Of all the thriller writers I’ve been reading, Forsyth’s come closest to the Wikipedia definition of ‘airport novels’. They are big (this one has 506 pages), with shiny covers embossed with the author’s name bigger than the title (branding), the plot is long and complex and absolutely stuffed with factual background, all of which you completely forget the second you put it down.
Like The Fourth Protocol, the plot begins in the present and goes forward into an increasingly hypothetical (and, as it turns out, completely inaccurate) future, dealing with the highest possible international politics – the superpower relationship between the USA and the USSR. This one goes on through 1990 and 1991 ie into the future relative to when it was published.
In this parallel universe Ronald Reagan wasn’t succeeded as US President by George Bush Snr but by a tall, noble academic, John Cormack. He meets and gets on amazingly well with Russia’s new young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and they both move their nations towards a massive arms reduction deal, named the Nantucket Plan, after the East Coast American resort where they meet and agree it.
But elements in both countries are, predictably, unhappy.
In the US a top oil man, Cyrus Miller, having received a report claiming the US will run out of oil in 30 years, sets in train a wild conspiracy to have Iranian terrorists assassinate the entire House of Saud in Saudi Arabia and set up a fundamentalist Shia regime in the country. The other countries in the region will beg the USA to intervene and overthrow it, after which they’ll be able to impose their own ‘puppet’ Arab leader who will give the US preferential oil deals forever. Sounds realistic, eh?
Miller and his rich, mad Yankee colleagues call themselves the Alamo Group and the plan to overthrow the Saudis in what they dub Plan Bowie. But they realise a major stumbling block to the scheme is the decent honourable man who sits in the White House. He must be undermined somehow. This is doubly advantageous since the patriots among them think Cormack must be a commie for making a deal with Gorbachev. And they are able to recruit some very senior arms manufacturers into the conspiracy, since they will suffer badly if the government stops buying their expensive weaponry. With all this motivation, the Group hire lobbyists and brief tame politicians to start a whispering campaign against Cormack.
But one of the wilder of the conspirators hires an ex-CIA maverick, Irving Moss (it turns out, a known torturer and fan of child pornography), who devises a much quicker, more vicious approach. Known only to a handful of the Alamo, Moss hires some ruthless European mercenary soldiers to kidnap the President’s son, Simon Cormack, who is on a year’s study at Oxford University.
On page 97, Simon is out on his usual early morning country run – as so many American scholars to Oxford he is a very fit athlete as well as an intellectual achiever – when he is ambushed by a group of balaclavaed men. They leap out of an innocent-looking grocer’s van, brutally machine gun the Special Branch and CIA guards following Simon and bundle him into the back of the van. This then trundles off through the countryside to a nearby farm, where they switch to a saloon car and drive fast down to London, round the M25, and out to an anonymous house in an anonymous estate in an anonymous town where they lock Simon in a purpose-built cellar-cum-dungeon and settle down for the negotiations.
For the next 200 pages, from roughly page 100 to page 300, the novel is as exciting and nailbiting as The Day of The Jackal, easily the best, most involving prose Forsyth had written since then. He gives one of his characteristically thorough, hugely well-informed and completely convincing accounts of how alarm bells ring with the local police, the Special Branch, the Met, the SAS, how Whitehall is alerted and the Prime Minster woken up to phone the US President in person, and all branches of US security dragged out of their beds to deal with the crisis.
The man they call, simply, Quinn
Even the deployment of some hefty clichés doesn’t disturb the drive of the narrative. For when the President asks his cabinet who is the best hostage negotiator in the country, the head of the CIA says there’s only one man for the job, the man they call simply – Quinn. ‘But Mr President, I warn you he’s a maverick’. Yes, he’s a tough-minded loner who insists on doing it his own way etc. A lot later in the book, a hotel receptionist thinks to herself that Quinn ‘looked a bit like that gentleman who was always asking people to make his day’ (p.264) and the scenes where we track down Quinn to the quiet Spanish village where he has retired to reminded me of the opening of Clint Eastwood’s movie Firefox (1982), in which the Army/CIA etc come begging the grizzled old vet to come out of retirement ‘to do one last job’. ‘Your country needs you Bob [Hank, Chuck, Quinn etc]’.
