In the quiet of the Oval Office George Bush sat behind the great desk, backed by the tall narrow windows, 5 inches of pale green bullet-proof glass, and beneath the seal of the United States. Facing him was General Brent Scowcroft, the President’s National Security Adviser. (p.354)
Forsyth writes documentary thrillers. They are very closely meshed into historical fact, routinely feature real (and very eminent) people and organisations, are often set against real events, and are described in the kind of brisk, factual prose you would expect of an in-depth current affairs feature in the Sunday Times or Economist.
Of course there is a story, there is a plot, but embedded in a dense texture of facts and information which often threatens to swamp it and regularly holds up the flow of the narrative. If you’re looking for in-depth psychological investigations of a handful of characters, he really isn’t your man; if you like cleverly plotted and high stakes thrillers, backed up by blizzards of facts and information, you’re in luck.
The Gulf War
This long novel (624 pages) is effectively a retelling of the Gulf War, starting a little before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, following the creation of the anti-Saddam coalition at the United Nations and then the deployment of the vast numbers of mainly American military men and materiel at the frontier between occupied Kuwait and neighbouring Saudi Arabia (Operation Desert Shield). It then moves seamlessly into the month-long air war against Iraq (17 January – 23 February) before the pulverising Operation Desert Storm which killed large numbers of Iraqi troops, destroyed their hardware and drove them out of Kuwait (24 to 28 February).
Forsyth is enamoured of the men, machines, the hardware, planes and tanks, the radar and missile launchers, the regiments and divisions, the pilots, planners, generals and strategists involved in this colossal effort. Reading this book is much more like reading a factual book called ‘Weapons of the Gulf War’ than a novel.
336th Squadron out of Al Kharz [had been assigned] a big SAM missile site north-west of Baghdad. The SAMs were controlled by two large radar dishes… With twenty-four Strike Eagles in the squadron, 20 January was going to be a multi-mission day. The squadron commander, Lt.-Col Steve Turner, had allocated a twelve-plane detail for the missile base. A swarm of Eagles that large was known as a ‘gorilla’. The gorilla was led by one of the two senior flight commanders. Four of the twelve planes were packing HARMS, the radar-busting missiles that home in on infra-red signals from a radar dish. The other eight carried two long, gleaming, stainless-steel-cased laser-guided bombs known as GBU-10-I. When the radars were dead and the missiles blind, they would follow the HARMS and blow away the rocket batteries. (p.413)
Hundreds of pages are like this. Reading The Fist involves immersing yourself in exhaustive explanations of military hardware and military planning, in scenes describing the geopolitics and strategies of the various nations involved, in a highly detailed account of the war seen from a solidly pro-Coalition, military-minded and very male perspective.
Among the factual briefings and threaded into the historical timelines, there are a number of fictional storylines (though not as many as you might expect for such a very long book).
Mike Martin The main one is the story of Mike Martin, a dark-skinned SAS man, fluent in Arabic, who is dropped into Iraqi-occupied Kuwait to pose as a Bedou, radio back reports to his masters and wage a small campaign of destruction. This he does, meeting some of the Kuwaiti underground, training and organising them, providing explosive and ‘intel’. After a tense few weeks he is pulled out and redeployed into Baghdad itself, where he is given the ultra-dangerous mission of renewing contact with a senior spy in Saddam’s entourage, code-named Jericho.
Terry Martin It so happens that Mike’s brother, Terry Martin, a professor of Arabic at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. It was he, in an early meeting with a member of the Intelligence Services, who recommended his Arabic-speaking brother for the mission. Terry ends up serving informally with the Medusa committee, set up to interpret reports coming out of Iraq during the crisis, and so provides a handy ‘in’ to the discussions and debates among the SIS officers as the novel unfurls.
Baghdad boyhood Both the Martins were raised as boys in Baghdad of the 1950s when their engineer father lived there – a factor in Mike’s selection for the mission, and which allows Forsyth, through Martin’s eyes, to give us detailed descriptions of the geography and feel of Baghdad, as it was then, and as it is now, 40 years later.
