Van Lustbader's Jason Bourne

January 27th, 2009

With Ludlum's passing in 2001, Eric Van Lustbader has taken up the mantle of writing more Bourne books for the fans. As it turns out, he does this surprisingly well in that his voice is very similar to Ludlum's. To date, he's put out three books, with a fourth on the way. Interestingly, Ludlum left Bourne when the character was 50 years old, so to the extent that Van Lustbader wants to keep this going, he'll have to equip Bourne with the characteristics of a James Bond, or... Donald Duck. Characters that never seem to age, merely appear again and again in successive episodes.


Nevertheless, The Bourne Legacy certainly does add to Jason's life story, as the title no doubt implies. Sadly, Van Lustbader kills off the lovable characters Alex Conklin and Morris Panov right off the bat. I suppose after three stories we've had it with them? This sets the stage for Jason, who is implicated as the suspect through a set up. Strangely enough, the CIA takes the bait without ever considering the possibility that something is amiss. What's mind boggling about these people is that they never seem to know what the people working for them actually are capable of. First they train a Bourne, and then they're astonished that a simple hit squad can't take him down. The agency director, a long time friend of Conklin's, puts a price on Jason's head without thinking twice about it.

It's odd that a man with no connections into the agency is able to execute such a plot, sending the whole agency after one of its agents. But that's what Stepan Spalko, on the face of it a well respected leader of a humanitarian organization, has done. His hired gun is a man called Khan, a superb assassin whose main asset is to never betray his emotions, no matter the situation. Van Lustbader lets it slip quite early on that Khan is actually Jason's long lost son Joshua, presumed dead, from his first marriage. But it takes us until the end of the story for Jason to accept this truth.

In the meantime, there is a scheme to execute a bacteriological attack on the participants of the terrorists summit in Iceland, that is leaders from the US, Russia and Arab states. Naturally, the plot is Spalko's, with the help of the puppeteer's favorite puppets: Chechnyan rebels. In the end, Khan has an unlikely soul cleansing moment with one of Spalko's betrayed Chechnyans, Zena, through which (although Zena is dying) he's able to gain some fresh perspective on his father who supposedly abandoned him back then in Phnom Penh.


I'm starting to resent Van Lustbader. He is systematically destroying everything Ludlum built up. First he killed off Panov and Conklin, and now Marie. Marie was shockingly absent from Legacy, and now she's met her end in the most trivial and un-Bourne like way, to pneumonia. Imagine, the strong and resourceful Marie to wither like this? It's absurd. I can think of two reasons. Either Van Lustbader doesn't like Marie or he doesn't have it in him to write her part.

The more I think about it, there's something bigger going on here. You don't just kill off the second most important character without reason. But it isn't just her. Van Lustbader's characters are different. They are exaggerated, caricatures almost. Conklin first appeared every bit the single minded, firing from the hip kind of guy, but he turned out to be a wonderfully nuanced character. And Panov had great personal warmth. Then it was Marie, the most complicated of all of Ludlum's characters. She was never a flat character instructed to repeat the same concerns in the same words. On the contrary, there was much growth, and you could always sense that Ludlum had a lot more in store for her, he was never finished with her. A wonderful aspect of the Bourne stories was precisely the unpredictability of Marie.

Contrast Conklin, David Abbott and Peter Holland to the nameless director of the CIA. Ludlum's characters are flesh and blood, they feel guilt and remorse. Van Lustbader's director, in contrast, is Pointy Haired Boss. And he barely has a handle on the job, consumed in the struggle to maintain his political position and that of the company. He knows little about the ongoings and understands even less, least of all about Bourne. It struck me how odd this was. Surely the CIA chief would be a highly sophisticated character, surely he'd be clever enough both to protect the agency and run it, or how else would he have risen to the highest position? Strangely enough, Van Lustbader uses him a lot, but then he doesn't bother to build him a decent character.

But that's the thing about Van Lustbader, he can't do characters. Ludlum would never motivate killing or terror with anger or hatred. Hatred is a complicated emotion, with forays into many other states of mind. Furthermore, a character who's hateful is not hateful all the time, he undergoes moments of weakness, of shame and doubt. Meanwhile, the CIA chief orders Bourne's execution more or less because he's sick of him. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Van Lustbader's one honest attempt at creating a character was Kahn who, agonizingly, doesn't reappear.

Van Lustbader's villains are also altogether different. They go under the common banner of "terrorists". First Chechnyan rebels and now Saudi jihadists. Their objective is a rather vague scheme to disrupt US-Saudi relations. Compare that to the mesmerizing plot of the Taiwanese magnate who wanted to seize control of a fragile Chinese state, now that was a plot! Van Lustbader's villains can said to be more or less "crazy", but in a more shallow sense than, say, Carlos. There is endless rhetoric about Western decadence, but what exactly are they trying to achieve? At least Carlos had his reasons, and there were reasons why he had them. Spalko too was a stronger character. If nothing else at least it was clear that he was a puppeteer, and a puppeteer never reveals his cards to his puppets. But Fadi and Karim spend 20 years planning a "Face Off" reenactment only to detonate a nuke in Washington DC. Well, so what? What does that accomplish?

Ludlum believed that life can twist you every which way, but it does not ultimately possess you. He used a lot of older characters, he believed in redemption and forgiveness. With Van Lustbader, there are three options. You are corrupt from the start and eventually meet your end. You start out good, then become corrupted. Or, you remain good, but you'll be put through the very harshest episodes in life. That's the complete set of human experience with Van Lustbader.

