 1988
The Bourne Ultimatum, 1990
The Road to Omaha, 1992
The Scorpio Illusion, 1993
The Apocalypse Watch, 1995
The Matarese Countdown, 1997
The Hades Factor, 2000 (with Gayle Lynds)
The Prometheus Deception, 2000
The Cassandra Compact, 2001 (with Philip Shelby)
The Sigma Protocol, 2001
Robert Ludlum was one of the twentieth century’s most successful practitioners of the conspiracy thriller, wherein an individual is faced with a series of overwhelming events created by powerful evil forces which threaten not only his life but often the peace and security of the entire world.
Born in New York City into an upper-middle-class family, Ludlum was only seven years old when his father, George Hartford Ludlum, died. His mother, Margaret Wadsworth, daughter of a wealthy businessman, provided a financially comfortable childhood for him in New Jersey. He was educated at private schools in Connecticut and, attracted to acting, took part in many school productions. At the age of sixteen he began auditioning in New York for theater roles, obtaining a part in the Broadway production of Junior Miss in 1943. While touring with the show, he attempted to join the Royal Canadian Air Force but was rejected because of his age. In 1944, Ludlum forged his mother’s name and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, serving in the South Pacific. His military career was unrewarding, as he found the tedium and the military chain of command restricting and frustrating. He kept a diary of his Marine Corps experiences but lost it when he returned to mainland, later joking that it might have been another The Naked and the Dead (by Norman Mailer, 1948).
After his discharge, Ludlum enrolled in Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, as a theater major. There he met his future wife, Mary Ryducha, with whom he would have three children. He graduated with honors in 1951. During the following decade, Ludlum was moderately successful as an actor. He performed in a number of New England repertory theaters as well as in several New York productions, but he was most successful in the relatively new venue of television, where he appeared in two hundred dramas for such prestigious shows as Robert Montgomery Presents, the Kraft Television Theatre, Studio One, and Omnibus. Ludlum never achieved stardom, and he later noted that he was often typecast as either a murderer or a lawyer. He also wrote several plays during those years, which could have been acting vehicles for himself, but none was produced.
Believing that his acting career had stalled, toward the end of the 1950’s he turned to producing plays rather than acting in them. He stated that as a producer he had more freedom of action and more artistic control in what was produced and how it was presented than he had as an actor. In some ways this paralleled his frustrating military career, in that he was required to follow the orders of his superiors.
From his own acting days, and a supporter of the concept of regional theaters, Ludlum was first associated with the North Jersey Playhouse in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He later established and operated the Playhouse-on-the-Mall in a suburban shopping center in Paramus, New Jersey. During the 1960’s Ludlum produced approximately 370 plays, including productions of serious dramas such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601) and controversial works such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1962). However, he claimed that whenever he attempted any serious works they were invariably financial failures: The audiences only wanted what was familiar to them, mainly comedies. As in his earlier experience as an actor, Ludlum discovered that even as a producer, his artistic freedom was circumscribed by factors over which he had little control.
With the strong support of his wife, at the age of forty-two Ludlum decided to devote his efforts to writing, choosing to write spy thrillers, a genre popularized by such successful authors as Len Deighton and his The Ipcress File (1962). An inveterate reader, he claimed that he had long wished to become a writer and that he had written some dramas and begun several short stories over the years, but his earlier endeavors had come to nothing. A workaholic, he established a pattern of writing approximately two thousand words each day, beginning as early as 4:30
An old outline for a short story evolved into his first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance, wherein a lone American intelligence officer discovers and exposes a ruthless cabal of financial backers of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Initially rejected by several publishers, it proved to be a popular best-seller and was an alternative Book-of-the-Month Club selection. It also established the basis of the successful formula of paranoia and violence that Ludlum would pursue in his future novels, including the use of a three-word title for each of the novels published under his own name.
Ludlum was a self-described liberal, and the plots of his novels indicate that he was also strongly suspicious of government power, particularly power wielded in secret. He was deeply interested in modern politics, both domestic and international, and his novels were always set in the present, with Ludlum asking questions of himself and the reader. For example, the plot of The Materese Circle poses the question: What if a secret conspiracy had been responsible for the assassinations of major figures of the twentieth century as part of a global plot to take over the world? What if J. Edgar Hoover had been assassinated (The Chancellor Manuscript)? What if there was a long-secret document concerning the origins of Christianity which could cause chaos in the modern world (The Gemini Contenders)? What if a group of military figures from several nations plotted in concert to take over the world (The Aquitaine Progression)? What if several very wealthy individuals arrange the election of an American president in order to subvert the United States (The Icarus Agenda)? What if an American security agency is seemingly under control of the Russians, but behind it is still another secret body planning to launch terrorist attacks in the form of airplane explosions and anthrax epidemics (The Prometheus Deception)?
Reviewers were less than enthusiastic about his characters, but they praised the level of suspense he achieved. One critic complained that although Ludlum’s characters seemed to be taken from the back of a cereal box, he became so caught up in the story that he sprained his wrist in the rush to turn a page. In comparison to the novels of John le Carré and Tom Clancy, other successful practitioners of the spy or thriller genre, Ludlum’s books are less literary and his characters less developed. What Ludlum achieved in his novels is a sense of overriding paranoia, which, in his best works, such as The Bourne Identity and The Matarese Circle, drives the plot along at a terrific speed. “Page-turners” is an apt description of his works. Ludlum expressed admiration for le Carré’s novels, but he generally avoided reading other spy and thriller stories, preferring the works of such classic authors as Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Victor Hugo.
During the early 1970’s, Ludlum supplemented his writing income by doing voice-overs for television and radio commercials, but by the mid-1970’s, with the subsequent success of The Osterman Weekend and The Matlock Paper, his income from his novels was such that he was able to devote his full time to writing. Financial success also allowed the Ludlums to purchase homes in Connecticut and Florida and to travel widely, in part to see and experience places and sites which could be used as scenes in future novels. Paris was a particular favorite. During the 1970’s Ludlum published three novels under the names Jonathan Ryder and Michael Shepherd. The Road to Gandolfo was a satirical spoof of his own novels and a departure for Ludlum, who said he took his work seriously when writing under his own name and writing about topics which outraged him.
Occasionally Ludlum used a leading character in more than one book, notably Jason Bourne, who appeared in The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum. Several of his novels were adapted for motion pictures and television miniseries; a film version of The Bourne Identity, released in 2002, was particularly successful, grossing more than one hundred million dollars.
At the time of his death, it was reported that he had completed three or four unpublished novels, and The Sigma Protocol was published posthumously the year he died. Among the most successful practitioners of the paranoid and conspiratorial thriller, it is estimated that up to 290 million copies of his books were published worldwide in thirty-two different languages, and one critic claimed that Ludlum was perhaps the world’s most widely read writer.