Despite the corniness of many elements – Quinn is assigned two CIA minders, one a naive young newbie (McCrea), one a stunning young woman who he ends up falling in love with (Sam Somerville) – the description of his recruitment and briefing and transport to London, the setting up of a safe house, the elaborate wiring and phone tapping laid on by the CIA and MI5 and then the genuinely nerve-racking negotiations with the tough, professional kidnappers is all brilliantly and meticulously described.
I was willing the final exchange of hostage and ransom to go smoothly and was genuinely devastated when it goes very badly wrong, devastatingly wrong, with the horrible murder of the young American.
Part two – payback
Quinn is not exactly implicated in young Simon’s death, but he is widely blamed for his unconventional and maverick approach and so he drops off the radar for part two of the novel in which he and the gorgeous, nubile CIA agent Sam Somerville set about tracking down the kidnappers.
Again with meticulous and in-depth background research Forsyth lays a fascinating trail for them to follow across northern Europe as the kidnappers are revealed to be mercenaries who met in Africa during various post-colonial wars, most notably in the Congo. (The background here overlaps with the deep knowledge of the subject Forsyth displayed in his ‘manual for mercenaries’, The Dogs of War.)
The tiny clue which gives them away is that Quinn spotted on one of the hands of the otherwise hooded and anonymous men, the tattoo of a spider and web, the symbol of one of the African mercenary groups, and which explains the spider in a web logo on all versions of the novel’s cover.
But, despite their brilliant detective work and calling in favours from well-placed policemen in Belgium, Germany and Holland, Quinn and Sam arrive at each location only to find the man they want already assassinated. Someone is one step ahead of them and liquidating the witnesses.
The President Quinn needs to be replaced
Meanwhile, in a separate strand, forensic scientists in Britain have established beyond doubt that the small bomb used to blow up poor Simon Cormack was manufactured in every detail in the Soviet Union. ‘Accidentally’ leaked to the press and TV, this revelation causes a storm of indignation – the President’s son murdered by the commies!! – with Soviet embassies attacked and burned in US cities etc and the whole arms reduction, Nantucket Treaty, in tatters. Excellent news – for the military and arms manufacturers.
Meanwhile, Plan Bowie has had exactly the effect on the President which its wicked progenitors intended, and he is photographed at his son’s funeral, a broken man, and is almost incapable of governing in the weeks that follow. Slowly his cabinet realises they might have to invoke Amendment 25 of the US Constitution, which allows them to relieve the President of his duties. So Quinn and Sam’s travels around Europe in quest of the kidnappers are set against the timeline to the President’s deposition in Washington.
On Quinn’s tail
When they finally track down the leader of the kidnappers – ‘Zack’ – to a bar in Paris they barely have time to establish that a) they didn’t murder the President’s son b) they took detailed instructions from ‘that fat man’, before assassins riddle the bar with Armalite bullets, killing Zack with Quinn and Sam only just escaping through the back and over the wall.
Quinn realises their steps are being tracked and they locate a tracker and bug which have somehow been placed in the handbag Sam bought in London. Aha. That’s how the bad guys were always one step ahead – they were listening to Quinn and Sam working out the location of each of the kidnappers, then beating them to the man in time to execute him.
Quinn despatches Sam to a safe house on the Costa del Sol (minded by some London gangland crooks who owe him a few favours) and goes after the last of the suspects, a hardened Corsican mafia boss, Orsini, holed up in his tiny village in the mountains of Corsica. This sequence is powerfully described – the attempt to assassinate Quinn in his village hotel room (which he foils), followed by his tracking of the man through the dense underbrush on the mountainside, the famous maquis.
Quinn is kidnapped
But in the inevitable shootout Orsini dies without revealing the name of ‘the fat man’ who hired them all, the trail goes cold and Quinn heads back to London, dejected. He has only just arrived in a taxi from Heathrow and is walking up the steps to the hotel he’s booked into when a posh Englishman stabs him in the leg with a poisoned umbrella tip, then and asks the hotel staff to help carry a collapsing Quinn into a waiting car.
