The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth (1979)

While Adam Munro was changing trains at Revolution Square shortly before 11am that morning of 10th June, a convoy of a dozen sleek, black, Zil limousines was sweeping through the Borovitsky Gate in the Kremlin wall a hundred feet above his head and one thousand three hundred feet southwest of him. The Soviet Politburo was about to begin a meeting that would change history. (p.46)

Forsyth’s fourth novel, published in 1979, is long (479 pages long), very densely factual, and set in what was then the future ie June 1982. It’s far bigger than a ‘spy novel’, it’s a thriller about international affairs, a geopolitical thriller, rooted in the machinations of Cold War politics at the highest level.

Plot – part one

A catastrophic grain harvest in the USSR prompts a split in the Soviet Politburo: If they do nothing the USSR will be plunged into famine by the spring:

  • half the delegates, led by current General Secretary Maxim Rudin (a sort of ‘moderate’, in this context), want to explore lengthy negotiations at a neutral venue (turns out to be Ireland) in which the US and Canada can be persuaded to sell the USSR their surplus grain at a knock-down price in exchange for reductions in Soviet conventional and nuclear arms;
  • the other half, led by Party theoretician Yefrem Vishnayev backed by head of the Red Army, Marshal Kerensky, put forward the gob-smacking plan of invading Western Europe in the spring to seize the West’s grain and to further the glorious communist revolution – using tactical nuclear weapons if necessary, and ready to reply to any American long-range strikes, ie are prepared to start World War Three.

When put to the vote, six delegates opt for peace, six for war; the deciding vote is cast by Rudin for negotiation, but Rudin is a sick man and knows the opposition will use any pretext they can seize to force a vote of no confidence, overthrow him and proceed with the war plan.

Such an opportunity comes along when the head of the KGB is assassinated while visiting his mother in Kiev by a group of Ukrainian nationalists well-organised by their (improbably) English emigre leader, Andrew Drake (Andriy Drak). These nationalists want to strike a devastating blow at the ‘tyrant Russia’ which has invaded their country and destroyed their culture. The hit is carried out with the kind of technical and organisational precision we expect of all Forsyth characters: the best long-range rifle, night-sight from Britain, and so on. The conspirators knock the KGB boss’s mother over as she crosses the road, but are careful not to be fatal. They know the hospital she’ll be taken to; they know the security back entrance to it; they are waiting for the KGB boss to arrive to visit his stricken mum. One shot is all it takes to plunge the Politburo into seething chaos as the various factions jockey for power and the security organisation moves to hush up this catastrophe…

The conspirators’ next step is to smuggle the two assassins (who happen to be Ukrainian Jews) out of the country, ideally to Israel, where they can reveal at a press conference that the KGB is leaderless and rudderless. This, they hope, will prompt their people – largely kept in thrall by fear of the Russians’ security organisation – to rise up and throw off their oppressors, an uprising against communist tyranny.

The conspirators are blithely unaware that a famine of massive proportions is heading towards the whole USSR unless the negotiations in Ireland work out ie that this unprecedented famine will foment widespread unrest and massively help their cause – but the Kremlin knows and institutes both a massive manhunt for the killers and a ferocious clampdown on any witnesses to the assassination: the dead man’s driver, security guards, the doctors that treated him, the undertaker etc are all swept off to prison camps, while the official story put about is that comrade Ivanenko has suffered a heart attack.

The two assassins make their bid to escape by hijacking a domestic Soviet passenger flight and insisting it fly to West Berlin. When the pilot tries to trick them by landing at the East Berlin airport some kind of accident happens – maybe the wheels touching down bumpily or the terrorist with the gun at the pilot’s head panicking – the gun goes off, the pilot is shot dead. The terrified co-pilot flies them on to an airstrip in West Berlin where they are both promptly arrested, charged and set for trial.

When the Ukrainian terrorists learn this, the leader of the group back in England formulates a bold and dramatic rescue plan, which will both liberate his comrades and achieve massive publicity for their cause. He and the original cell members recruit more Ukrainian nationalists for the dramatic gesture which will form the second part of the novel.

Plot – part two

A reformed group of seven Ukrainian nationalists led by Drake hijack the largest supertanker in the world, the Freya, as it approaches the Hook of Holland carrying the largest cargo of crude oil ever carried by one vessel – 1 million tonnes.

It is only at this point that the reader realises why the many threads and storylines covering the previous six months or so (and many of which I haven’t mentioned) had included one about the commissioning, construction, launch and maiden voyage of this behemoth, as well as a biography of its craggy Norwegian captain, Thor Larson.

