The Ambler Warning, by Robert Ludlum
In one sense, reviewing a book like this, from a prolific, and deceased, author of conspiratorial pot-boilers, is superfluous. The book is an easy and quick read, has no massive surprises that a reasonably alert and intuitive reader could not see in advance, and is well-plotted. It is no surprise that the popular Bourne movies were originally crafted from other novels by this prolific author. Therefore, it is only necessary to give the barest of descriptions of the plot before turning to the real significance of this work and others like it.
The plot is dense, but not groundbreaking. A man is in a top-secret psychiatric facility and thought to be mad, escaping with the help of a beautiful and mysterious woman. This being an “action” book, we assume that the two will enjoy a passionate love affair but will, for whatever reason, be unable to continue their romance beyond the scope of the book. These expectations are spectacularly fulfilled. The hero is part of a top-secret government agency responsible for offing enemies of the state in ways that are not in line with America’s treaty obligations, using false names and identities and a lot of high-tech gadgets. People around him keep dying, even though he is not responsible, and he (righty) suspects that he is being set up as the patsy in a more complicated scheme, given that his identity was entirely erased and he was given a new face (though not by his choosing). The novel follows the threads of Harrison Ambler, his associates (eventually a party of three with some helpers), the Chinese, a variety of people that keep on getting killed around our hero, and some of the more seretive members of the government that once hired him but is now looking to use him as bait and get rid of him. The book also makes a sly inside joke to the similar Dirk Pitt novels of Clive Cussler, showing how the author is self-aware about what he is doing, and the likely audience of his works. The work is slight but enjoyable, and those who read it will get what they are looking for.
In a different way, though, this book is deeply troubling, not for its violence or sexuality, but for its implications on our society and world. The fact that an author like Robert Ludlum could have a successful career selling more than two hundred million copies of books dealing with “men who do not exist” like Jason Bourne and Harrison Ambler accusing our nation’s government with dark conspiracies, and the fact that such conspiracies are widely suspected or believed suggests that someone darker is underfoot. The most chilling aspect of this book is that it is even remotely believable—that is a serious problem. Republics die when their leaders or elites enshrine secrets and lies so deep that even they don’t know the truth about others within their ranks who are conspiring with hidden motives. Then, instead of principled elections between honest (if flawed) statesmen, we get behind-the-scenes machinations to ensure a weak leadership as a public face for the real and faceless rulers, or sham populists who take advantage of the lack of trust in government to appeal to the disenfranchised and dispossessed. When a nation cannot trust its government, the existence of elections and voting is a mere sham. It is trust, not elections, that ensure the legitimacy of a government. Trust appears to be lacking among a large portion of the American people towards their governments, particularly those unelected bureaucratic elements of the government. And not only the American people either—this situation is a problem in other “democracies” as well. This book is, therefore, in a deeper sense a warning about our present society and the fact that we do not trust those who are supposed to serve and protect us, because they have too many agendas and plots of their own. How many readers, though, are paying attention to the deeper warning when they indulge their lack of trust in government through superficial and slight conspiracy tales such as this one, tales that do not encourage a deeper reading by virtue of their dense plot, short sentances, and deliberate desire to maintain the image of being completely fiction without reference to the real world at all?
The other deeper significance of this novel that is only slightly less ominous is the way in which this novel shows how people view the Chinese threat. China is beginning to make its economic power known in the earth, and wise viewers of global affairs recognize that the decline of the American economy, rising sovereign debt levels, and a populace ever less devoted to civics and more devoted to bread and circus, mean that America’s place in the world is slipping like that of the European powers after World War I. This fear of China makes for among the most relevant and realistic aspects of this plot, though it is sad that the explanation of this deep fear is put into the mouth of one of the book’s most villainous characters, the fanatical and intellectual (!) Palmer. I wonder as well what significance that has as well, for sometimes the truth is deeply dangerous, and must be sugarcoated so that people can take such strong medicine, being unable to handle it straight.