Robert Ludlum’s (TM) The Janson Equation

My review of this cumbersomely-titled work appeared in the Sunday Business Post in 2015.

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Daydream fiction has, or should have, an honourable place in the culture. To complain that popular fiction is escapist is to seriously undervalue the pleasures of escaping reality. Reality is tax returns and who cooks dinner – two things that neither James Bond nor his identically-initialled descendant Jason Bourne ever have to worry about, as they cut their stylish swathes of destruction across an array of exotic locales. There’s nothing wrong with fiction that feeds the dream life – thrillers, for instance, that allow us to imagine ourselves spies, or international assassins, or what have you. Much more fun than feeding the cat.

Until his death in 2001, Robert Ludlum was one of the great purveyors of this sort of escapist fiction. During his heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, Ludlum wrote dozens of deforestation-sustaining thrillers with titles like The Parsifal Mosaic and The Aquitaine Progression (Salman Rushdie once quipped that if Ludlum had written Hamlet, it would be called The Elsinore Vacillation).

Nowadays Ludlum is probably most famous for his Bourne books, which, with Matt Damon as Bourne, made excellent movies. But the Ludlum name is obviously still bankable, which explains why various up-and-coming thriller writers have been publishing books under the Ludlum aegis since the master’s death. This, it turns out, is what happens to the bestselling writers of yesteryear: they don’t die, they just evolve – or perhaps the word is sublime – into a brand.

The latest hireling to shoulder the Ludlum yoke is Douglas Corleone, who possesses an excellent surname for a thriller-writer but who also, unfortunately, possesses a prose style of the purest cardboard.  Ludlum’s own prose style never met an adjective it didn’t like; the same went for adverbs. In this respect, if none other, Corleone does the Master proud: “Hammond, a tall man with slicked-back hair the colour of straw, directed Janson to an idling olive-green jeep driven by a private first class who couldn’t possibly have been old enough to legally drink.” Even escapist fiction should at least aspire to clarity and elegance – how else to facilitate the daydream?

All thrillers, of course, are plot-machines – they want to make you turn the pages.  Corleone’s feeble set-up tries its best. The son of US senator James Wyckoff wakes up in Seoul beside the body of his murdered girlfriend, and promptly does a runner. His father is understandably upset: “If we don’t clear Gregory’s name in the next ninety-six hours, we may never be able to do so.” There’s only one man for the job: ex-Navy SEAL Jason Bourne – sorry, I mean Paul Janson.

Janson is old-school tough. “He didn’t like to be asked personal questions.” Traumatised past? Check: “He did not have a family – only the memory of one. Only the stabbing recollection of a pregnant wife and the dashed dreams of their unborn child, their future obliterated by a terrorist’s bomb.” On top of it all, “Janson’s memories of working as a government-sanctioned killer refused to fade.” Well, we’ve all been there. But Janson isn’t about to let any stabbing recollections stop him from getting the job done. “This was what his post-Cons Ops life was all about: changing the world, one mission at a time.”

So, off Janson trots to Seoul, accompanied by his tough-but-sexy partner Jessica Kincaid (“Jessie could handle herself better than most soldiers on the planet”). On their quest to exonerate the Senator’s son, Janson and Kincaid must first hack their way through a jungle of undigested authorial research. They pause in the middle of deadly covert ops to note that Shanghai is “the bustling, modern Chinese city of seventeen million people, home to some of the world’s tallest and most architecturally breathtaking skyscrapers,” or to remind themselves that a lynx is a “wildcat common to northern and western parts of China, especially the Tibetan plateau.” You can practically hear Corleone clicking Wikipedia links between paragraphs.

So what exactly is the “Janson Equation”? The publishers were probably hoping for something like “reliable brand plus hot new writer equals big success.” Unfortunately, it’s more like “wonky plot plus dodgy prose equals major turkey.” Better luck next time.

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