‘Don’t worry, old boy,’ he said to Dobbs. ‘If one of them moves I’ll just blow his nuts off.’ (p.464)
Intriguingly, this novel which Forsyth published at the end of the Cold War and as the USSR collapsed is, like John le Carré’s novel of the same era, The Secret Pilgrim, not really a novel but a collection of linked but self-contained stories, four in this case. For both writers the linked short story format gives them an opportunity to review the Cold War years through different episodes. Or to use up old plots before they become irrelevant…
The frame story is set in 1990 as senior civil servants in Whitehall set about reforming the intelligence services. Convinced the world will now be a safer place they want to save money by offering older intelligence officers alternative, lower paid positions, or compelling them to retire. They decide to kick off the process with a high-profile example and so offer a selection of accounting or admin jobs to the legendary Sam McCready, the so-called ‘Deceiver’, a rumpled, unclubbable man (shades of George Smiley) who was unexpectedly appointed head of the SIS in 1983 and surprised everyone by running it efficiently for the past seven years.
When McCready turns down the jobs he’s offered, and refuses retirement, it triggers a tribunal into his case. Here his number two, Denis Gaunt, presents evidence of The Deceiver’s sterling work for the nation, and makes the case for keeping him on as a senior intelligence officer, via the four long tales which make up the body of the text.
1. Pride and Extreme Prejudice McCready sends a German agent, Bruno Morenz, over to the East to rendezvous with a Russian General and collect a book containing Russian Army deployments. But Morenz is already unbalanced by a crime of passion – murdering the prostitute he thought loved him, when she taunts him. And so his trip across the border, and then to the arranged rendezvous, is fraught. Serioulsy on edge, Morenze collects the book as arranged, but is in no position to handle the fairly minor road accident which happens ten minutes later. Panicking, he flees the scene by nicking the police car which had come to attend the accident, sparking a giant man-hunt led by East German security. Meanwhile, a scarily efficient and cold-hearted woman KGB Colonel has been tracking the movements of the General who handed over the book, suspecting him of being a traitor and now becomes involved in the hunt for Morenz. Thus it is with multiple enemies that McCready has himself smuggled across the border and sets out to find Morenz. By good investigative skills, he interviews Morenz’s old schoolteacher and so deduces the childhood hideout where he might have gone to ground. Sure enough, he is there but a complete nervous wreck, incapable of moving and so, with the Stasi closing in, McCready is forced to put the distraught agent out of his misery, before returning successfully through the wire with the vital book. Surprisingly entertaining.
2. The Price of the Bride A KGB officer, Colonel Pyotr Alexandrovitch Orlov, with the usual secrets, does a bunk from a British Army exercise where he and post-Soviet comrades are being shown British troops on manoeuvre. He insists on going straight to the Americans and the next 100 pages develop a very tangled web whereby it is slowly wormed out of him that there is a high-level Russian mole in the CIA. The lead American character, Joe Roth, handles his initial defection, then is tasked with his prolonged debriefing, and then gets caught up in the investigation into Orlov’s accusations. Forsyth has total mastery of the organisational structure and processes, the rivalries and tensions, within MI5, MI6, the CIA, the FBI, and their overlaps into the British Army, police, the Met and Special Branch. He shows us American investigators meticulously gathering the circumstantial evidence which points the finger at senior CIA man, Calvin Bailey. Unfortunately, it is a frame-up, laboriously created over many years by senior KGB officials, to create dissension and demoralise the CIA. We know this because McCready has himself been running a senior KGB mole in the Russian embassy – codename Keepsake – who explains it all to the Brits. Keepsake is himself at high risk of being captured-tortured-shot by his own side, until rescued from Moscow by McCready in a complex, high-stakes heist. But too late to save Bailey, bumped off by his own side. War is hell, kids.
The story is fairly thrilling, and bubbles over with Forsyth’s trademark factual accuracy, the big chunks of journalistic background, about names, the addresses and organisational structures, processes and procedures of the KGB, CIA and SIS. And at moments the story is almost believable – but ends up too pat, too symmetrical, too easily cynical, like one of those War Commando comics.
