The Scarlatti Inheritance, by Robert Ludlum
In general, if you have read Ludlum’s books, most notably the Bourne series, but certainly others as well , then it is not hard to understand the compelling nature of the author’s historical thrillers, of which this is a classic example. Indeed, one of the more daring aspects of this particular book is the way that it succeeds as a political thriller despite having among the more anticlimactic endings imaginable in its genre. Yet the structure of the novel is such that it has compelling drama to the end, even though the book begins after some 95% or more of the story has taken place, and then goes back in time to its most compelling scenes before the startling anticlimax of the conclusion. Indeed, one of the most important tasks of a writer is to know one’s material well enough to frame the story in its most effective way, and Ludlum certainly shows his ability to do that here, making a story that could have been Ludlum’s Nostromo and turns an apparent weak ending into something that brings a sense of relief and closure rather than disappointment, showing Ludlum’s strength as a writer of thrillers and his command of the material at hand.
This novel can best be seen as a frame story, where in the present two men duel for the honor and respect of a boy, for whom one is the beloved stepfather and the other is the monstrous natural father. This story, mercifully, is not given much space in the novel, which is definitely for the best. Most of the story exists in the past, about fifteen to twenty years before the conclusion, where the story involves a duel of courageous financial manipulation between a tough-minded mother and her monstrous son (who, not coincidentally, is the monstrous father of the frame story). This story is so compelling, involving brinksmanship and the cooperation of the government in keeping things quiet to avoid a financial panic, as well as a conspiracy between wealthy European and American pro-Nazi elites, that the almost colorless nature of the forensic accountant who ties the stories together does not detract from the compelling nature of the thriller as a whole. And that is a considerable achievement, given that this book could have been a lot less enjoyable than it was had it been written by a less skillful author.
Indeed, this novel has a lot to say about the nature of evil, in how it can be fostered in privileged backgrounds and how family legacies can be deeply ambivalent, and how it is that corrupt people can nonetheless do great good. There is a great deal of moral complexity in the world of this novel, and the author does a good job at presenting the effects of evil, and how it not only corrodes one’s spirit, but also occasionally one’s body as well as one’s relationships with others. And even if the end does come as a bit of a shock in terms of just how easily it is settled, it presents the reader with an ambivalent effect of the nature of inheritance, and how what is so highly sought after by so many and so enviously regarded by others can be a great burden as well to those who have it. This is a novel that not only succeeds as a thriller, but also has a deep moral worldview at its core, something that indicates Ludlum’s attention not only to taut drama in his thrillers but, even more impressively, a sound moral basis for understanding character in a world of different blends of good and evil.
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