The nationalists demand the two hijackers are released from West German prison and flown to Israel within two days: otherwise they will blow up the Freya, killing its crew of 30 and causing the biggest environmental catastrophe of modern times, destroying marine life in the North Sea and polluting the beaches of France, Britain, Holland, Germany for years.

Until this point the narrative had covered days, weeks and months as the various storylines (agricultural reports, Politburo power struggle, US President and advisers, UK embassy staff in Moscow, construction of Freya, career of Larson) had slowly unfolded. With the hijacking, about half way through the text, it changes tempo and the chapters gain a timeline measured in hours (‘1500 to 2100’) as the pace quickens to fever pitch.

A number of world leaders now face a complex of interlocking dilemmas, each of which Forsyth explores in his straight-talking no-nonsense style, supremely confident of putting words into the mouths of the members of the Politburo, the US President and his advisers, the British Prime Minister, West German Chancellor and Israeli Premier and so on.

It boils down to:

  • The North Sea nations put pressure on West Germany to release the terrorists, the German Chancellor having to balance giving in to terrorism against the ecological and political results of the oil explosion
  • The Israelis also have to balance acceding to terrorism with the complication that the two Ukrainians happen to be Russian Jews, a powerful constituency within Israel who will applaud their release
  • It falls to the British to follow the European line but to make independent plans which involve the SAS and its seaborne wing the Special Boat Service: we are introduced to them, their leader and all their equipment, as they make an elaborate plan to storm the Freya and kill the terrorists, liaising with the Americans
  • Meanwhile, as the siege progresses, the nearest US warship ordered to take a station near the Freya (but outside the 5 mile zone the terrorists have stipulated) has orders to blow the Freya, its crew and cargo out of the water, when signalled by the President

Having created the situation or dilemma, Forsyth explores the logical possibilities for all the main players with the thoroughness of a chess instructor or an academic paper on international affairs.

The Devil’s Alternative

But all calculations are thrown into turmoil when the Russians suddenly and unexpectedly announce they will cancel the arms treaty if the West releases the two terrorists. Now there is a real stand-off:

  • Release the terrorists and the treaty will fail, raising the prospect of the overthrow of the Soviet leader Rudin, by the hawkish Politburo faction and the very real threat of another European war;
  • don’t release them and the terrorists will blow up the Freya, killing its captain and crew, destroying nearly a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of boat and oil, creating the largest environmental disaster of the century. (It is to avert this last scenario that the President has ordered his own ships – as a last resort – to blow the Freya up, since phosphorus shells will ignite the crude oil which will mostly burn off in a fiery inferno, leaving a lot less residue to be cleared up than the raw crude.)

This is the Devil’s Alternative of the title which confronts, more than anyone else, the US President. What should he do?

The Nightingale

And it is here that the ‘Nightingale’ thread of this amazingly multi-faceted text assumes a central role. Much earlier we had learned that the head of British Security in Moscow, Harold Lessing, had gone off sick with suspected gastric ulcers. At short notice, a slightly maverick replacement, Adam Munro, is selected on the basis of his flawless Russian during what is bound to be a tricky period of negotiations.

Munro’s secret is that fifteen years earlier he was in love with a beautiful Russian woman, Valentina, who spied for him in Berlin but wouldn’t desert her family and walked through the early stages of the Berlin Wall away from him, never to return, leaving him devastated.

Not long into the new role in Moscow Munro is astonished to be contacted by her and told she now has a highly sensitive role in the secretariat of the Politburo itself! And she has notes from the most recent meeting which she proceeds to show him, the one where Kerensky made his suggestion that Russia kick off World War Three. Aware that this is one of the biggest security coups of all time, Munro immediately makes her his agent, under the codename Nightingale, and forwards her reports back to England where Forsyth conveys, with characteristic attention to organisational structure, protocol and detail, how the information is processed and then fed up the pecking order to the Prime Minister.

This back channel into the reality of Politburo infighting provides a vital source of information for US President Matthews and British (woman) Prime Minister Carpenter.

And it is here, in the vital final stages of the plot, when Rudin springs his surprise that he will walk away from the arms for grain negotiations if the hijackers are released, that Nightingale becomes vital. Matthews asks the Prime Minister who asks the head of SIS who passes on the request to Munro to ask Nightingale to risk everything to lay hold of the notes of the most recent Politburo meetings to find out what the devil the Russians are up to.

