The Veteran by Frederick Forsyth (2001)

He was carrying his preferred weapon of choice, the M-16 carbine: short-barrelled, light and utterly dependable. His right thumb slipped the catch silently to ‘automatic’ mode and then he fired. (p.442)

The Veteran is a collection of five short stories:

1. The Veteran (98 pages)

An old man with a limp is mugged in Tottenham, foolishly puts up a fight, is knocked to the floor and kicked about the body and head with steel-capped boots, all witnessed by an Asian shopkeeper. For the next hundred pages Forsyth gives a super-detailed account of the police investigation and of the processes and procedures which the medical services, police, Crown Prosecution Service, the magistrate, the solicitor and the barrister go through in order to investigate this crime, any crime.

During the weeks that this all takes the patient’s condition worsens and he finally dies still, despite the police’s best efforts, unidentified. Throughout this period his medical status and treatment are also described in typically Forsythian detail.

The villains are quickly identified, tracked down and arrested. After a tremendous amount of work to get them into court, the copper leading the case, Detective Inspector Burns, watches as the smarmy barrister who’s doing his one Legal Aid case of the year, effortlessly destroys the prosecution argument and gets the guilty men off. We share Burns’s outrage and despair as they walk free and then laugh and give him the finger outside the courthouse.

‘Hope you’re proud of yourself’, Burns snarls at the perfumed QC. ‘It has to do with the triumph of justice,’ the QC murmurs in reply. It is now at the end of the process that the police have a breakthrough in identifying the victim, hitherto anonymous, when someone comes forward in answer to a newspaper appeal, and Burns finally gets the man’s full name and address.

Going to the dead man’s flat Burns finds it full of Army memorabilia and books. There is a photo of the dead man with a small group of fellow soldiers and Burns a) learns that he was a member of the SAS b) realises with a jolt that the officer in the photo is the same man who went on to become the smarmy QC who got the villains off and who he was so rude to earlier that day ie he worked with and knew the murder victim very closely.

Suddenly Burns (and the reader) realises that the QC’s whispered words about justice can be taken in a completely different sense, not as supercilious indifference to the savage kicking of the old veteran but as the very opposite, an ominous threat. That night the bodies of two men are found in Hackney Marshes and the coroner reports they had been murdered in an unusual way – strangled with piano wire. They are, of course, the two murderers we saw walking free from the courtroom…

a) I don’t think I’ve ever read such a thorough and complete account of police and medical and court procedure surrounding a crime. Usually in a work of fiction the interest is in the experiences of one or two of the characters: here there is no exploration of human personality, instead a meticulous fascination with the ‘machinery’ of justice.

b) After accompanying the good and honest copper DI Burns on his long quest to make sure all the paperwork is correct, all the processes are strictly adhered to and all the civil rights are respected, we too share DI Burns’s bitter disgust at the ease with which two obvious criminals are let off the hook by the system.

c) Which makes the twists in the last few pages – the revelation of the victim’s heroism (making his murder all the more bitter and unjust), and then the final twist in which the QC, by implication, dishes out his own kind of justice to the two murderers, all the more emotionally fulfilling. Yes! We cheer, justice is done.

I put down the story in a daze realising I had just read a long, powerful and convincing apology for extra-judicial revenge.

2. The Art of the Matter (88 pages)

A talented young state-educated art expert working for one of London’s leading auctioneers points out to his boss that a grimy old painting handed in by an actor down on his luck is in fact a rare Renaissance masterpiece. His boss unscrupulously pays the original owner a pittance then sells the piece on to another gallery for a nominal price, where it is a) revealed in all its glory with much press & publicity b) sold for a fortune, which the unscrupulous dealer splits with the second gallery. The first art house holds an enquiry into why such a valuable piece was allowed to slip through their fingers, in which the smarmy public school management band together and blame it all on the innocent young expert (‘not one of us, old boy’), who is fired.

