A crescendo of action, from modest beginnings, just before World war II, where some monks work in secret to transport a vault into the Alps by train, having left Salonika with it, and 26 specially arranged secret documents.  The Gemini Contenders by Robert Ludlum does not content itself with a modest world-saving action set in World War II — certainly, not — the magnificent The Gemini Contenders aims higher still.  The hero is a man of means, as are his sons whom we eventually meet — they are the Gemini Contenders — and Robert Ludlum’s story veers all over the place, like a crazed racing car smashing along a high speed track, knocking into everything but resolving itself at the last moment, every time.

It’s what you want from a thriller — characters you care about involved at the highest levels of conspiracy, confusing coincidences all heading towards one big pay-off, international settings and action; global, personal, military and domestic.  Robert Ludlum well knew the rules, but more than that enjoyed delivery.  The action of Gemini Contenders covers many years, beginning before World War 2 and culminates in the 1970s, and yet does so with such refinement.  It’s a mark of the age, I think.  The 1970s was great for these enormous thrillers, and living memory almost demanded that these books have some Nazis tucked away somewhere, or at least some WW2 conspiracy.  Here we have the amazing project Loch Torridon, which may well be based in fact — it is preposterous enough.

The Gemini Contenders is in some respects an antecedent of The Da Vinci Code.  Robert Ludlum really enjoyed this style of story in the 1970s, stories that were international, dealt with secrets, and changed history.  The twins of the title have to put aside their differences in the last 100 pages if The Gemini Contenders and work to save humanity from the unleashing of an awful secret that has already killed many, including a bunch of suicidal monks on a mission.   It’s a violent book, that goes all the way to the Vatican and the Pentagon, and as with many thrillers you can usually judge the calibre of your thriller writer on the quality of the kills.  Here the kills are of course first rate, and that goes for the mutilations too.  Ludlum really gives the mutilations legs, in fact, and in the case of Stone who loses his hand right at the beginning, and the exceptional torture of the lead character Victor, their handicaps become important to the tale as a whole.  There is another mutilation in The Matlock Paper — it may have been something he had a penchant for describing, certainly it is horrific, although brief.

Thrillers, moreso than other genre works, are usually pretty firmly tied in their own day and age.  I remember Robert Ludlum books from the 1970s, and in particular from their occasional placing in my grandfather’s glass fronted books cabinet.   In that cabinet there were plenty Dick Francis, always the latest Frederick Forsyth, and other such as Robert Ludlum were included by dint of their popularity.  For Ludlum, his popularity continued well into the 1980s and the distinctive covers were all that were needed to entice a reader.  I have to read them as an adult, as I spent so long staring at them as a child, it feels like the satisfaction of a quest to own and read these editions.

That said, I’m not sure if anyone today even equates the popular Bourne films with their author — Robert Ludlum.  Nobody knows quite how many Ludlum books there are out there, but estimates stand between 300 and 500 million, which puts him up there with Ian Fleming, whom we all well know as the James Bond man.  Amazingly, Ludlum kept on being published after his death in 2001, and in the following 5 years, he released another 6 novels, the last of which was The Bancroft Strategy.

You can find everything in the Gemini Contenders, even an explanation of the strange title if you wait for long enough.  A good thriller has to keep you interested to the end, and it’s harder than you may think.  The best touches come early on — Victor’s trip to the Savoy, the horrific execution of his family — which is as well because caring for the characters help you stick with them.

And he just writes so well.  How do you describe a guy grabbing for a gun before he is shot:

Victor sprang forward over the desk, his long arms plunging for the weapon; it had wavered only for a heartbeat, but that was all he could hope for.

How do you set the scene:

He was chilled by his thoughts, not the rain.

Or how in general do you contrive such a plot that rages through World War II, continues after the war is over in several world locations and tips a final third into the 1970s, where an extra-military corps of elite soldiers are making a bid to take over the Pentagon?

This is it, it’s as good as it gets — Robert Ludlum.