Robert Ludlum is most famous for The Bourne Identity, a spy thriller that inspired several sequels and movie adaptations. But in The Janson Directive, he has recaptured the magical combination of pulse-pounding thriller mixed with deeper psychological themes.
If you’ve got the stomach to get through it, of course. Sometimes the cost of peace is high.
Paul Janson, a former covert operative and “killing machine” for U.S. Consular Operations, has been working as a security consultant since he grew repulsed with his job and quit (to the dismay and disapproval of his superiors).
Only one thing can get him back in action: Peter Novak needs his help.
Novak, a Hungarian national, brilliant billionaire financier, and international humanitarian, established the Liberty Foundation to promote peace and goodwill in the world. His autonomy and morality make him accepted everywhere – especially places where governments like the United States would be regarded with suspicion. (Mistrust and derision for America’s so-called “neocolonialism” run throughout the book.)
But Novak has been kidnapped by Muslim terrorists, scheduled to be executed within days, and only Janson’s unique skills can get him out.
Reading the back of the book, however, will reveal that the escape does not go as planned. With each excruciating detail – and Ludlum offers plenty realistic details – we wonder Is this where it ends? Is this the catastrophe?
Will the wind blow them out of the zone during their paratrooper insertion? Will the sleepy guard patrols notice them among the shadows? When the back door isn’t where they expected, can they get through the ventilation shaft? Can Janson shoot down an eight-year-old boy, or will the child alert the fortress of their escape? Can the prisoners, weak from confinement, make the distance to safety?
A million other bits of telling research draw us in and help us realize the mission is much harder than it looked on Mission: Impossible. And then:
The Pulse-Pounding Middle
The hinted-at catastrophe leaves Janson a hunted man, running from his former colleagues in Consular Ops., stalked by snipers, tailed by American and foreign agents, and desperate to find out what went wrong. And what enemies a man like Peter Novak might have had.
This is where Ludlum succeeds where others fail. He really has an onion.
Some “thriller” books seem to pile on bodies, fight scenes, and exotic locations…but leave you wondering what the dark secret was at the end. Janson dodges attackers, uses psychology to craft himself clever costumes, and travels Europe to unravel the mystery…and it really leads somewhere.
He looks up old contacts, hoping for help and information. If you like one of his friends, chances are they’re going to get killed or otherwise put out of action! Spine-chilling murders take turns with edge-of-your-seat brushes with death.
Little by little, the onion peels back…Janson pursues the answers, no matter what ghosts they stir in his past.
The book explores fascinating themes, some of them not too savory. Janson was a POW in Vietnam, and still carries trauma from what he saw and did there.
Little irony. Vietnam was a war fought by politicians, and now Janson finds himself in another war fought by politicians: the war against war.
World peace is a noble goal. After all, the book makes no efforts to skirt the horrors that human beings will visit upon each other. Yet what lengths are we justified in taking to bring cooperation, to bring prosperity?
Resentment against America as the dominant cultural, economic, and military power in the world is explored throughout the book.
The most memorable exchange is when Janson speaks with a bartender in Hungary. The bartender rants about American influence: “Our children used to sit around the fire and learn their heritage. Now they sit around the TV and watch your pop culture!”
To which I automatically responded: “Who bought them the TV? Who made you watch American shows? Who stopped telling them the stories of their cultural heritage?”
On the other hand, America has adopted the role of World Cop – and it’s a valid question whether that’s a good thing.
To see that the world is in trouble doesn’t take exaggeration. Solving it is a harder proposition.
In the beginning, the characters regard Peter Novak with an almost Messianic reverence. He seems to be the answer to the world’s problems. Fantastically rich, he’s not motivated by personal gain. Unattached to a government, he doesn’t have the drive of national ambition behind him. He is a negotiator who can speak to both sides, impartially, and arrange treaties and peace agreements better than any third-party-administration could.
And yet, as the plot reveals, he’s not all that he seems. In fact, a human savior is just what he sounds like – too good to be true.
Saint Paul Janson
Janson has been a hired killer for much of his career. Perhaps we excuse it by calling him a “soldier” or a “government operative”, but the fact is he killed on orders. Execute with extreme prejudice.
Janson finally rejected this lifestyle, leading to his exit from the program…but he can’t get away from the fact that he’s very good at what he does.
Are these professionals excused because they do what they do “for their country”? They don’t pick the targets; they just implicitly trust the suited bureaucrats who do.
Except Janson doesn’t trust the “planners” as he calls them, and finding himself in the cross-hairs of his own former coworkers is just an extension of this struggle, not the catalyst of it.
Janson justifies his killings with self-defense, or with the protection of others, and by his own disgust at his actions. As though, by not liking the fact that he’s killing, it changes the killing itself.
This seems a weak, humanist argument, until we see his antagonist: a man who can only be described as a sadist. To the villain, murder and suffering are more than the means to his end…they form an end in themselves.
Because, of course, means always do when they’re justified by the end.
Another deep thought-well plumbed, in between dodging bullets and crippling mob gunmen.
Not Suitable for Mothers-in-Law
Borrowing terminology from Marvin Olasky, there are several elements that aren’t for people who enjoy “clean” reads.
Filthy language of all kinds – obscene, crude, and profane – pepper the book. Violence is frequent and often anatomical, including some revolting scenes of torture. (I had a revelation when I realized torture scenes are like sex scenes, and don’t have to be read!)
As for sexual material, rape and references to adultery make this a decidedly “adult” book. Less viscerally disturbing but just as inappropriate is Janson’s relationship with a woman young enough to be his daughter. That she pushes herself on him doesn’t remove the creepy factor – just changes what kind of creepy we’re dealing with.
Given the theme of mentor-protogé bonds in the book, it would have been more elevating – and less cliché – for the two allies to form a surrogate-father/adopted-daughter bond. But no, the target audience of non-mothers-in-law want their wish-fulfillment. Tiresome and copycat-ish, yes, but it’s just one scene so therefore skippable.
What is the Cost?
You’ll obviously have to make your own judgements about how much time and innocence you’re willing to pay to fiction. However, I personally feel that this book was even more significant than The Bourne Identity.
While the level of human depravity and suffering were much higher, so was the contemplation of philosophical thoughts. Jason Bourne wasn’t even sure who he was (because of his amnesia), but Paul Janson knows who and what he is – he just has to figure out what that means.
Janson also has the leisure to figure out what America, what foreign policy, what international politics and world peace mean.
The ultimate cure for the human condition is Jesus. How we live in the meantime, though, can get a little complicated.
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