Gerald Bull and the Babylon Gun Right at the start of the novel we meet the true-life figure of Dr Gerald Bull, and get a thorough review of his career as an engineer and developer of supersize artillery, before his true-life assassination on 22 March 1990. After his death the Press was full of reports about the ‘Supergun’ he had been designing for the Iraqis, but Forsyth cannily goes beyond the known facts to fictionalise the idea that the Iraqis did manage to erect one of Dr Bull’s 150-metre long supersize guns. In this fictional version, the Iraqis built it to lie along the incline of a hill in an isolated and mountainous part of Iraq, where an entire military support base supporting it is completely camouflaged.
In a whopping great coincidence it turns out that the engineer who master-minded the erection of the gun and the complete concealment of the military base, attended the same Baghdad prep school as Mike and Terry, Osman Badri, who we see supervising its construction and who then plays a crucial role in its destruction, 500 pages later. But for the central part of the novel, this whole supergun plotline is forgotten while we follow Mike Martin’s adventures, a staggeringly detailed account of Operation Desert Shield, and then the start of the air campaign against Iraq (January 17 1991).
For most of the book, if there is one central concern it is the issue of the top Iraqi spy code-named ‘Jericho’.
We learn that the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, had been contacted years earlier by a very senior figure in Saddam’s Ba’ath Party government who wanted to sell them secrets. He was ‘run’ for three years by a Jewish member of a United Nations Mission to Iraq. However, with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, UN staff were pulled out and contact with Jericho ceased. When US and British intelligence find out about this, they send in their own man to re-establish contact with the mysterious Jericho via an elaborate system of safe houses and secret signs. This man is Mike Martin, posing as an old, dirty, Iraqi gardener living in a cottage in the grounds of the Soviet Embassy and equipped with very well-forged ID and a covering letter from the Soviets.
Jericho resumes contact with Martin, neither ever seeing the other, but leaving messages written on thin air-mail notepaper deposited at various dead letter drops around the city, and throughout the book Jericho provides vital and wholly accurate information about Iraq’s hidden weapons factories, troops and armament positions etc.
Leila al-Hilla In a vivid side-thread we are introduced to the high class courtesan, Leila al-Hilla, whose main client is General Abdullah Kadiri, Commander of the Armoured Corp of the Army of the Republic of Iraq, and who she routinely seduces with clinical efficiency. Afterwards, in a drunk post-coital haze, he is easily coaxed into discussing the latest developments in Saddam’s Army Council. Leila then takes hand-written accounts of these late-night murmurings to St Joseph’s church, where she hands them over to the ‘priest’ hearing confession. This priest turns out to be Hassan Rahmani, Head of Counter-Intelligence of the Republic of Iraq, but who is excluded from the further promotion and from the really inner circles of Saddam’s advisers, because he is neither family nor from Saddam’s home village of Tikrit but who is gathering useful information against the day when the Americans overthrow the Rais (p.319-22).
The Winkler Bank Another Jericho-related strand is set in Vienna, where Mossad know the payments Jericho demands for his work are sent to an old and venerable bank, the Winkler Bank. They rack their brains about how to access details of Jericho’s bank account in order – I think, because after a few hundred pages the original motivation becomes difficult to recall – to seize back all the money they’ve paid him. After realising they cannot blackmail or in any other way get at the dry-as-dust owner of the bank, Herr Wolfgang Gemütlich, they focus their efforts on his spinsterish secretary, Edith Hardenberg.
Karim seduces Fräulein Hardenberg Mossad select a handsome young Jew from the seduction section, one Avi Herzog, who poses as ‘Karim’, a Jordanian student studying in Vienna, and sets about seducing the middle-aged, repressed Miss Edith with cynical efficiency. Two or three page descriptions of Karim slowly worming his way into her affections, getting her to take him to classical music concerts and art galleries, to smart dinners and so on, punctuate the long descriptions of the military hardware or of Mike Martin’s adventures in Baghdad, until Karim finally takes her to bed. Even then he waits a few sessions before asking her about her funny old job at the funny old bank and where does funny old Mr Gemütlich keep all the most secret accounts, then? At which point she laughingly tells him that the big antique desk in his office contains secret compartments where the account details of the VIP customers are kept… So. Mossad have their information, and within days break into the office, find the compartment, and photocopy all the papers kept there, including the all-important Jericho papers. Karim has dinner with Edith and tells her he has to go back to Jordan because his mother is ill. Edith is by now swooningly in love and bids him God speed, little realising that’s the last she’ll ever hear of him.