Now, the sacked employee’s girlfriend just happens to be a peroxided, tattooed computer expert. They track down the original owner of the painting and explain that he was diddled out of hundreds of thousands of pounds, at which point the three of them decide to go into business as a group of con artists.

In the rest of the story they take elaborate revenge on the unscrupulous managers at the auctioneers by faking another work of art and hacking into business computers to create fake authentication papers. They persuade the smarmy gallery manager that he’s stumbled upon another masterpiece and encourage him into a plan whereby he once again tries to stitch up his bosses by acquiring the (fake) picture he thinks is worth millions.

He instructs one of the ‘house’ employees to make tame bids for it, imagining the house will pick it up for 5 or 10 grand, get it restored, and then sell it for millions. Unfortunately, the scammers have a counter-plan which is for the actor to pretend to be a toff who, inexplicably to the to smarmy manager, insists on counter-bidding what looks to everyone else like a grimy piece of tat. Having set the ball rolling the smarmy manager is forced to go with his scam even as the actor/bidder pushes the price up to quarter of a million pounds.

He stops there and makes a smart exit and the smarmy manager has to explain to a furious head of the auction house that the grimy old painting is really worth a fortune – Look, he has the authentication documents from one of London’s leading experts. But he doesn’t know that authentication is a fake. And so when the house pay a leading art restorer to wipe away the grime of centuries he reveals — a Madonna and Child with a nice shiny Mercedes Benz in the background. Ha ha ha. You’ve been conned! The smarmy boss is sacked. The good guys walk off with the money. Justice, as always in Forsyth – though not necessarily always according to the Law – is done.

As usual in Forsyth, the procedures whereby auction houses value ‘hand-in’ art works, the mechanics of a major auction, the way computers can be hacked into and fake letters and transactions created, all this and much more is described by Forsyth in meticulous detail, whereas the characters are the thinnest of cogs necessary to drive the plot forwards. It reminded me a little of an Ealing comedy, even more of a Terry Thomas comedy from the late 1950s, something like Make Mine Mink, a world where crooks are decent chaps and the smarmy posh boy in the top hat gets his richly deserved come-uppance.

3. The Miracle (42 pages)

An American tourist and his wife are visiting Siena in Italy. She trips and sprains her ankle and they take shelter in a nearby courtyard. Here they meet a tall leathery stranger who spins them an incredible story about how every year he comes back to this courtyard to celebrate the ‘miracle’ of the title.

He explains that he was a young German Army doctor during the retreat up Italy in 1944 and that here, in this courtyard, he was given charge of looking after hundreds of injured and wounded Germans, Allies and other nationalities. He had no painkillers and soon ran out of bandages and everything needed to treat men in terrible pain, but then a strange shadowy woman appeared, swabbing their wounds and stroking their brows. Amazingly, none of the mortally injured servicemen died. This inexplicable behaviour, this ‘miracle’, continued for four nights until the Germans evacuated their wounded and the Allies arrived.

Years later the German was revisiting the place and got into conversation with a German priest who told him the story about a young woman who lived in Siena during the Renaissance and who disobeyed her family to set up a convent of nuns caring for the sick. Eventually her disobedience provoked her family to hire mercenaries to seize her back, who overstepped the mark and and beat and killed her, plunging her family into mourning and regret.

Could it have been the ghost of this nun, herself martyred for her compassion, who had returned to tend and save the German doctor’s injured troops during those four intense days in 1944?

The American (along with the reader) has been completely entranced by this long powerful narrative and, at the end of the story, on an impulse, crams hundreds of dollars into the offertory box for the convent next door, before helping his wife off towards their hotel saying that was the most amazing story he’d ever heard.