A final, smaller, matter is Van Lustbader's courageous stab at computer security. I understand his motive, but he should keep it to a minimum. That scene where Karim runs a virus on the mainframe and brings down the entire network is quite sad. So the CIA, one of the most technologically advanced organizations (as every spy fiction writer insists) only has a single mainframe? He completely betrays his ignorance of the computer networks present even in small businesses, let alone huge organizations. The insistence on portraying "the firewall" as some kind of fantastic artificial intelligence is also rather tedious.


As much as the previous Van Lustbader novels were sub par, this one just didn't grip me at all. His lack of imagination is tiring.

Tiring is also his reliance on recycling the same themes again and again. CIA gets a new female director. None of the men respect a woman in charge. Yadayadayada. And it drags on and on. Come to think of it, this feminist angle has been present in all of his books. Yes, we get it, don't you have anything else?

The plot this time is convoluted without being especially interesting. Which is an odd thing to say for a Bourne story. But lo and behold, another Van Lustbader favorite theme: muslim fundamentalism. A group calling themselves the Black Legion is planning a large scale attack on the continental US. Their motive is typically weak. "We can not accept the Western way of life so we must strike." Another pointless motive that can't possibly accomplish anything, this is starting to feel familiar. Let's see, all of Van Lustbader's villains are muslim terrorists.

The other half of the story is the CIA vs NSA power struggle. This is what Van Lustbader loves to write about, the hard man in charge. Again in stark contrast to Ludlum's characters. Yes, Luther Laval is clever, but he's not as sophisticated as Ludlum's characters. He's simple minded, one sided, flat. At least the two agencies fighting it out is somewhat interesting, but Van Lustbader completely fails to imprint Veronica Heart's character on the story.

So how does it go? Pick some tried and true themes. Add a few locations, some exotic names (preferably Russian or Turkish), shallow characters and wrap it up with Bourne. Oh, and add a lot of politics. Yeah, that seems to work well enough.

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11 Responses to "Van Lustbader's Jason Bourne"

  1. ange says:

    This is a MIRACLE! I FINALLY found someone who SEES THE LIGHT as far as these bogus Jason Bourne books go! I don't understand how Lustbader can, in all good conscience, basically rewrite a classic literary character that belonged to another author and was that author's masterpiece! If I got permission from Tolkien's estate and wrote a sequel to Lord of the Rings with Frodo's boat docking in Narnia, wouldn't I be feathered and tarred for blasphemy?

    Ludlum's Bourne was a character in his prime in the 80's, yet Lustbader's Bourne has seamlessly transitioned into the 21st century and is NOW in his prime... how do the two match up?

    And, oh my god, Lustbader KILLED off Bourne's few friends and WIFE (a.k.a. reason for existence) right at the start of his sequels! Just WHAT does he think he's doing?!?

    I know the movies made up their own plot and story-line (basically all they kept was the main character's name), but I expected that. Movies based on books are rarely true to the original story.

    Now, writing sequels to a hugely popular trilogy and changing everything fans like about it is INSANE! All Lustbader's done is cheapen and denigrate Ludlum's original Bourne... I personally refuse to read any more of his 'Bourne' works and I think whoever gave him permission to use this character really ought to be tarred and feathered! Lustbader's a New York Times bestselling author on his own, why on earth would he need to steal someone else's characters? It's just downright evil!

  2. JasonBourne says:

    I personally like Lustbaders Bourne stories. I hated it when Lindros was killed but other then that they're fine books. There is one thing that annoys me greatly. JASON BOURNE IS AN ASSASSIN!!! And i want to see him prepare for an assassination and then go through with it. I want the whole deal. Now even in the books and not just the movies Bourne became a professional fugitive. He kills along the way but what the hell this killings are not assassinations. He is the predator and he shouldn't be the prey. Ok i get the whole the hunter became the hunted thing but come one. This is interesting once not all the time.

  3. Norbert says:

    How many times can Jason Bourne be stabed,chocked,and shot and still get the his opponent while he is said to be weak? And in the Sanction why are they landing in New York while the ship is in the Pacific Ocean? Did I miss something?

  4. LudlumFan says:

    I totally agree with this. Ludlum built deep characters and the new books don't BUILD on the old books like Ludlum used to build on his stories. I mean how can Khan appear and then DISAPPEAR??? I'm not reading more either.

  5. Chris says:

    I just started reading legacy and im disappointed. I hate what this writer is doing to Ludlum's Bourne.

  6. Judi says:

    Jason Bourne is not an assassin in Ludlum's books, the US Government credited numerous deaths to Bourne, but that was just to build up the mystique. Other posters are correct, Marie was his reason for living, and she helped him put the Bourne persona behind him. An author that doesn't understand that can't really write a Jason Bourne novel.

  7. wes says:

    will there be another bourne story

  8. Leo says:

    Totally 100% true....Lustbader's Bourne novels are EMPTY. Feels like one is reading some 5 year old kids fantasies. The character portrayal of bourne, his emotions, startegies, everything is missing. I can only say two words for what Lustbader has done...GROSS INJUSTICE. I have been searching many novels for the kind of style and depth in which Ludlum has portrayed Bourne. So far Ludlum is unmatched..Can anyone suggest me any novel by any author which even comes close to Ludlum's Bourne trilogy?

  9. Jacki says:

    Re suggestion for great novel/novelist, if it you go outside the genre, Patrick O'Brien's TWENTY Aubrey/Maturin novels are amazing. A viginti-ogy, and a suburb one.

  10. Jacki says:

    ... and by that I mean superb. Not suburb, where I live.

  11. Graham farmer says:

    I'm reading my first Lastbader Bourne - The Bourne Deception.
    I think it's appalling. Tabloid press level of writing. Boy's Own level of plot.
    It's Lustbader who's the deception.