The air offensive
Once the air war begins the pace of events speeds up and many of these plotlines reach (brutal) conclusions. General Kadiri catches Leila in the act of writing a secret message, has her tortured to reveal her contact, and killed. Jericho discovers that his own counter-intelligence people have realised that coded radio messages are being sent from somewhere in the diplomatic quarter and so are closing in on Martin. If they catch and torture him he will give enough evidence to incriminate him, Jericho, so he leaves a message telling Martin to get out.
The Fist of God
But not before his final set of messages convey the blockbuster fact at the centre of the novel. To a shocked audience of his Cabinet and Army officers, Saddam announces that Iraq does have a nuclear weapon – the Qubth-ut-Allah or Fist of God (p.365) and the delivery mechanism to attack the infidel aggressor. Jericho emerges, like the rest of the Iraqi high command, stunned at the news. Straightaway he leaves message for Jericho, who immediately relays it by coded radio message to his handlers in Riyadh.
After reading the final, warning, message from Jericho Martin doesn’t go back to his cottage, with its incriminating radio set and mini satellite dish, but (in his plausible disguise as poor, working class gardener) cadges lorry rides west of the city. He buys a few goats as cover and then treks south to the motorbike he and his SAS colleagues buried in the sand weeks earlier for precisely this reason. He rides through the empty desert and crosses the invisible border into Saudi Arabia, before being picked up by a patrol and returned to a hero’s welcome among the small group of intelligence minders who’d been running him.
Meanwhile, as you can imagine, the news that Iraq has the bomb, or at least one bomb, comes as a thunderbolt to the Allied commanders. On one level a top priority call goes out to all the Intelligence services to double check how this can be true. In this workstream Mike’s brother, Terry, plays a crucial role. Earlier in the book a stray shell from a US fighter-bomber blew the roof off a non-descript factory. Satellite photos show strange objects and the Iraqis’ feverish efforts to repair them. It is Terry who takes the photos to Livermore University in California where the young guys there have no idea but mention a retired prof who lives out in the woods who might know. Terry drives up into the mountains where the grey-haired old man stops chopping wood long enough to explain that the objects are ‘calcutrons’, primitive devices to separate Uranium 238 and 235 to create material for a bomb. He gives Terry a long, Forsythian encyclopedia explanation of how they work, how they were used to create the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, how the plans to make them are freely available in the Library of Congress, and how it looks like the Iraqis have made some and so will have a more advanced bomb than the Allies calculated. Which backs up Jericho’s claim about the Iraqi bomb.
Mike has barely had a shower, shave, devoured some steak and chips and fallen asleep on a decent bed for the first time in weeks, when he is woken and ordered to yet another intelligence meeting. Obviously, the next question asked of Jericho after the bombshell that Saddam had a nuclear weapon was – where? His last message back to Martin, and the last one Martin radioed back to his minders, was a precise map reference far in the north-east of Iraq.
While Martin was exiting Iraq, an observation plane had overflown the co-ordinates and established there was nothing there except hills and valleys and a few villages. Shown the aerial photos Mike points out that the villages are fake – there isn’t enough forage in the area for all their livestock. There’s obviously a military base there but so well hidden nobody can pinpoint it. The risk is that the Allies start to bomb in one part of the quadrant and that tips off the Iraqis who have time to fire their nuclear missile. Which would be bad. So there’s no alternative: they’re going to need a team of men on the ground to ascertain the precise location – and Mike volunteers.
After the multiple plot strands and blizzards of technical spec which characterised most of the book, the last forty pages boil down to a nailbiting account of the preparation and parachuting of Mike and three SAS colleagues into this remote region where they do, in fact, locate the well-concealed supergun – the Babylon Gun – and call in a fighter-bomber which successfully destroys it. High fives all round!
In fact the fighter-bomber is shot down by Iraqi AAA defences, but Mike and his team locate the pilot and together march East towards Iran, hiding out until the 100-hour Desert Storm is over, at which point they radio to call in helicopters to rescue them.
