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Robert Ludlum; Suspense Novelist Read by Millions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suspense and thriller novelist Robert Ludlum, whose bestsellers drew readers into battles against world takeovers by evil forces, died Monday at age 73.

The cause of death was believed to have been a heart attack, according to Matthew Shear, a spokesman for Ludlum’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press. Details were being withheld until today at the request of the family in Naples, Fla., where Ludlum died.

“It’s a horrible loss for all of his fans and for his publisher,” Shear said. “Fortunately, he had been working on several books, and to honor him we’re going to continue to publish him.”

Ludlum’s fans can expect at least three more novels, Shear said.

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Authorship came as a second career for Ludlum, who was a schoolboy when he ran away to New York in 1941 and won a part in a traveling production of “Junior Miss.”

After a tour of duty with the Marines in the South Pacific, Ludlum enrolled at Wesleyan University, where he met actress Mary Ryducha. The two married the year he graduated, 1951, and embarked on acting careers. They had two sons and a daughter.

Ludlum played minor roles on Broadway and appeared in television dramas in the 1950s. Eventually, he switched to producing. His most notable production, Bill Manhoff’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” featured then-unknown actor Alan Alda.

Weary of the pressures of theater work after a decade in the business, Ludlum yielded to his wife’s suggestion that he try writing.

At 42, Ludlum left the theater and wrote his first book, “The Scarlatti Inheritance,” which was about Western business executives who financed Hitler’s Third Reich.

That bestseller was followed by 20 more--nearly all of them bearing three-word titles that sound like coded messages--which sold a total of more than 110 million copies.

His fans pointed out that Ludlum drew on his theater skills to set exotic scenes, establish character and unfold complex, churning plots in books that pitted ordinary people against international assassins, communists, and multinational corporations with secret agendas.

One biographical essay put it this way: “Ludlum argues that the hope of a democracy is educated, competent individuals, whose personal loyalties take precedence over national loyalties and who, when pushed to the edge, find within themselves the determination and courage necessary to oppose the nameless faces of tyranny.”

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Ludlum’s popular Bourne series was written around an amnesiac Vietnam veteran and spy named David Webb, alias Jason Bourne, who is hounded by a number of killers and murderous organizations.

“The Holcroft Covenant” (1978), which is set in World War II, grew out of Ludlum’s anger with an ultraconservatism he compared to fascism. In “The Matarese Circle” (1979), several multinational corporations rely on a terrorist group to undermine government restrictions. “The Aquitaine Progression” (1983) deals with an international group of military leaders out to usurp the governments of their nations.

But critics complained that Ludlum’s recurring themes and plot lines--average people doing the impossible and becoming pivotal in history--were implausible and formulaic, his prose leaden.

Dick Lochte, reviewing “The Bourne Supremacy” for The Times’ Book Review, wished for a protagonist to rescue Ludlum’s readers from their hero of the moment.

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“Couldn’t Random House find an editor with a slight tendency toward schizophrenia who, with the proper manipulation, would develop a suicidal alter ego to do battle with a powerful best-selling author for the sake of readers the world over?”

Horror novelist Stephen King, in a tongue-in-cheek review of “The Parsifal Mosaic” for the Washington Post Book World, highlighted some of Ludlum’s “strange, wonderful, and almost Zen-like thoughts: ‘We’ve got . . . a confluence of beneficial prerogatives.’ ‘What I know is still very operative.’ ‘I’ll get you your cover. But not two men. I think a couple would be better.’ ”

Nonetheless, with sales of his books averaging 5.5 million copies each, Ludlum was among the most widely read and wealthiest authors in the world.

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Associated Press contributed to this story.


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