Matlock Paper Robert Ludlum

You may be able to tell from the size of The Matlock Paper (352 pages) that it is not an entire Robert Ludlum novel — complete yes, but not a fullscale cross-generational, Nazi-chasing, conspiracy-theory-based cordite charged Robert Ludlum thriller, of the infamous old-school style.  Instead, The Matlock Paper is more domestic and has as its setting a university campus, not the most auspicious or rip-roaring setting for a thriller of this stamp. 

Still, there is far too much going on in Matlock to describe or even barely handle: gambling clubs, black militants, car chases, disguises, private eyes, mutilations, student prostitution, LSD, weed, and back alley beatings.  And all of this in New England, Connecticut to be exact.

The ‘Carlyle University’ setting is hard to imagine, since we don’t spend much time on campus in The Matlock Paper, nor much time among students or academics, and so we learn more about covert CIA ops, and then a fair amount of investigations and meetings in various bars and later some high class illegal gambling joints.  

This is all somewhat odd but it goes to show that if you know how to write a thriller, you can set it almost anywhere.  The Matlock Paper is never held up as being classic Rovbert Ludlum, but it is without doubt something that would make you forget you are in an airport departure lounge, or similar.  It’s somewhat more mellow than the larger Ludlum novels, and I was surprised to discover that this was the third of his books.  It’s also strange indeed to gather together his argument that universities are funding themselves by taking up activities normally the province of the mafia families, and the action darts in and out of some quite odd locales.

It does sound like a jumble, and it is, albeit a helter skelter zany crazy thriller jumble.  Perhaps somewhat awkward are the scenes set in the African American frat house known as Lumamba.  Thrillers always need an ‘other’ and the stranger and more threatening it is the better, but Ludlum, if you’ve read a few of his books you’ll know, has a tendency to use the phrase ‘the blacks’ fairly liberally and in a way that doesn’t sit so well these days.

I’m not sure if this out of date or not, I think so.  In the early 1970s in America, it may have been a pleasing dramatic conceit to imagine that armies of black militants were based in university campuses.  That they had international networks of these may on the other hand be far-fetched, but what would a Ludlum novel be if it didn’t feature an international network of some sort?  That revolutions had kicked off in Europe with universities as their base, must at least have made it plausible that Black Panther like groups — complete with elite killer squads — were in fact hodling open meetings in American universities.

Any shortcomings are met with the great action in The Matlock Paper.  That it may not be very believable is not an issue, although I think The Matlock Paper is a little more unbelievable than most Ludlums out there.  At the same time, the kind of drugs and prostitution rackets he describes definitely go on.

Having an academic as a character is a little more problematic for Ludlumites, as most Ludlum characters are broadly the same, and you don’t learn too much about them.  In longer novels, like The Gemini Contenders, characters are better drawn, have much more history and even in the shorter ones like The Ostermann Weekend, have something driving them.  It’s difficult to see what drives James Matlock to get as involved as he does here.  At one point his girlfriend is dragged into things, and it becomes not so much of a a motivation, so much as a necessity that he get involved.

Still however, I read to be baffled, wowed and to imagine myself somewhere else, and although the locations aren’t exotic in The Matlock Paper, they are still the backdrop for some mostly confounding, twisting, turning and often cruel storytelling.

 

Washington had been working its data banks and computers overtime.  Finally, the machines came up with a name: James Barbour Matlock, the perfect man for the assignment.

 

This assignment was to cause Matlock and his loved ones great pain.  But the soundless machines and the faceless men didn't care as long as a conspiracy called Nimrod was destroyed.