In fact, it is news that the Babylon Gun has been taken out which allows General Schwartzkopf later the same day to give the go-ahead for Operation Desert Storm to commence. Thus, right to the end, Forsyth skillfully intertwines his fictional adventure with the real events of the war; in fact makes reality hinge on his fictional protagonist and his daring exploit.
Karim, now equipped with papers reproducing all the details of Jericho’s account, visits Winkler’s Bank pretending to be Jericho’s son, ‘Aziz’, and empties the account of the ten million dollars in it.
When Herr Gemütlich tells Miss Hardenberg this surprising bit of news and describes ‘Aziz’, she realises it is Karim and, in a flash, how she has been comprehensively used and exploited. She scrubs her flat clean of his presence, drives out to the woods, and hangs herself.
While the war is raging to the south and the country is in chaos, an Israeli agent undertakes a daring mission into Baghdad and leaves a last message for Jericho. Days later, and after the 100-hour war is over, Jericho, following the detailed instructions in that message, approaches the Kuwait border in a Cadillac, where he is met, as arranged, by British and American generals. He is spirited through the lines and onto a plane which sets off flying – so he is told – to freedom. Instead, however, he is in the hands of Mossad agents, who give him a muscle-paralysing drug then throw him out of the aircraft to smash to pieces on the sea below. For Jericho, it is now revealed, was all along none other than Brigadier Omar Khatib, head of Iraq’s secret police, and personally present at several extremely disgusting torture interrogations which the book had described, besides the thousands he has authorised over the years. It was this unique position which he used to extract information about, first the progress of the Iraqi A-bomb, and then of the hidden Babylon Gun, before passing it on to the Allies. But this usefulness can’t outweigh the evil he has done.
There is a cast list at the start of the book which goes on for three pages and lists 73 characters, many of them real historical personages. Forsyth is not shy about describing the most powerful people in the world in exactly the same factual, deadpan he way he does a taxi driver or a street cleaner. Thus, at various moments, there are scenes featuring speaking parts for President George Bush, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, head of the CIA William Webster and General in command of Coalition Forces, Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf; for Mrs Thatcher and John Major; for the Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir; for Mikhail Gorbachev; and for Saddam Hussein himself.
The ladder of fiction extends from the bottom to the very top of not just one but quite a few nations, in juxtapositions which are almost Shakespearian. It takes some chutzpah to imagine the scene as George Bush looks out the window of the Oval Office, agonising over the possible effects of Saddam’s poison gases on the men and women he’s sending into battle (p.354); or to describe a conversation between Shamir and his smooth Deputy Foreign Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, nowadays himself leader of Israel. Yet the reader quite quickly gets used to Forsyth’ extraordinary assurance at putting words into these people’s mouths. He is quite nerveless.
Gorbachev features because senior representatives of the CIA and SIS are sent to ask his personal permission to give Mike Martin a cover story as gardener to the Soviet Embassy in Iraq.
I had forgotten that Mrs Thatcher’s fall to power happened in the middle of the crisis – she resigned on 22 November – after an unexpected sequence of events following Geoffrey Howe’s embittered resignation prompted Michael Heseltine to make a formal leadership bid. This triggered a secret ballot of MPs which Mrs Thatcher won, but not by a big enough majority to quell her doubters who eventually persuaded her, in tears, to resign. The narrative stops dead while Forsyth describes her fall and, very characteristically, gives us four reasons for it (p.315) in one of scores of sections of the novel which could easily be converted into Powerpoint presentations.
Technique and style
I’ve just read three John le Carré novels from the 1990s and the techniques and prose styles of the two writers could hardly be more different. Le Carré starts in the middle of the story, with a significant or important scene played out at great length, often for a quarter of the entire book, as in The Tailor of Panama. Only slowly do we get flashbacks, memories and references which paint in the backstory in fragments which we, the reader, have to assemble. Often we don’t get main characters’ names or key relationships until over 100 pages into the text (as in Single & Single). And all this is done in a style which I personally find very overblown, full of ironic exaggeration, facetious myth-making, public schoolboy slang and the repetition of key moments in the lives of a small number of key protagonists which are designed to build up a kind of accumulated psychological portrait of them.
