In reading my way through Robert Ludlum’s canon I was particularly late in coming to Trevayne. This was in part because it is one of his older and less commonly available books, to which I had generally been less attentive, but also because, published pseudonymously (under the name “Jonathan Ryder”), it seemed to be somehow off of the main track of his work. Actually reading it, however, my impression proved incorrect. Certainly the Ludlum formula had yet to take shape. Here the titular protagonist is a happily married family man for whom any extracurricular involvements are out, he is brought into the mess at the book’s center by rather undramatic mutual agreement (albeit in far from full awareness of the facts), and the book is set entirely in the U.S. rather than a globetrotting adventure. Moreover, the book’s thrills come from suspense-building plotting — from the hero’s detective work and menacing (if, in the immediate term, non-violent) personal confrontations with the powerful and corrupt individuals he finds in his way as he goes about it — rather than action-adventure, the incidents of actual violence coming late, often off-stage, and just about never describable as “action,” with the sole exception not involving Trevayne in any physical way. (Indeed, the cover art of my 1988 paperback edition of the book seems so inconsistent with the story as to merit some remark here. The image beneath the title is of a man in a suit facing toward us sprawling out his limbs as he is shot in the back by a soldier with a rifle in front of the dome of the United States Capitol — putting me much more in mind of the famous scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still than anything actually inside the novel, as if someone had accidentally switched the cover of the book with that of a novelization of that film. These things happen, you know — as the lawsuits testify.)
Still, Trevayne seems to me a milestone in Ludlum’s career. This is the first of Ludlum’s books in which we get a sense of the hero as a lone individual (save perhaps for a few helpers) up against an enemy that is truly, overwhelmingly vast. Indeed, the type of conspiracy Ludlum presented here — the reach of the vast defense contractor collectively known as “Gennessee Industries,” which vast as it is proves to itself only be the tip of an iceberg — was shortly to reappear as Inver Brass in The Chancellor Manuscript and The Icarus Agenda. It also significantly anticipated the Pentagon corruption in The Gemini Contenders and the ascent of corporate power envisioned in The Matarese Circle.
As one might guess from such parallels one may rank it with The Chancellor Manuscript as one of his more critical works — while being remarkable even among these in ways besides its originality. One reason is that while Ludlum’s fortè has rarely been verisimilitude in his presentation of the details of machinations in high places, in Trevayne he was rather more than usually sophisticated and convincing in his portrait of the conspiracy’s tentacles, and the detective work that led Andrew Trevayne to it. The picture Trevayne uncovers certainly has its less plausible touches (not least the extent to which he had it all coming back to one company) but all the same, the way subsidiaries stand in back of other subsidiaries, obscuring complex ownership arrangements and the influence that goes with them; the links between “legitimate” business and organized crime, and the extension of such corruption into organized labor and high politics; the revolving door between the public and private sectors, and the ways in which the private sector exercises public power; the way elder statesmen hailed as a democracy’s best and brightest speak the platitudes of government by, of and for the people in public to the applause of all the respectable and sneer at the idea in private; the way the “practical,” “pragmatic” office-holders make their peace with such things, and in the hope of doing some good, and maybe even actually doing so, become implicated in the corruption themselves, facilitating it; are all too in line with unseemly realities, and rather credible in the portrayal, with this even going for the minutiae of accounting and engineering and law Ludlum references. It matters, too, that rather than such things being briefly mentioned background details, as in Ludlum’s later, more action-oriented Ludlum novels, in this book — which devotes so much less attention to the mechanics of manhunts and being on the run and shootouts — Trevayne and his team’s working their way through the bowels of the empire that is Gennessee is the heart of the matter.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the novel seemed to me less visceral than some of his other works (The Matlock Paper, The Chancellor Manuscript, struck me as angrier) the book may actually be the more radical intellectually, not least in the sense it gives of such villainy works, how powerful they are, how high up and how deep the corruption goes, while this time the hero himself gets compromised and coopted. One consequence is that the ultimate issue of the contest is far from certain at the book’s end, Trevayne’s hope that he could ultimately get the better of them only drawing his more deeply into their trap. In fact it seems significant that the last words of the book are their expression of their self-assurance — and one is allowed to wonder if Trevayne’s children, a bit more radical politically than he (which radicalism he and his wife were prone to brush off as childish and callow), were not right after all about the limits of what one man could do playing by the rules of the System when he took up the President’s offer to chair what had seemed an essentially pedestrian subcommittee investigation of defense contracting and found himself up against far, far more than he bargained for. Also unsurprisingly, even after the success of Doug Liman’s adaptation of The Bourne Identity had Hollywood snapping up the film rights to various Ludlum novels I do not remember a single word about its taking an interest in this book. However, I think Ludlum would have left a more interesting and more substantial body of work had he given us more books like this one, and fewer shoot ’em ups and reiterations of and sequels to the same.