Ludlum's Jason Bourne

December 6th, 2008

Ludlum's Bourne trilogy was well received when it was published (the first book in 1980). Ludlum was not one for sequels, so the epic of Jason Bourne is an exception to the rule, and it wasn't until six years later that "Supremacy" hit the shelves.

The Bourne story has seen a big revival since. The first movie starring Matt Damon came out in 2002, and Ludlum was willing to work on the movie and turn his creation into a motion picture. Unfortunately, he died in 2001, before the movie was premiered, and probably never got to see the end product. But for what it's worth, I think the movie and the ones to follow were done very well. There is too much complexity and substance in the story to put on screen, so they decided not to try to follow the story in the book, just make a good movie instead. Which I think they did.

Consequently, Damon's Bourne is very alike Ludlum's Bourne, but not quite the same. And the movie epic has the same starting point, but swiftly departs from the story in the book, while grabbing many key details that make a Bourne story what it is. If you're a Bourne fan, then, you'll find three parts of a story that are completely new and captivating.

Interestingly, the Bourne story is not like a tv series, where you find the same characters a week apart in their lives, with the same concerns and outlook on life. Ludlum puts 5-10 years in between each story, and Bourne's life (and he himself) will have changed a lot from one to the next.


It all begins with a small fishing village somewhere near Marseille. The drunk of a doctor receives the man who's been found floating in the water, multiple gunshot wounds in his body, a severe one in the head. At once a gentle introduction to the man without a name (who shall be known as Jason Bourne) and a crucial peg in the story - the six months he spends recuperating, off radar; noone knows what happened to him.

The story is played out first in Zurich, then Paris. A thrilling account where little by little, bits and pieces of Jason's life are recovered, and yet the struggle to find himself never stops. In Zurich he takes a hostage in a moment's reflex to blend into the crowd. Her name is Marie, she's an economist from Canada. Everything in Jason's life is unexpected and uncontrolled circumstance. Including Marie, who is to become first his ally and at last his wife.

His identity comes into view slowly, through a haze of disinformation he must fight off. Nothing seems to make sense. Until he learns at the very end that noone knows who he really is precisely because that is how his identity was crafted. As a cover. A fake assassin dispatched to lure the real assassin. Carlos. So well concealed that no intelligence unit can get to him, even locate him.

Carlos becomes his mission, because that is all he knows, all he can remember. But not his real objective, which is to find himself, find the people who cast him in this role. The people who haven't heard from him in six months and think he's turned on them.

The story is so thrilling precisely because he has this terrible disadvantage. Everyone is after him, but he doesn't know their various motives and interests. And yet he has the intuitive skills to hide from them. But there is a symmetry in the situation. Since he doesn't know what he's doing, neither can they predict his actions. He is as incomprehensible to them as they are to him. Except Carlos. Carlos knows him. Not personally, but he understands the thought process, the method of an assassin. And in the end, Bourne lures Carlos to him, but fails to defeat him, nearly losing his life.


Many years have passed since Paris. David and Marie Webb reside in a small town, courtesy of a government protection program. David's memory has not been fully restored, but his mind is whole again, he can live a normal life. Flashes of his life under the name of Jason Bourne still haunt him. And flashes of his even more distant past as the clandestine operative Delta in the Vietnam war do too. But they do not dominate him anymore. Under the supervision of psychiatrist Morris Panov he has recuperated mentally, and his horrible recollections are now a matter of exception.

The happy existence is brutally disturbed. In Hong Kong there is an assassin on the loose, a pretender calling himself Jason Bourne. A kidnapping is staged. Marie disappears. David is forced to chase after her to Hong Kong. He enlists the help of Alex Conklin, an ally from the distant past, and an influential officer in the CIA. But not even Conklin is sufficiently well placed to uncover the plot. A plot hatched by the government to take down this fake Bourne and pump him for information.

David is forced to set aside his quiet life and become Jason again. The chase in Hong Kong, Macau and China is thrilling. At the center of it is one of the most powerful men in China's economy, and government. A Taiwanese who wants to see China's downfall, and the man he has enlisted to propel Hong Kong into chaos, thereby giving China the necessary pretext to make a play for annexation, is the new Jason Bourne. A play that will inevitably put China at conflict with the Western world. In the chaos he perceives a coup, a victory for Taiwan.

The title "supremacy" is descriptive. Bourne is at his best, his body and mind at full throttle. He not only speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese well enough, he navigates the underworld of South East Asia with fluency. And yet he is so utterly alone, not even Marie to guide him with her analytical mind.


David has aged, he's 50. With a wife and two children now. It is odd that Ludlum has let Carlos rest for a decade since the events in Paris. Now, suddenly he's back, and gunning for Bourne. David's loss of physical athleticism is balanced out a bit, at least he has support from the agency this time. But Carlos out-thinks and out-schemes them all, Bourne is constantly on the defensive.

What was once a political objective to bring down Carlos is now a desperate struggle to protect his family. Bourne isn't as sharp anymore, or as quick. Ludlum has brought him back more desperate, more careless. More people get caught in his crossfire. In the distance there is a group of powerful men conspiring to take control of big business and government. They are the survivors of the once notorious Medusa in Vietnam, the Medusa the man known as Delta was part of. Decades later, they are highly placed officials and businessmen; their operation becomes an imperative for the agency. But their link to Carlos, as Bourne perceived it, is vague.

For Bourne there is only Carlos. They squre off in Montserrat, then in Paris, finally Bourne lures Carlos out of his safe Paris haven and into the Soviet Union. The Soviets want Carlos as badly as everyone else, they still suffer the stain of having trained him as an operative before it became clear to them that he's a psychopath. In Moscow, Bourne enjoys some unprecedented and strictly off the record co-operation with the KGB, courtesy of Conklin's contacts.

Marie is desperate. Not about the threat of Carlos, but about David's mind. He must not let the past take hold of him. And yet she can see how much more it drains him now, the stress and the pursuit. The terror of a strike on his family. But the ultimatum has been thrown down, he doesn't have a choice. Go after Carlos or Carlos will destroy what's most dear to him.

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3 Responses to "Ludlum's Jason Bourne"

  1. Sameep says:

    There is a fourth one out too. Not by Ludlum though. Its called Bourne Betrayal ..

  2. numerodix says:

    Actually, there are seven of them already. The new author is called Eric Van Lustbader, but I haven't decided if I'm going to keep reading those.

  3. [...] Ludlum’s passing in 2001, Eric Van Lustbader has taken up the mantle of writing more Bourne books [...]