By contrast Forsyth manages a cast, if not of thousands, of at least 73 named and described characters, and tells the story in a strong, clear chronological order, introducing characters and giving their full CVs and careers in a brisk, no-nonsense, journalistic prose style. There is some flashback – we witness Dr Gerald Bull (real historical figure) get assassinated in the opening pages, then get a long résumé of his career as a leading designer of military rockets and artillery, all of which is background to the development of the ‘Supergun’ he was commissioned to design and build for Saddam Hussein, which lies at the heart of the plot. And there is some backstory attached to the Martin brothers, their early days in Baghdad, and to the US fighter pilot Tom Walker, the one who ends up destroying the Babylon Gun at the climax of the novel and who had popped up from time to time in the previous 600 pages.
But by and large the narrative proceeds in a steady forward direction, unfolding much as it did to the world during those tense, anxious months, and reading a timeline of the key events as seen through a military hardware magazine which had special access to some previously unknown aspects of the story (the supergun, the bomb).
What I found a relief after le Carré’s reams of pages of depth psychology, is the way Forsyth tells us as little as we possibly need to know about the psychology of his characters to understand their roles.
- We learn about poor Fräulein Hardenberg’s one and only love affair when she was 20 and how she was heartlessly dumped, only because it explains her sour, spinsterish demeanour when we meet her in the present, 20 years later, and in order to explain the task her Mossad seducer has to undertake.
- Mike Martin has one or two moments remembering the prep school he attended in Baghdad when he was a kid, but only because they shed light on the geography of modern Baghdad or because one or two of his Iraqi schoolmates have gone on to hold positions in the regime.
- Jericho’s motivation is explained simply: he expects Saddam to be overthrown and wants to position himself with the Allies as a candidate for high office in the new regime.
- Leila’s motivation is simple: she wants to save up the money Rahmani gives her for spying so she can give up being a prostitute and retire to a luxury villa in Tangier.
In the dense 620 pages, that’s about all the psychology there is. The scores and scores of other characters don’t have psychology, they simply have motivations – they are trying to achieve X so they must do Y. A is blocking Y so they’ll have to do Z instead. Instead of psychology or emotion, strategy and logic. Every character and every incident fits into the overall machinery of the plot like cogs takes their place in the apparatus of a beautifully constructed Swiss watch.
Le Carré uses repetition of words or phrases (on the micro scale) and the repetition of key memories or moments (on a macro scale) to build up a sense of character. Forysth never uses that kind of incantatory rhetoric in his prose, and rarely if ever repeats memories or talismanic moments, because he has little or no interest in psychology – his aim is to keep the narrative as clear and open and transparent as a factory blueprint.
Facts facts facts
There’s nothing Forsyth likes better than explaining things: the structure of military, government or intelligence organisations; Gerry Bull’s career; how jet fighters or tanks or semtex-H or a nuclear bomb work. What is the reader to do with this bombardment of information?
The CIA employs around 25,000 officers, the KGB at its peak around 15,000 but the Israeli Intelligence service employs only around 1,500; but these are supplemented with a large diaspora of helpers or sayanim. Richard Sorge was the most important spy in history, because his reports that Japan was not about to attack Russia in 1941 allowed Stalin to move large numbers of tanks and soldiers to the Western front, where they brought Hitler’s advance to a halt and turned the course of the war and of world history. Within 1,000 tons of uranium ore there is enough actual uranium, Uranium 238, to make a block the size of a cigar case; but an atom bomb requires Uranium 235 and you could only extract enough of this to slip under the nail of one finger. The Americans have a top secret reconnaissance plane which flies on the fringes of inner space at a speed of Mach 8, riding its own fireball – a phenomenon known as ‘the ramjet effect’.
And so on for hundreds of other facts and figures.
The Scud missile was a Soviet weapon, weighing just under 1,000 pounds with a range of 300 kilometers, and the Iraqis began to fire a heavily-altered version of the missile into Israel on the second day of the air war. The Air Interception Missile (AIM) 7 is known as the Sparrow, the AIM-9 is known as the Sidewinder. There are three denominations of Christians in Iraq, comprising 7% of the population.
For stretches it is much more like reading an Encyclopedia for Boys than a novel but, if you enter into the Boys Own spirit of the thing, very absorbing. Just some of the phrases, acronyms or tradecraft which stood out:
- AMAM – Iraqi intelligence service, also known as the Mukhabarat.
