Icon by Frederick Forsyth (1996)

‘Do you remember those descriptions of the last days of the Weimar Republic? The unemployment queues, the street crime, the ruined life-savings, the soup-kitchens, the quarreling midgets in the Reichstag yelling their heads off while the country went bankrupt? Well, that’s what you’re watching here. All over again. ‘ (p.192)

This is a cracking thriller. I was going to stop reading Forsyth after his famous opening trilogy of novels, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend The Devil’s Alternative, The Fourth Protocol or The Negotiator. But I would strongly recommend The Fist of God and this novel.

I think the difference is the plausibility of the plot. The plots of Devil, Fourth and Negotiator all seemed far-fetched and implausible – lose the reader’s belief and everything collapses like a house of cards. It’s the astonishing plausibility of his debut, The Day of The Jackal, totally convincing in every detail, which makes it an outstanding read to this day.

In The Fist of God the plot ie the heroism of SAS man Mike Martin, becomes cumulatively more improbable, but the (long) text is really sustained by the detailed background account of the Gulf War, which makes it an absorbing and thought-provoking book. Something similar happens here. Icon is in two parts.

Part one

Forsyth very effectively places two separate but converging narratives next to each other, each conveyed in short alternating sections for the first 270 pages or so.

Russia 1999 One strand is set a few years after the book was published, in 1999. In this future Russia has endured several years of bad harvests, is experiencing hyper-inflation as its currency collapses, and the city streets are full of refugees from the countryside, begging and dying of exposure. This storyline opens with the current President (fictional successor to Boris Yeltsin) dying suddenly and triggering a new presidential campaign. At the heart of the book is the threat that a nationalist demagogue, Igor Komarov, head of the right-wing Union of Patriotic Forces (UPF), will use his control of TV stations, funds from a nationwide mafia syndicate, the Dolgoruki, and his ‘army’ of some 100,000 black-shirted zealots, to win and become President then dictator.

In the opening pages a poor cleaner, Leonid Zaitsev, steals the so-called Black Manifesto which one of Komarov’s assistants had unwisely left lying around. Handed into the British Embassy, the Manifesto turns out to be a hair-raising revelation of Komarov’s real plans ie re-arm Russia, invade and conquer the neighbouring nations, send all ethnic minorities, Jews, liberals, homosexuals etc to a new system of slave labour camps. In other words, the worst elements of Stalin and Hitler combined.

Jason Monk Intertwined with the storyline of how the Manifesto is stolen, ends up with the British, is passed to the Intelligence Services, to the Americans, and the Allies’ horrified responses – is the completely different narrative focusing on CIA agent Jason Monk. Recruited into the CIA in Vietnam in the 1960s he goes on to have a golden career, recruiting and running four key agents within the KGB/Soviet intelligence organisations. A great deal of detail goes into describing the recruitment of each agent, in various exotic locations (Nairobi, Yemen, Silicon Valley – all complete with interesting factual background briefings, circa 1995) and explaining how they are ‘run’ and managed.

Aldrich Ames However, Monk’s fictional rise is interwoven with the astonishing career of the true-life US CIA double agent, Aldrich Ames, by all accounts an incompetent alcoholic who managed to get promoted to senior positions where he had access to reams of top secret information which he sold to his KGB handlers for a fortune. Ames’s minders demand information about Monk’s four spies which, after some effort, and helped by CIA incompetence, Ames is eventually able to supply and all four are rounded up, tortured and executed.

Infuriated, Monk tells anyone who will listen that there must be a mole at a senior level in the Agency, but instead of being listened to he is cashiered out of the service in the early 1990s. In true life it wasn’t until 1994 that the mole was revealed to be Ames. He is still alive and currently serving a life sentence in US prison.

The astonishing feats of the real-life spy Ames combines with the tradecraft around the recruitment and running of Monk’s spies to make the first half compelling and factually informative. At its climax, we are shown the meeting of a fictional group of retired politicians, financiers and so on – the ‘Council of Lincoln’, including, for example, Mrs Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and so on. When they are presented the Black Manifesto by Sir Nigel Irvine, retired head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, they authorise an attempt to stop Komarov’s election, funding provided by some of the super-rich bankers on the Council, details left to Sir Nigel. One of its members, a former head of the CIA, quizzed by Sir Nigel, recommends Monk for this dangerous mission…

Part two

Irvine tracks Jason Monk down and discovers he is living a relaxed, low profile life in the Turks and Caicos Islands, renting himself and his boat out to tourists who want to go deep sea fishing. Despite his protestations, Irvine more or less blackmails Monk to take up the mission, threatening to use his influence to get Monk’s fishing permit rescinded and his house repossessed. Monk in fact still holds out until Sir Nigel tells him who Komarov’s Number Two is – Anatoli Grishin, who in his role in the old KGB was responsible for rounding up Monk’s agents, torturing and executing them… That does it: for Monk, it’s personal.