Quinn wakes up in a cell and for a moment thinks he has been kidnapped by the gang or whoever is behind them. But he is treated civilly and brought upstairs into the stylish surroundings of – the Russian embassy in Kensington! The urbane and civilised Russian KGB colonel apologises for abducting him like this, but the Russians are very upset at being framed like this. They have tracked down a party of Americans who flew to Yugoslavia a few months earlier, and then took a helicopter to Baku. Here they visited a weapons research centre. The Russians now think this was by agreement with the Head of KGB South (himself now under arrest) and it was here they got the parts necessary to build the micro-bomb into the leather belt which Orsini gave Simon Cormack to wear, along with clean jeans and T-shirt just before he was released. The KGB man shows him all the photographic and documentary evidence and Quinn believes him.
The Russians now give Quinn a new identity, a new haircut, a Canadian passport and money, instruct him to fly to Dublin, then to Canada, then travel into America and find the men who organised the kidnap and publish the truth. Quinn accepts.
Quinn flies into Canada then makes his way across the border and holes up in a log cabin high in the mountains of Vermont where at this time of year (November) it is absolutely freezing cold and deep in snow – think the Alps or Siberia. From here he sends several messages: one a phone call to Sam designed to be intercepted, telling her the trail has gone cold. Another is a letter he arranges to be delivered her by hand telling her to bring his trusted friend David Weintraub up to the Vermont retreat, where they can plan how to track down the mysterious ‘fat man’.
Except that this message, also, was intercepted and the fat man comes to him. Sam dutifully collects the person she is told is David Weintraub, along with the junior CIA agent (McCrea) assigned to stay with Quinn in his hotel room all those weeks before. But as Quinn steps out of the cabin into the snow to greet the arriving car, it is not Weintraub but the psychopath Irving Moss who steps out, pointing a gun at him. And the innocent, youthful-looking Duncan McCrea pulls a gun too. Turns out they met in Central America, on one of the US’s countless dirty assignments, discovered they shared a taste for torture and assassination, and Moss recruited McCrea to the CIA (before he was himself sacked).
So McCrea, in Quinn’s room all through the negotiations, was a hired hand of Moss and therefore of the Alamo Conspiracy all along. Now Moss interrogates Quinn for everything he knows, realises he doesn’t know the identities of the men at the top, no harm has been done and so takes him out into the snowdrift woods at the back of the hut to execute him then throw his body into a crevasse. Except that a shot rings out and it is Moss who falls to the ground, gushing blood. Crikey. In a brilliantly preposterous, witty and laugh-out loud moment, it turns out it is the ‘posh Englishman’ – Andrei – who stabbed Quinn with the poisoned umbrella tip back in London. The KGB colonel who had briefed Quinn and given him his Canadian passport back in London, had already revealed that Andrei the Cossack was one of his best operatives; now we learn that Andrei tailed Quinn to Canada, then Vermont, and has been staking out his cabin for precisely such an eventuality.
Quinn called across to him.
‘As they say in your country, spasibo.’
The man’s half-frozen face gave a flicker of a smile. When he spoke, Andrei the Cossack still used the tones of London’s clubland.
‘As they say in your country, old boy, have a nice day.’ (p.483)
Sometimes you wonder whether Forsyth is testing how preposterous he can make his plots before the reader puts down the book in disgust. Quinn takes the dead man’s rifle and returns to find the baby-faced sadist McCrea has got as far as stripping Sam naked, tying her to the bed face down and is about to start whipping her with wire. Quinn shoots him dead, unties Sam and cradles her as she cries, which she does for days.
Sam returns to Washington while Quinn searches Moss’s body and comes up with an ancient address book. All the names and numbers are in code. In these last few pages, Quinn works in partnership with Sam, working out permutations of the code, then communicating over a safe line to get Sam to check the numbers in Washington. Finally, a likely contender emerges, a phone number in the prestigious Georgetown district.
Quinn phones this number, pretending to be Moss and the voice at the other end acknowledges him. Bingo! It’s their man. Quinn/Moss demands more money. The voice at the other end hesitates, and then agrees. Quinn recognises it now. It belongs to a member of the President’s cabinet, a close personal adviser. My God, he was behind the whole thing. Forsyth doesn’t identify him, to keep the tension up.
Now Moss/Quinn claims he has liquidated Quinn and the girl but found a manuscript which tells the whole story. He wants more money to hand it over. The voice reluctantly agrees and they arrange a meeting after midnight near the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall. There is an atmospheric sequence in which Quinn stakes out the VIP’s house and then quietly follows his long limousine to the rendezvous.
