Until I read The Scorpio Illusion, my only experience with Robert Ludlum as an author was through the Bourne books and I wasn't sure whether I enjoyed those because of the films, or because of Ludlum's storytelling ability. As a result, I decided to try a non-Bourne books and The Scorpio Illusion was selected simply because it was the first one I came across cheap.
Tyrell Hawthorne, is a retired former spy seeking to live out the rest of his life as a charter captain on a boat, whilst coming to terms with the death of his wife. Against his better judgement, he is pulled out of retirement when an audacious terrorist plot is uncovered to kill the President of the USA, the Prime Minister of Great Britain and other key political figures.
Initially, it seemed my fears might be confirmed: that I only enjoyed Ludlum's Bourne books. It seemed to take me an age to get into The Scorpio Illusion. It appeared very slow-paced and confusing, with lots of different characters and situations being introduced and then ignored for long periods as the plot's focus switched to different characters in different situations. It seemed an unnecessarily confusing way to start a book, burying the reader in a mound of information which is not immediately relevant.
In fairness, it is all pretty essential to explain both key plot elements that crop up later and the motivations of the various characters, so eventually, your patience and perseverance is well rewarded. At the time I was wading through it, though, it felt like something of a chore.
Once I had got over this hump, though, I could hardly put the book down. Even though Ludlum has a slightly frustrating tendency to write in long chapters with only occasional breaks, this did not impact on the readability of the book. I found myself reading as much as I possibly could, devouring great chunks in one sitting. Initially the size of the book (over 600 pages) and the initial slow pace made reading it a somewhat daunting prospect. By about page 100, it was a challenge I was relishing.
Ludlum has a rare ability to provide lots of detail (often about technical military matters completely beyond the knowledge of most of us) without confusing the reader. He also mixes plot development, character development and action in equal measure. The Scorpio Illusion is chock full of exciting and dangerous set-pieces that would get any Hollywood director salivating, yet this is interspersed with a very strong plot (which they would no doubt ignore).
Indeed, at times the plot is very complex with everyone seemingly double-crossing or posing a threat to everyone else. This is standard Ludlum stuff and essentially boils down to: Trust no-one. Yet despite this complexity, the reader never feels lost. Ludlum ensures that they always have the essential facts at their fingertips and you always know what is going on. Ludlum creates a terrific thriller that is both exciting and intelligent.
He uses this complexity to his advantage to enhance the sense of danger. Although much of the book is focussed on the actions of Hawthorne, he also follows his nemesis. This allows us to see the strings she is pulling, the people she is manipulating and this, in turn, increases the sense of danger when Tyrell comes across a seemingly helpful character who we know is actually out to kill him. Sometimes it is all you can do to stop yourself crying out "Don't trust them!" - a sure sign that the plotline has sucked you in.
In many ways, there's nothing particularly new or innovative about the characters. Indeed, many could easily be taken out of The Scorpio Illusion and slotted into a Bourne book. The main character himself is a typical Bourne clone - a retired Special Forces commander disenchanted with Spook work following the death of his wife in suspicious circumstances who is sucked back into his former role. Similarly, his support cast consists of a feisty, but extremely intelligent and capable woman and a smart-mouthed (but also smart) lieutenant. Even the bad guy is a standard Ludlum creation - a vicious and cunning schemer who will kill at the drop of the hat.
Using his skills as an author, Ludlum raises his characters above these unpromising beginnings. You might initially groan when you find out that the main character is yet another former spy screwed up by the death of a loved one, but those groans soon turn to cheers. I'm not entirely sure how, but Ludlum gets you so involved in the book, that you quickly forget that they are walking stereotypes and accept them as "real people". Each character has their own believable motivation for acting in the ways that they do and this helps you understand them better. Crucially, Ludlum also allows his characters to have emotions: his agents are not walking automatons that do what they are told and kill people without remorse; they have constant doubts and fears and hurt when something happens to people they like. He also slowly drip feeds you information about characters' backgrounds so that for every bit of information you know, there is clearly something else lurking tantalisingly over the horizon. There's only way to find out what this is new secret is: read on... so read on you do.
After an initial struggle, I really enjoyed The Scorpio Illusion. In many ways, I think I enjoyed it more than the Bourne books, because I came to it fresh with no preconceptions or expectations. . Since it has been around for a fair while now, copies can easily be picked up second hand for a couple of quid. If you've got the patience to get over the first 60 pages or so, this is a book which will reward you with a gripping tale.
The Scorpio Illusion
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012