From then on it reads a little like a Mission Impossible episode. Monk is flown to Scotland, does intensive training with ex-SAS personnel, before flying in to Moscow. Here he puts into practice an elaborate plan master-minded by Irvine. He

  • Contacts a Chechen mafia leader, Umar Gunayev, whose life he happened to save in one of his more exotic postings in part one. Monk shows Gunayev the parts of the Black Manifesto which describe how Komarov will round up and exterminate the Chechens. So, throughout the mission the Chechens move him around safe houses and give him very effective bodyguards.
  • Contacts the Patriarch of All Russia, Alexei II, who takes some persuading but is eventually prevailed upon to support and encourage the more outspoken of his bishops and priests who had been preaching against Komarov, and then to sign up to a plan to restore a new Tsar to Russia.
  • Contacts a venerable and legendary retired Army General Nikolai Nikolayev (the sequences describing his military career starting during the Nazi invasion of 1941 are, as usual for Forsyth, thoroughly researched and completely believable). Shown the Manifesto he promises to speak out against Komarov in media interviews.
  • Contacts the richest banker in Russia, Leonid Bernstein, who happens to be a Jew. When Monk shows him the Manifesto, with its plans for a final solution to Russia’s Jews, he is persuaded to threaten to call in loans to the bankrupt TV companies unless they refuse to carry any more Komarov propaganda.

In addition to getting these opinion-formers onside, Irvine’s small team of ex-SAS men blow up the printing presses for Komarov’s magazines and newspapers, and also do some counter-intelligence work by tipping off anti-corruption police about the funds, paperwork and arms dumps of the mafia group which had been supporting Komarov; and then spreading the word that the tip-off came from one of Komarov’s Black Guards.

Restoration of the Tsar

Meanwhile, Sir Nigel has been making enquiries and there is a series of broadly comic scenes where he interviews a chubby, professorly expert at the College of Heralds, Dr Lancelot Probyn, in order to see if there is anywhere in Europe a possible contender for the throne of Russia. And there is. (As usual, the research, the factual information contained in these sequences, about genealogy and about the descendants of the Russian Royal Family, make fascinating reading).

In the climax of the novel, Komarov is panicked by the multi-pronged attack on his interests, into trying to stage a military coup. Monk is just about able to pull every string available to him and tip off the various Army units so that the streets of Moscow are turned into a battlefield. The media carry live pictures of the fighting in which the forces of the State slowly but inexorably crush the Black Shirts.

In a sequence straight from a movie, Monk gets to pursue his own private vendetta against Komarov’s Head of Security, the sadistic torturer Grishin, the man who murdered his agents, as the two men chase each other through the ruins of the Kremlin Museum until, inevitably, Monk gets him – with one of his last bullets, bang! Right between the eyes!

The novel closes with Komarov discredited, and the Presidential election converted into a plebiscite on whether the Russians want a restoration of their Royal Family. At the end a distant prince of the British royal family (apparently a thinly disguised Prince Michael of Kent) is seen stepping down from a plane to be acclaimed the new Tsar.


From fact to fantasy

Once again the reader has been carried from the world of pure fact (Aldrich Ames’s shameful CIA career), via plausible fiction (the recruitment and running of a handful of Soviet agents), into a fairly plausible future (the economic and social collapse of Russia and the rise of a fascist demagogue, hmmm), into a dizzyingly improbable finale – the invitation of a British Royal to become the new Tsar of Russia!

The trouble with Russia

I think the book ‘works’ because this conclusion, and the extent to which one superspy, Monk, single-handedly changed the course of history, preposterous as it is, doesn’t eclipse the strongly factual and imaginatively powerful first half of the book. In particular, it is carried along by the harrowingly powerful vision of the astonishing criminality and violence of Russian society, state-funded violence during the communist era, and then the chaos of mafia violence in the post-communist years. (There is a sequence of very interesting journalistic prose explaining the historic origins and development of the Russian mafia, pp.189-192.)