Despite being sickened at the risk this exposes her to, Munro asks her and, because of the personal bond between them, she copies and gives him the vital notes. These minutes of the most recent Politburo meeting reveal that the War Party blames Rudin for the KGB head’s assassination and that, if the terrorists are released and are allowed to make their public declaration that they assassinated the head of the KGB – that the world-famous security force is in fact vulnerable – and if this prompts rebellions (aided by the widespread food shortages) all this will lead to the overthrow of Rudin and triumph of the War Party.

And it is this this secret information gained by this backdoor channel which explains to the West the real motivation behind the USSR’s sudden threat to abandon the talks and which gives President Matthews the confidence to go ahead with a complicated and immoral solution to the dilemma. This is a plan hatched and carried out by the same Adam Munro, the man who knows his final request to his beloved Valentina has almost certainly consigned her to her doom in the gulag, and who therefore pursues his high-risk plan in the final chapters of the book fuelled by anger and bitterness.


So, does the West give in and release the terrorists? Do the terrorists make the announcement which threatens to spark uprisings in the Soviet Union and overthrow the ‘moderate’ Rudin? Or does the West stand firm against ‘terrorist blackmail’ and risk the detonation of the Freya and an environmental apocalypse, in the better cause of keeping the arms for grain talks on track? Or does Munro’s cunning and complicated plan manage to square the circle and reconcile both the devil’s alternatives?

Walls of facts

In the early 1960s record producer Phil Spector invented the ‘wall of sound’ in which every element of a pop record was doubled or trebled, which chucked in lots of additional percussion, and used echo chambers to fill out the dynamic range of the instruments to create a ‘wall’ of sound with no gaps or chinks – a solid sonic block.

Forsyth does something similar with the factual research for his novels. No name, no body, no institution, no place goes unsupported by a paragraph of factual information. Before we get to the characters in the Kremlin we are given a tourist’s guide to the precise layout of all the buildings in it. Before we meet the British Prime Minister we are treated to a couple of paragraphs describing the exact layout of buildings in Downing Street. Before anyone shoots anyone else we get paragraphs explaining the exact provenance, origin, design and full technical specification of all the guns, bullets, silencers and sights involved. Before the US President meets his security advisers we get several (very interesting) pages explaining the exact relationship between the various (competing and bickering) US security services. And so thoroughly on.

Forsyth’s background is as a high-end journalist working for The Times and Reuters and boy it shows. For stretches the text reads more like one of the Sunday Times Insight team specials, the kind of highly technical, detailed pullout they did about the SAS storming the Iranian Embassy or any aspect of terrorism or counter-terrorism for the past 50 years or so. A very male focus on precision of timing, complexity of organisation, on hard-eyed special forces trained to kill, suave diplomats capable of the subtlest manipulations, hierarchies of steel-eyed men all displaying incomparable competence and professionalism.

Nobody makes a mistake in a Forsyth novel. Nobody is human or fallible. They are like terminators all starting from different positions on the board, programmed with certain aims, and then let loose into the shiny, steel and chrome tracks of the narrative.


Brilliant at organisation structure, complex fast-moving dilemmas described with documentary realism and the hard burnish of the latest military hardware, Forsyth is rubbish at human character. The characters aren’t really characters in the traditional sense, they are ciphers in the schema, functions in complex programs. Forsyth’s novels show an astonishing, a peerless grasp of documentary fact concerning international corporations, governments, espionage and security departments, armies and their technologies. He puts a vast cast of characters through an asonishing maze of logical permutations and possibilities. The text is less like a novel than a complex flowchart, populated less by characters than by animated organograms.

Predator World

At a deeper level Forsyth’s novels have an evolutionary biology element. All carnivores have large complex brains to help them outwit slow-moving herbivores. After all, the brain evolved to help mammals survive in a shifting matrix of predators and prey, including – in the apes and other large mammal communities – rivals within the same group, rival lions or chimps, rival humans. A key function of the brain, a key driver in its evolution, has been to help us assess and outwit other animals, and other rivals within the same cohort.

It seems to me that Forsyth’s novels are designed to pique and pleasure that part of our primitive mind; the revelation of complexities within complexity, the deceptive power arrangements of human societies, organisations, nations, political parties, leadership groups. Seems to me that the webs of machiavellian scheming and counter-scheming described in this novel please a particular type of (probably male) reader, and a particular part of that reader’s brain, in a very deep way.

But the other, more traditional pleasures of the novel – in depth characterisation; development of character through moral events pondered on and analysed; imaginative use of language – are completely, deliberately and clinically absent.

Related links

2011 Arrow paperback edition of The Devil's Alternative

2011 Arrow paperback edition of The Devil’s Alternative

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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