Book review: The Bourne Ultimatum by Robert Ludlum

I made a rookie mistake reading The Bourne Ultimatum: I assumed that my rudimentary knowledge of the Bourne films would carry me through this. That’s not the case, of course, and having not read the preceding two novels in this trilogy, I was high and dry and very very confused.

There’s so much that doesn’t add up – Jason Bourne is David Webb is Delta and he’s married with kids and also quite old. Retired, in fact, from the international spy/assassin game. Conklin – who I remember as one of the main villains from the films – is in fact a close confidant of Bourne’s. 

Taken out of context in this way, there’s a steep learning curve in the whole backstory plus a convoluted 700+ pages of plot. As a result, I’m reticent to flame the entire book due to my own ignorance of the other books. However, the plot did feel meandering and overlong and I agree with one reviewer who said:

I think it is unnecessarily long and could have been edited, to both benefit the book and the reader, by at least a one third reduction. And a little more effort into some original plot pieces wouldn’t go amiss while the editor was at it.

The basic story is that Alex Conklin and Mo Panov stumble into some kind of assassination plot and decide that it’s the ridiculously named Carlos The Jackal behind the whole thing. However – and I remain utterly confused as to the logic behind all of this – they manage to wind up an organisation called Medusa – who are not the original Medusa, by the way.

Lots of mad shit starts happening. Like Bourne stumbling upon a cleverly concealed cemetery, the Jackal following him to Tranquility island and mafia types showing up. You know what? Two days after finishing the novel, I still can’t reconcile many of these plot points. Sorry, but there it is. 

The novel is propelled by the fact that the Jackal is dying, and before rigor mortis sets in, he wants to eradicate his nemesis, Jason Bourne. And so it becomes a game of Bourne trying to take down the Jackal while protecting his family, etc, etc, yawn. Sadly, as one reviewer said, it’s like Ludlum was being paid by the page to write this book – it meanders from the Carribean, across the USA, through France and Russia. And then – as if to compound how ludicrous the whole thing is, there’s a final showdown in a KGB scaled down replica of the world’s urban centers. Jesus Christ.

What’s worse is that despite hundreds of pages leading up to this final confrontation, the Jackal dies in a flooded out tunnel. There’s no macho posturing or prolonged monologues from either Bourne or Carlos which is massively disappointing. Also a major let-down is the unabashed happy ending. There are hints throughout the book that the delicate balance between Jason Bourne and David Webb – one body, two personalities – may tip in favour of the ruthless killer. We expected some degree of difficulty readjusting, but with the exception of reflexes that are still on red alert, our hero snaps back to David Webb again with unbelievable ease.

Part of me accepts that it’s my own damned fault for reading the third book in a trilogy out of sequence. Imagine reading Return Of The King before the other Lord Of The Rings books? Still, my excuse was that it was lying around the house and I picked it up expecting a stylish spy thriller. I gather from reading around that it’s simply not the best book in the series anyway. It’s certainly put me off reading the rest of the series. 

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