In Robert Harris’s novel, Archangel, the historian character, ‘Fluke’ Kelso, delivers a short but persuasive lecture to the gung-ho American character, O’Brian, saying the key to understanding Russia is the fact that it has never had a Western concept of private property: the entire edifice of Western democracy is based on Common Law which guarantees and underpins the ability of everyone to own their land and goods; Russia has never had that. The country and its goods have always belonged to the most powerful or brutal.

This is reminiscent of the sections in economic historian Niall Ferguson’s books which emphasise the importance of private property as the collateral against which citizens can take out loans with a view to investing in inventions and improvements. No private property – nothing to borrow against – no ability to invest in or improve anything – your best hope of growing income comes from corruption or crime. This one fact explains the dire levels of crime and corruption in all ‘developing’ countries or in a failed western nation like Russia.


Forsyth doesn’t go into economic theory in that way. Instead the book makes a socio-political point: arguing that every society needs a focus, an icon, for people to project their hopes and fears onto. We have the British Royal Family which (so goes the theory) guarantees and underpins institutional and political stability. The Americans have their President, held in semi-royal adulation, a human focus for their patriotism. Russia…

‘All nations need a symbol, human or not, to which they can cleave when times are bad, which can unite them across barriers of language and clan. Komarov is building himself into that national symbol, that icon. No-one will vote against him and in favour of a vacuum. There must be an alternative icon.’ (p.378)

It is this rather simplistic socio-psychological theory which underpins the novel: the Russians, more maybe than other nations, require an icon, a Strong Leader. Komarov is the absolutely wrong person to fufil that role and so the novel, fancifully, imagines the role could be filled by a born-again monarchy. In fact, as we know, 20 years after the book’s publication, that role is currently played by Vladimir Putin, three times President of Russia, and depicted in press photos bare-chested, working out in the gym, horse-riding or hunting in Russia’s vast outback.


As in previous Forsyth novels, there are pages and pages describing in gruesome detail man’s inhumanity to man: the torture of the old cleaner who steals the Black Manifesto and triggers the entire narrative is difficult to read, but so are some of the background stories set during the Second World War or descriptions of KGB ‘interrogations’ or of life in a gulag under the communists.

Set against this, deliberately I think, are scenes describing the astonishing peacefulness and civilisation of workaday England. Forsyth is every bit as plummy as John le Carré, probably more so, but whereas le Carré characters just are posh and his novels marinate us in their privileged private school backgrounds in order to deepen our understanding of them, the posh sequences in Forsyth are there for a political reason.

When Sir Nigel meets the editor of the Daily Telegraph at his club, Forsyth gently satirises the way both grown men still enjoy the boyish food they remember from their prep schools, namely treacle tart* (yummy), crustless cucumber sandwiches or rice pudding with jam! When Probyn is running down possible contenders for the throne of Russia among Europe’s royals, one likely contender is dismissed because he was once caught cheating at backgammon. Cheating at backgammon! (p.398) And when his wife calls to him from the garden that he’s got to go and help her dig over the flowerbeds in their Dorset home (in the village of Langton Matravers), and he tuts about having to do a chore he doesn’t really like, the moment is clearly there to demonstrate the quiet, civilised, understated values which centuries of Common Law, respect for property, and democracy have blessed England with, and couldn’t be more sharply contrasted with the descriptions of people being tortured, executed or dying of exposure in failing Russia.

Fascinating facts

Forsyth’s novels are not only highly researched but often contain chunks of text which read like articles for serious newspapers or just encyclopedia entries, so keen are they to convey facts about organisations, countries, technology or military hardware.

  • The CIA is divided into two main directorates, Intelligence and Operations, each headed by a Deputy Director (hence DDI and DDO), the former intelligence gathering to produce a big daily, weekly, monthly digest; the second actually carrying out operations.
  • In 1991 Gorbachov broke up the KGB: the First Chief Directorate was renamed the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR); the Second Chief Directorate, devoted to catching spies and suppressing internal dissent, renamed the FSB.
  • ELINT – Electronic intelligence gathering.
  • FAPSI – Russian Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information.
  • GRU – the foreign military intelligence main directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
  • GUVD – Moscow’s organised crime department.
  • HUMINT – Human intelligence gathering.
  • MVD – Russian Ministry of the Interior.
  • OMON – Russian Federal Militia Anti-Gang Division.
  • SOBR – Moscow City Rapid Reaction Force.

* ‘The British in middle age are seldom more content than when being offered the sort of food they were fed in nursery school.’ (p.114)


Icon by Frederick Forsyth was published by Transworld Publishers in 1996. All quotes from the 1996 paperback Corgi edition.

Related links

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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