Out of the shadows steps the German doctor’s partner, a hippy chick. ‘That story works every time,’ she jokes, as they both open the offertory box and remove the American dollars. The entire mind-bogglingly detailed narrative turns out to have been an elaborate scam.

a) The story is told with complete deadpan conviction. As usual Forsyth provides a 100% plausible account of the horrors of the Italian campaign, the bloodiness of the soldiers’ wounds as inflicted by various types of bullet, shell, flak and shrapnel, with lots of high level explanation of the strategies of the US general attacking, and German general defending, Siena. When the narrator switches to telling the story of the young Italian nun-saint, the Renaissance period details are equally thorough and convincing.

b) In addition the whole story is set against the backdrop of the famous pageant, the procession of the medieval guilds of Siena which climaxes in the Palio, the horse race around the main square. As you would expect, this is not so much described as explained, as if in an encyclopedia. Forsyth doesn’t describe the horse slipping; he explains that only a little layer of sand separates their hooves from the rounded cobbles beneath, which makes slipping inevitable, so that there is almost always an equine casualty every year. Not description; factual explanation.

c) Is the twist in the tail, where the whole thing is revealed to be an outrageous fiction, a shallow ‘boom boom’ joke, or a clever post-modern disruption of readerly expectation? Or both.

4. The Citizen (44 pages)

Another fantastically detailed account of the processes and procedures of highly qualified professionals, in this case pilots flying a British Airways plane from Bangkok to London, and the Customs official who is alerted by a phone call that drugs are being smuggled on the flight.

A family man with a naggy wife and a querulous little daughter spots a scruffy hippy and a very smooth businessman having an improbable conversation by the loos half way through the long haul flight. He writes an anonymous tip-off to the pilots, who radio ahead to Customs at Heathrow who stop and search both suspects – and find nothing.

In the final scene the head Customs officer leads a raid on a suburban house where they’d followed one of the men, to find the drug smuggling gang dividing up the proceeds and the twist is —- their boss turns out to be the harassed family man who wrote the note to throw the officials off the track. Ah ha.

In a final double twist it turns out that the hippy he implicated in the note, and who is seized in the raid on the house, is himself an undercover agent for Her Majesty’s Customs, which we only learn from a hurried aside between him and the Customs man. Double ah ha.

But the real weight of the story consists of the tremendous detail it goes into about the processes and procedures involved in flying a massive 747 jet, in securing departure and arrival times at international airports, showing us how windspeed affects flying time, introducing us to the hierarchy of staff on a plane like this, and then to the home life, the long hours and the devotion to duty of the drug fighting Customs officer.

There is a plot, of course, but Forsyth’s admiration of the professionalism of the lead pilot and the Customs officer is so burnished and unstinting as to almost amount to an advert for a career in those professions.

5. Whispering Wind (180 pages)

The longest story in the collection it is in two parts, the first believable, the second preposterous.

1. Ben Craig was raised in the wilderness of Western United States after the Civil War, becoming a seasoned hunter and scout. He is hired by the troop of General George Custer on his ill-fated march into the Yellowstone area to track down and expel Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. On the way, he’s with a small platoon which raids an isolated camp of Indians, butchering the woman, old people and children. (The story makes you hate the US Army of this period and the US authorities with their continual breaking of treaties and murdering of Indians.)

Craig manages to save the life of an attractive young squaw who had escaped into the riverside reeds, though shot through the thigh. Later, in the General’s camp, when an Army captain tortures her a little to make her talk, then gives his men permission to rape her, Craig, undoes her bonds, sets her on a pony, and helps her escape. When this is discovered, he is beaten up and hog-tied to the back of a horse. Next morning, in this condition he is led along with Custer’s troop into the valley of the Little Big Horn and witnesses at first hand the massacre of Custer and his men. When his horse is shot from under him he falls, strikes his head and is rendered unconscious.

When he awakes the chief supervising the looting of the Army corpses orders him brought before the elders of the tribe where, of course, the squaw he saved – named Whispering Wind – tells her story. Because of his chivalry his life is spared, but he must remain with the tribe. He follows them as they split up and head to mountains to be safe from Army revenge.

