Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity was published in 1980 by Robert Marek Publishers and quickly climbed the bestsellers list. In Ludlum's twelfth novel, including two that he wrote under the pen name Jonathan Ryder, the protagonist Jason Bourne struggles to find his true identity after suffering amnesia. However, he fights to defend his life at the same time because terrorists want him dead. Publishers translated The Bourne Identity into nine languages, and formatted it to audiocassette and videocassette due to its immense popularity. However, this book received little subsequent reception and does not stand out among Ludlum's assortment of bestsellers, therefore begging the question- What does The Bourne Identity teach us about bestsellers? Ludlum is one of six writers who held the top spot in more than 650 of the first 2,600 weeks of the bestsellers list. John Le Carre, who also made this list, and Sydney Sheldon also earned fame for their spy novels. These authors have proven that the spy genre can lead to bestsellers. However, novels can fit into many categories that often produce bestsellers. The Bourne Identity's bestseller status shows its ability to fit several of these categories in addition to genre. It shows that a book can become a bestseller for such factors as creating a David versus Goliath theme, bringing in contemporary history, taking advantage of the author's name recognition, developing an unlikely romance, and appealing to a wide age group. Robert Ludlum has created a successful formula for his novels, and even though this formula is often criticized, his recipe combines the right ingredients for a bestseller.
The Bourne Identity fits under the spy genre. Ian Flemming's James Bond novels served as a catalyst for this genre, and John Le Carre earned recognition for such suspense thrillers as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, in the 1960s and 1970s. Why does this genre generate so many bestsellers? Spy novels take on a David versus Goliath feel. The spy protagonist must face off against an entire enemy all by himself. Jason Bourne is rescued after being severely injured and rendered completely amnesiac. He does not know who he is or where he is, but he takes clues to piece together his identity, realizing that the world's top professional killer, Carlos, has a death wish for him. Ludlum adapts the "me against the world" mentality by making Bourne an amnesiac. Because everything is new to him, his enemy has the home field advantage no matter where Bourne is. Bourne's girlfriend, instincts, and skills acquired while in Vietnam are his only help against Carlos and CIA agents who secretly manipulate him.
Moreover, the spy genre fits under the category of suspense, which is a broader category of bestsellers. The Bourne Identity teaches readers that best selling suspense novels must make the reader want to continue reading. Reviews of this book repeatedly praise Ludlum's ability to draw readers into the novel early. In one book review, Peter Andrews writes, "The Bourne Identity represents Mr. Ludlum at his most breakneck. In the first two paragraphs of his preface, he manages to snuff out three espionage agents and unleash a secret international terrorist killer to prey on the flanks of the Free World." Other authors have found success in their ability to hold readers' interests. Many reviewers praised Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle for its high paced action and lauded Follett's ability to keep readers on the edge their seats. Newsweek's P.S Prescott commends the book for, "its remarkable pace, its astute use of violence, and sense of particular environments" (Maurer). This recognition is similar to The Bourne Identity's praise. Sidney Sheldon also falls into the category of authors who instantly seize readers' attention. According to a New York Times Book Review description of Sheldon's Master of the Game "may be literary junk, it is hard to put down once you get started" (McCown). These authors discovered that starting off strong increases the chances that readers will enjoy their books.
Bestsellers often bring in contemporary historical events to increase their popularity. The early 1980s saw a rise in the terrorist saga in the thriller genre. In the spring of 1980, there were more than twelve such novels. The Bourne Identity brings in the real life personality of Carlos, a.k.a. Ilyich Ramírez Sánchez, a terrorist wanted by law since 1970. Although he was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 for murdering three men, authorities blame him for more than 80 killings and hundreds of injuries around the world during the 1970s and early 1980s. The Bourne Identity begins with a preface that includes two newspaper articles written in 1975. The first comes from the front page of The New York Times and the second from the Associated Press. Each introduces Carlos, connects him with terrorism across Europe, and ends by stating that this dangerous killer remains on the loose. These articles serve the purpose of generating fear and tension by refreshing the reader's memories. Because Carlos is a real man, readers also have a deeper desire to see him defeated. They have read about him in newspapers, and have heard stories about him on television and radio so they feel a deeper antagonism toward him.
Other best selling novelists find success with incorporating contemporary events. Simon and Schuster note that in Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger, the plot is "as up to the minute as today's headlines and as frightening" (Bosler). A review in the Christian Science Monitor notes how this book relates with many of the questions that made headlines at the time. Sidney Sheldon also employs contemporary events. Although his characters and events are fictional, the background is real. Rage of Angels, written in 1980, has controversial implications about the Mafia and the New York Criminal Justice System, (Caples). By using events from the headlines, authors already have free and built in advertising because readers know something about the novel.