3. Casualty of War Tom Rowse is a disillusioned SAS man who quit after service in Northern Ireland and publicly criticised the British operation there. He’s got a nice new life, writing thrillers and living in Gloucestershire with his new young wife, who makes rugs. All the bigger surprise when Sam McCready turns up and says MI6 have information about a major arms shipment for the IRA. Involved is one particular IRA man who Tom has reason to hate which is enough to pull him out of retirement and send him on travels to Hamburg, Malta, Libya, then on to Cyprus, as he investigates the connections between the IRA and a major shipment of arms despatched by Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya.
The details of police operations, the world of mercenaries and arms dealing, the atmosphere of Hamburg and Valletta and Tripoli, the co-operation between MI6 and the CIA, the description of airports and remote monasteries and luxury hotels and a fishing boat in the Atlantic, are all fluent and persuasive. Only when Forsyth describes people do the shallow psychology, the paper-thin characters and the trite moralising let down the otherwise ripping yarns.
The exotic locations and the smooth-talking baddies (cold-eyed IRA man Kevin Mahoney and suave, gambling, threatening Head of Libyan Intelligence, Hakim al-Mansour, who both enjoy watching Rowse get beaten up while filing their nails or sipping a brandy), the way the gorgeous blonde, Monica Browne, first tends Rowse’s wounds and then unzips her dress and slips off her bra to have sex with him and then, inevitably, turns out to be a gun-toting member of the gang herself – all this is strongly reminiscent of James Bond.
4. A Little Bit of Sunshine Sunshine is a fictional island in the Bahamas. An American cop is on holiday fishing, when he catches sight of a drugs cartel contract killer he and his buddy interrogated years before. He trails the baddie to his remote villa but, unfortunately, is seen and identified. Afraid, he makes his way to the tiny airfield where he blags a seat aboard a flight out but the killer has a man tailing him who slips a bomb aboard the little charter plane and it blows up high above the Caribbean. In a separate storyline the Foreign Office are compelling the islanders to leave the Commonwealth, become independent and hold an election. Two wealthy candidates return from abroad, each presenting themselves as the island’s saviour. But a sizeable part of the population wants neither independence or election, they want to stay British. They go to petition the British Governor, the lofty Sir Marston Moberley, who refuses their requests and, a few days later, is shot dead in what looks like a professional ‘hit’. The stage is set for the murdered American cop’s partner to fly in from Miami, for British detectives to fly in from London and – guess who was taking a few days’ holiday in the region, after a boring conference in the States? Yes, Sam McCready, the Deceiver himself.
Despite the killings, this story is played for laughs, for example the way old pro Detective Chief Superintendent Desmond Hannah is lumbered with a deputy who’s never been on a murder case before ‘but loves reading about criminology in his spare time’. He is further exasperated by the inexperienced local authorities in Sunshine, and harassed at every turn by the Press who’ve flown in to cover the ‘murder in Paradise’ story. At many places it was laugh-out-loud funny – interesting to see how funny Forsyth can be when he puts his years of experience as a high end journalist to comic ends.
The climax is like an Ealing Comedy when McCready finds an investiture form in the dead governor’s desk and appoints himself Governor for a day, using his power to deputise various locals and – with a helping hand from Forsyth’s beloved SAS – they run the two crooked political candidates out of town.
Facts and fictions
Interwoven into the stories are countless chunks of recent history as Forsyth does his trademark thing of interweaving recent events with fictional characters and plots. Unsurprisingly, the story about the fake Soviet defector is littered with references to other famed double agents including the British Cambridge spies and US double agents from the 1960s onwards. The story makes repeated reference to various Soviet defectors – eg Anatoly Golitsyn who defected in 1960 and fuelled the paranoia of CIA chief James Jesus Angleton for years (p.164). Also stories about defectors who made the catastrophic mistake of returning to the Soviet side – only to be interrogated and executed. And there is the particularly gruesome fate of the CIA’s Beirut chief, William Buckley.
