Picks and Pans Review: The Bourne Ultimatum

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Robert Ludlum

"The cacophony spun out of control as the crowds swelled through the amusement park in the countryside on the outskirts of Baltimore." This is the opening line in Robert Ludlum's latest spy thriller, and that's about as good as it gets. The rest is all head-down, hard-to-bear Jason Bourne, the alter ego of professor David Webb, going after Carlos, the terrible terrorist known as the Jackal.

It's all overheated action as the CIA grapples with the enemy criminal conspiracy. By now Jason Bourne is a weary 50-year-old with one more bad plot to plod through. Maybe Professor David Webb, his civilian identity, is middle-aged, but this Bourne character—presumably an assassin on the side of the angels—has to remain spry just to fight his way through Ludlum's tangled prose: "Jason found a pay phone in Garfinkel's department store and called Alex in Virginia, giving him both aliases and selecting one for the Mayflower hotel. Conklin would officially secure a room through the management in the event that summer reservations were tight. Further, Langley would activate a Four Zero imperative and do its best to furnish Bourne with the material he needed...."

The techniques of the spy novel have been refined over the years. The state-of-the-art master, Le Carré, does this sort of thing with the easy glide of a champion figure skater. Le Carré's hero, George Smiley, had human dimensions, an endearing paunch, a faithless wife. Ludlum marches his humorless man out of the cold, encumbers him with phony spy nomenclature, then expects us to pay attention to this witless clod!

The slaughter of agents and bystanders gets old, and after a while it is hard schlepping after Jason. Or, you begin to think, why bother? The writing has a mechanical, artless, lifeless sound, even as the bodies and bullets fly. The cacophony spins out of control.... Haven't we borne quite long enough with Mister Robert Ludlum, master of the overkill? (Random House, $21.95)

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