Bestsellers often take advantage of name recognition of the author. The Bourne Identity spent 95 weeks on the bestseller list largely because of Robert Ludlum's name. By 1980, Ludlum established himself as a suspense writer. The Bourne Identity teaches us that bestsellers take advantage of the name recognition in their advertising. The cover of the book shows Ludlum's name in large letters at the top. Then a piece of artwork divides his name with the title, which is written across the bottom. This layout has an effect such that readers first easily spot Ludlum's name, and then see the title. Ludlum keeps this layout for several of his novel's covers, trivializing the importance of the title because "Ludlum" has become a brand name that readers now identify with. This also explains why his novels' popularity remains so brief. Ludlum wrote prolifically; he wrote around one novel per year in the 1980s. Because of Ludlum's name recognition, once he releases a new book, the previous bestseller gets bumped off the list.
Ludlum's name recognition, coupled with the newspaper articles about Carlos, help eliminate the need for promotion. The Bourne Identity received little promotion; however, the book gained a spot on the national and Washington Post bestsellers lists before it was officially published on March 26, 1980. Because Ludlum stayed true to his genre of suspense thrillers, readers knew what type of book they were getting. They have seen his name atop the bestseller list since 1971; therefore his fans equate his name with a good book.
The Bourne Identity also shows that bestsellers can develop an unlikely romance to increase readers' interest. Jason Bourne meets Marie St. Jacques, a Canadian economist, then immediately proceeds to kidnap her and threaten her life. However, "despite the rough treatment, she naturally falls in love with [him]" (Winks). Although Bourne needs someone to help him uncover his past, their pairing seems far-fetched after their unorthodox introduction. This unlikely romance serves a great purpose for Ludlum though. "The presence of Marie allows Ludlum to suspend the use of the rhetorical questions that mar his earlier fiction" (Skarda). Marie helps Jason through her contacts and knowledge. Critics attack Ludlum's chaste love scenes throughout his novels, but in The Bourne Identity, Jason and Marie's love affair serves as a literary vehicle for Ludlum. Ludlum does not allow Marie to get in the way of Bourne's adventures and bog down the novel though.
Authors must always remember their audience and cater to them. Ludlum's first novel, The Scarlatti Inheritance, sets a standard for his fiction that each of his later works have built on. In a 1982 review of The Parsifal Mosaic, Susan Isaacs writes, "A Ludlum novel is to an adult what a roller coaster is to a child: a controlled thrill. Hearts pump, stomachs knot and no one gets hurt. It is not to everyone's taste, but for those who delight in a safe surge of adrenalin, it's great fun." Ludlum caters to adolescent fantasies such as saving the world, winning the girl, and defeating the evil enemy. Males love Ludlum's books, which helps explain why his romance scenes are so chaste. If readers want to read about profound love affairs, they would read a romance. Because Ludlum's novels cater to adolescent boys all the way to elderly men, his fan base is broader, facilitating The Bourne Identity's rise up the bestsellers list. Ludlum's broad audience expands globally too. The Bourne Identity shows that Americans as well as people from all over the world enjoy suspense novels because it has been translated 26 times. Ludlum's first thirteen novels have been published in twenty-three countries and seventeen languages.
In addition to Ludlum's treatment of women in his novels, Ludlum caters to the male audience by his details. He describes the weapons that his characters use and the settings on which the action occurs. For example, he writes: "[An enemy] on the left had his right hand on the cloth of his raincoat. When he pulled it out he was holding a gun, a black .38 caliber automatic pistol with a perforated cylinder attached to the barrel. A silencer," (Ludlum, 58). This description serves several purposes. First, Ludlum heightens the suspense because readers learn that the protagonist faces a dangerous situation, but they must read through the description before encountering the action. Ludlum is careful rations his details to keep the story moving forward, however. Also, this description adds credibility to the scene. The quote describes a scene in which the protagonist is in a public building, so Ludlum must make readers believe that the enemy has a reasonable chance of killing Bourne without being caught by the public. Therefore he supplies the enemy with a small pistol with a silencer, a seemingly appropriate weapon for the situation. This passage shows that bestsellers must keep the audience in mind.
Critics attack Ludlum's writing as formulaic; however, his formula has proven successful time and time again. The Bourne Identity adheres to specific categories that produce bestsellers, demonstrating that a book can become hugely popular by following certain trends. While readers' recognition of Ludlum's name remains the largest factor in this novel reaching the top of the bestseller list, Ludlum's ability to bring in contemporary news, to abide by the guidelines of the spy-suspense genre, to create and maintain a large fan base, and to develop an unlikely romance all show that bestsellers can rely on various methods of raising its popularity.
Andrews, Peter. "Momentum is Everything" The New York Times Book Review
Bosler, Meredith. Database Entry on Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger.
Caples, Kate. Database Entry on Sidney Sheldon's Rage of Angels. Assignment 3.
Isaacs, Susan. Current Biography 1982, p. 250
Ludlum, Robert. The Bourne Identity. New York: Bantam, 1986.
Skarda, Patricia. "Robert Ludlum" The Dictionary of Literary Biography. 1982.
Maurer, Geoffrey. Database Entry on Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle. Assignment 4.
McCown, Stacy. Database Entry on Sidney Sheldon's Master of the Game. Assignment
4. http://www.engl.virginia.edu:8000/courses/bestsellers/picked.books.cgi, 5/1/00.
Winks, Robin W. New Republic: 11/25/1981, p. 38.