The third story, about Libyan arms bound for the IRA, is dense with references to the IRA’s terrorist campaigns, to its ways of meeting and procedures. I’d forgotten about the Hyde Park Barracks bombing (1982: 11 soldiers dead, 52 soldiers and civilians injured), and the Harrods bombing (1983: three police and three civilians killed). Forsyth actually takes us into the presence of Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi, and explains his twitchiness and need to move between safe locations, following the US-led air raid on his palace 15 April 1986. It references the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight 181 on 13 October 1977 – a factual event – and spuriously claims that the hero of the story, Tom Rowse, was one of the SAS stormers of the plane.
It is this interweaving of completely true events (the various double agents, spies and defectors, the IRA campaigns or Arab hijackings) and real contemporary figures (Ronald Reagan is name-checked, we are taken into Chequers to observe Mrs Thatcher at close quarters, reading the paper, having lunch and intervening in the Sunshine case) with completely fictional characters and storylines, which gives Forsyth’s fiction its particular factual density and verisimilitude.
The four qualities of a successful terrorist organisation
In a typically factual aside, Forsyth spends several pages early in The Casualties of War section (pp.273-274), describing in brisk, authoritative fashion the four qualities required by a terrorist organisation if it is going to last:
- a pool of keen young recruits
- safe havens or bolt holes to retreat to
- ‘the ruthlessness to stop at no threshold of atrocity’
Interesting to apply these criteria to the terrorist organisations currently dominating our headlines some thirty years later.
It is a relief to come from other, more literary authors, to the clarity of Forysth’s brisk, virile, no-nonsense, upper-class tones. Part of the enjoyment is the way he not only details the organisational structures and procedures of the spy organisations, police and army which he appears to know inside out, but also lets us in on their foibles, nicknames, shortcomings and rivalries: the Americans this, the Russians that, MI5 the other.
Forsyth is unreservedly on the side of the authorities – the police, Special Branch, the SAS, can do no wrong – but it is typically Forysthian that in the fourth story, where he details the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the satellite technology the Yanks use to monitor every flight and ship movement in the Caribbean, as well as the satellites which monitor all phone traffic, that in fact one radio ham hearing gossip in the island bar radios it to a pal in Washington so that
About a billion dollars’ worth of technology worked it out three hours after a radio ham with a home-made set in a shack on the side of Spyglass Hill had told a pal in Chevy Chase. (p.387)
In fact he makes this point in several places: technology is no replacement for men on the ground, for human contacts. Which is why – as le Carré has Smiley emphasise in The Secret Pilgrim – spying will always be with us.
But apart from Forsyth’s usual sardonic attitude, it was a surprise in this book to come across some uncharacteristically vulgar language. On page 254 McCready describes the number two in SIS who pompously claims that the fall of the USSR will be followed by a new era of peace and harmony, as a ‘dick brain’. On page 272 McCready describes the same man, Timothy Edwards, as an ‘arsehole’ for his sneaky, conniving ways. And on page 358:
You really are a prize arsehole, Timothy, he thought.
I had already been surprised when Forsyth tells us on page 153 that MI5 sometimes refer to MI6 as TSAR, standing for ‘Those Shits Across the River’, but I wasn’t prepared for the Author’s Message on the ante-penultimate page. Gaunt realises McCready is resigned to resigning, and so asks him why he bothered going through the farce of the tribunal:
‘Because I care about this fucking service and they’re getting it wrong. Because there’s a bloody dangerous world out there and it’s not getting less dangerous but more so. And because dick-heads like Edwards are going to be left looking after the security of the old country, which I happen to love, and that frightens the shit out of me.’ (p.475)
The characters’ swearing presumably reflects Forsyth’s own genuine concerns about misconceptions surrounding the end of the Cold War (concerns which are exactly the same as Smiley’s in The Secret Pilgrim). But, on the level of language, it’s also connected to the greater humour in these stories, as if Forsyth feels more relaxed not having to create one 500-page blockbusting thriller and is happier, shoutier, swearier in the shorter format. It feels like these stories were more enjoyable to write and they are certainly more enjoyable to read, than his last couple of novels.
The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth, published by Bantam Press in 1991. All quotes from the 1992 paperback Corgi edition.
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.