When the nervous VIP sees it is Quinn and not Moss come to meet him, he nearly wets himself. There is a classic ‘recognition’ scene where he admits full responsibility for the entire conspiracy, saying it had to be done, President Cormack has to be brought down in order to save the US of A. He hands over the check for $5 million and Quinn gives him a (worthless) manuscript. He is more relaxed and feeling safe when Quinn says he got a cab there and asks for a lift, so the now-relieved man says sure, my limousine is just over here…
In the final scenes Quinn phones the President (who had given him his personal number during the hostage negotiations) and tells him to take receipt of the manuscript he’s couriering over. A few days later the President chairs a meeting of his cabinet. a) He is completely restored to his old self, masterful, in control. b) The assembled forces of CIA, FBI, various security forces, all confirm every detail of Quinn’s report down to the make of the bullets at each execution scene. It was not the Russians. It was a homegrown cadre of lunatic right-wing conspirators. c) We see the conspirators being rounded up and arrested or managing to commit suicide as the cops arrive, including the men who had been planning the mad coup in Saudi Arabia. d) The President’s men unanimously agree Quinn was completely right all the way through and did as much as any man could do. e) The President calls off the manhunt for Quinn. Let him go free.
In the final scene Quinn boards a BA flight to Spain, He is going back to tend his vineyard. He is met by his beloved Sam. Yes she will come with him to Spain, yes she will marry him. They embrace and he drops his newspaper which carries two news stories:
- The President’s close friend and Treasury Secretary Hubert Reed was found dead at the wheel of his limousine which seems to have crashed into the river Potomac. Aha. So it was he that Quinn met near the Memorial. Are we to assume that Quinn murdered him in an act of vigilante justice?
- An anonymous donation of $5 million has been received by a hospital for paraplegic Vietnam veterans. Quinn has paid his dues and, in some measure, Forsyth has paid his respects to the 58,000 men who died in that war, and to the hundreds of thousands who were physically or mentally scarred by it.
Facts facts facts
If you like pages of factual explanation and background, you will love Forsyth’s novels. Pages and pages are devoted to brisk, no-nonsense briefings about every place, organisation, person, country, city, town, every piece of hardware and equipment the story touches. If you want to know:
- what the career of a senior KGB man looks like
- a history of OPEC
- an explanation of Islam with special emphasis on the distinction between Shia and Sunni
- the precise layout of Neill Air Force base
- who the martyrs commemorated in Oxford’s Martys Memorial were
- a history of Special Forces operations in Vietnam
- a detailed breakdown of US military spend in Europe
- an explanation of KGB personnel in Amman, Jordan
- exactly who attends British Government COBRA meetings and what their roles and responsibilities are
- what the 13 branches of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Operations Department do
- that a USAF VC20A is the military equivalent of the Gulfstream Three, complete with two Rolls Royce Spey 511 engines
- how to negotiate with professional kidnappers
- how much fuel a stripped down F-15 Eagle needs to cross the Atlantic
- a potted history of European mercenaries involved in Congo, Biafra and Rwanda in the 1960s
- the street layouts of central London, Washington, Paris, Brussels
- the precise location of MOSSAD’s headquarters in Tel Aviv
and much much more along the same lines, then you will love this novel.
As for complaining out that there is little or no psychology in these books, that the characters are paper-thin stereotypes (tall dignified US President, tough Euro mercenaries, tall taciturn hero, nubile sexually available girly sidekick) that doesn’t stop lots of people loving the James Bond novels and the even shallower Bond movies.
Too much plot
What stops Forsyth’s novels being made into the movies they feel like they want to be, or even being taken seriously, is the quite obvious overload of plot. Just American right-wingers seeking to sabotage a liberal President’s arms reduction treaty with the commies would have been enough, more than enough. It is way over-egging it to add in a massive conspiracy to overthrow the entire government of Saudi Arabia and replace it with a firebreathing Shia cleric (as the book progresses that whole storyline, which dominates the first 100 pages, is slowly forgotten). But also in the first hundred pages had been some kind of parallel conspiracy the KGB was hatching to invade an unnamed Arab country (?) This is completely forgotten about by the end of the book, which turns into something very different, ‘the Americans are their own worst enemies’ yarn.
If you can buy into the conventions of the genre and put to one side the stereotypical characters and the over-complex plot, this book is worth reading for the very thrilling central 200 pages.
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.