The perfect assassination, Jason Bourne might tell you, is one where there is no evidence of who did it. But even better is an assassination, or murder, where it looks like the victim died of natural causes. That’s what allegedly happened to former Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez (courtesy the Central Intelligence Agency), and to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat (courtesy the Mossad).
And that’s what appears to have happened to Robert Ludlum, the creator of Jason Bourne. Officially, Ludlum died quietly of a heart attack in his Florida home in 2001. That was what his family believed, and that was the end of the story. But ten years later, quite by chance, a different picture began to emerge.
Ludlum’s nephew, Kenneth Kearns, was working on a biography of his late uncle. Halfway through his research he stumbled upon some disturbing new facts, and what started out as research into Ludlum’s life ended up as research into the circumstances ofhis death. Ironically, it seemed, the man who lived by assassination (so to speak), might have himself died by assassination. To help him solve the mystery, Kearns put together ateam of top lawyers and private investigators.
Rhymes with ‘hoodlum’
Ludlum had led a fascinating life. He married his college sweetheart, Mary, and for many years both of them had successful careers in the theatre. Then one day, according to literary legend, he saw two old black-and-white photographs juxtaposed side-by-side in a magazine: one of Nazi Party members parading in their uniforms, and the other of a wheelbarrow-load of hyper-inflated German Reichsmarks. And that triggered off an idea – what if Adolf Hitler’s rise had been inspired by a shadowy group of international financiers? The result was a short story, which Ludlum later expanded into the best-selling The Scarlatti Inheritance.
The book’s success pushed Ludlum into becoming a full-time writer, following up on his early success with The Osterman Weekend and The Matlock Paper, and developing a trademark style that blendedcarefully researched fact and fiction into a compelling formula, perfect for the best-seller lists. Literary snobs sneered and rhymed the name Ludlum with “hoodlum” but, as a critic famously wrote of one of his books, “It was a lousy novel, so I stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it.”
Over a period of 30 years, Ludlum went on to average nearly one novel a year. And in the process he became enormously wealthy, with an income estimated at $5 million a year and a lifestyle that included a beachfront mansion in Florida, a ranch in Montana and a private jet. A significant part of that wealth had come from his three Jason Bourne books, which were among the biggest of his best-sellers.
The manipulative second wife
But then, Mary, Ludlum’s wife and long-time soul-mate, died of cancer in 1996. Lonely and depressed, he re-married within a few short months, and his friends were concerned. His new wife, Karen, was seen by Ludlum’s associates (some of them former police and intelligence types) as being manipulative. She soon began to isolate him from his friends and family. But, more ominously, when Ludlum’s lawyer proposed that she sign a pre-nuptial agreement, she refused, and threatened to end the relationship. Ludlum went ahead and married her regardless. Four years later, he died of a heart attack, and a large part of his fortune went to Karen.
Nobody thought much of it at the time. It was only when Kenneth Kearns began to collect material for Ludlum’s biography a few years later that a different picture began to take shape. Kearns discovered that in January 2001, Ludlum had changed his will, bequeathing the major portion to Karen, his new wife – and adding a codicil that anyone contesting the will would be cut out of it. Two weeks later, there was a mysterious fire in his home. When the fire service arrived, they found Ludlum trapped in his reclining chair and badly burned. The only other person in the house was Karen. There were fire extinguishers in the house but none of them had been used. When the fire-fighters tried to question Karen she became aggressive and abusive, telling them to “Get the f*** out of here, I’m fixing myself a drink.”
Ludlum was in hospital for weeks, being treated for burns (during which time, incidentally, Karen never visited him). A month after he was discharged he died, ostensibly of a heart attack. There was no autopsy. And his body was hurriedly cremated. Shortly after, Karen was overheard by the domestic help having a long phone conversation with her lawyer about the will, and the amount that was due to her. It might have all been a series of coincidences; but then, again, it might not.
The perfect murder?
Kearns’s biographical research began to take on the nature of a criminal investigation, and various unsettling facts began to come to light. Such as the fact that Ludlum had told one of his associates that a few days before the fire at his home, there’d been a probable attempt on his life on a lake near his Montana ranch. And the fact that Ludlum’s son, who had been trying to investigate his father’s death, and to challenge his will, had disappeared, and his body was discovered only a month later.
The obvious thing would be to get the police to interrogate Karen Ludlum, and to thereby try to get to the truth. Except that there was a problem: Karen Ludlum herself was, by now, dead.
So who was responsible? Was it Karen? Or was it not?
Or was it, in some metaphysical way, Jason Bourne, the man who was largely responsible for the tempting millions that Ludlum was worth?
Whatever it was, it may have been the perfect murder. Because, officially, the records say that Robert Ludlum died of a heart attack.