- ATO – Air Tasking Order: lists of targets and tasks for Allied air force, generally over 100 pages long which Forsyth explains in detail.
- AWACS – Airborne Warning and Control System, Boeing 707s with huge radar dishes above the fuselage: detects movement in the air ie enemy planes.
- B-52s, the longest-serving US airplanes, were referred to as BUFFs, which stood for Big Ugly Fat Fucker (p.439).
- BDA – Bomb Damage Assessment, crucial part of ongoing intelligence.
- CENTAF – Central Air Force.
- CIA – for the umpteenth time I read that insiders refer to the CIA as ‘the Company’ and the Brits refer to American intelligence generally as ‘the cousins’
- DZ – Drop Zone for parachutists.
- ENPIC – National Photographic Centre, Washington DC.
- HARM – high speed anti-radiation missile.
- LUP – lying up position as adopted by the SAS where necessary.
- J-STAR – Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System: detects movements on the ground eg enemy tanks.
- LANTIRN – Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra-Red for Night technology.
- MMFD – The Americans wonder why the Brit pilots so often report being over a location referred to as MMFD. Where is this mysterious MMFD? Only late on do the Brits reveal it refers to ‘Miles and Miles of Fucking Desert’ (p.344).
- NVG – Night Vision Goggles.
- PAVEWAY – name of the technology which allows an airplane-fired missile to follow an infra-red beam to the target.
- Plinking – USAF slang term for destroying enemy tanks.
- The Rais – Iraqi for President ie Saddam.
- RTB – Return to Base (Air Force).
- SAM – Surface to air missile.
- SATNAV – Forsyth explains how Satnav works, a technology which has, of course, become completely domesticated in the past twenty years.
- SEAD – Suppression of enemy air defences.
- SOP – Standard Operating Procedure.
- Tabbing – trekking across country with equipment: SAS version of ‘yomping’.
- TACC – Tactical Air Control Centre.
- TARPS – Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System: cameras hanging under an observation plane.
- SIS – Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, misleadingly known as MI (Military Intelligence) 6, used to be referred to as ‘Century’ because it occupied the rundown Century House near Waterloo.
- ‘Wizzo’ – slang for WSO, Weapons Systems Officer, the number two in a fighter plane.
- Department Z at Lawrence Livermore University monitors the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Third World.
Point of view
From time to time in this vast sea of dry, factual prose Forsyth lets slip a point of view. He has no time at all for liberal hand-wringers, ban the bombers, the London chattering classes and the idiocy (as he sees it) of political correctness. He is an obvious fan of Mrs Thatcher, the security services, the Army and especially of the SAS (who appear in the four novels preceding this one – I wonder if they appear in all Forsyth’s novels). If he is dryly sarcastic about specific failings of this, that or the other military or intelligence organisation, it is always well understood that he is nonetheless entirely behind their ethos and existence.
But in the Final Note of the book Forsyth drops all pretence of fiction and speaks in his own voice to draw two conclusions from the Gulf War, as if his book really had been a history book all along and not a novel at all. These are:
- It was insane of the 30 industrialised nations of the world to make a nice profit selling arms to a regime like Saddam’s, motivated by ‘political foolishness, bureaucratic blindness and corporate greed’. In the end it cost far more to attack and destroy what we sold him than all the profit made from it. And, although he didn’t deploy chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, he would have if he could have; it was a close-run thing.
- Governments, military and intelligence agencies were all so dazzled by the technical advances of the 1980s and 1990s that they thought tech could fight the war for them. But in the end it was discovered the Iraqi regime had hidden much firepower and resources from even the most sophisticated spy planes and satellites. In other words there is no replacement for human intelligence, for eyes on the ground and for – although he doesn’t explicitly say this – heroes like Mike Martin.
It is an interesting intellectual exercise to reflect on how these general strictures have held up in the 22 years of troubled history which have passed since the book’s publication.
The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1994. All quotes from the 1995 paperback Corgi edition.
- The First of God on Amazon
- Frederick Forsyth Wikipedia article
- Gulf War Wikipedia article
- Wikipedia timeline of the Gulf War
- Forsyth’s column in the Daily Express
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.