After living with them for months he and Whispering Wind fall slowly in love. One night she wakes him and frees him from his teepee, takes him to the pony she’s prepared with supplies and they ride off for the inaccessible mountains. The Indians awaken to their escape and a Cheyenne party set off, determined to avenge their honour. This party is then spotted by a troop of US cavalry, who have also been ordered to capture Craig who, unknown to him, is now widely being accused of being a spy who led Custer into an Indian trap.

Craig keeps one step ahead of them right up into the remotest mountain fastness where they hole up in a cave. Here they see a vision of an ancient Indian spirit who tells them that Whispering Wind must return to her people: if they stay here together they will both die; if she returns to her tribe and people, they will one day be reunited.

The story itself having adopted a tone of guileless primitivism, they both accept this prophecy, she saddles up and rides sadly back down the mountain, Craig wraps himself in a blanket in his remote cave and falls asleep. And while he sleeps a strange darkness covers the sky and then a torrential snowfall falls from the sky covering everything.

— As you would expect, Forsyth’s account of the build up to the massacre of Little Big Horn is crisply factual and thoroughly researched, as is his account of the customs and culture of Cheyenne Indians, or Craig’s backwoods tracking, hunting and survivalist skills.

2. In part two Craig wakes up to find the snow gone, trots down the mountainside keeping an eye open for the Cheyenne party or US troops but we, the readers, are swiftly told that the year is no longer 1872, it is 1972! Goodness, it’s a Rip Van Winkle story! Wrapped in his snug blanket Craig has slept for a century.

To cut a long story short, he discovers a replica fort, a perfect copy from his era, which has been built as a tourist attraction and study centre for young students of the period. For a humorous 10 or 15 pages Craig thinks it is the real thing and they accept him as a rather smelly, oddly spoken volunteer. But then the penny drops and he is distraught, well, for a page or two. Any attempt at exploring the psychological impact of a devastating situation like this is briskly skipped over. Within a few pages Craig is reconciled to his lot but continues to believe the Prophecy of the Holy Man on the Mountain.

And so, as in all good fairy stories, one day among all of the teachers bringing a coachload of excited kids to explore the replica fort and the students all dressed in frontier outfits and playing at living the frontier lifestyle, appears the spitting image of Whispering Wind. Craig is thunderstruck and pretty quickly explains that she is his true love reincarnated. Her name is Linda Pickett and ‘she is a very beautiful and healthy young woman.’ (p.407) Initially puzzled and then irritated, Linda finds Craig’s open-eyed honesty somehow persuasive. It takes her a few visits to realise she is smitten.

3. Which is complicated because it turns out she is engaged to Kevin, the spoilt son of Big Bill Braddock, you know, the South Dakota Beef King, and he is not taking no for an answer. He threatens to ruin Linda’s father, owner of a small local bank, if she backs out of the wedding to his son. Seeing the impact it will have on her father, Linda reluctantly agrees to go ahead, like the princess in a fairy tale. But even as she is stepping up to the outdoors altar, in the sumptuously decorated lawn of the Bar T ranch, surrounded by a 1,000 local notables dressed to the nines, and as the preacher gets to the ‘If any man knows any just cause etc’ part, Craig rides forth on his horse, and says,

‘I so speak. She is betrothed to me.’ (p.410)

He gallops up the aisle, grabs Linda up onto his horse, kicks over a few security guards, leaps over the high table shattering the big champagne fountain, jumps a few fences and gallops off into the blue. The scene is vividly and humorously described, reminding me of one of the car pile-ups involving the hick southern sheriff (the tobacco-chewing Sheriff J.W. Pepper) in the Roger Moore-era James Bond movies.

Big Bill gets his private helicopter and all his security guards onto chasing the couple, while the State police, under the control of wise old sheriff Paul Lewis, also set off in pursuit. All eerily echoing events 100 years before…

The pursuit up into the mountains is long and eventful. Craig chops down some trees to block the only road up there (causing a crash in which some of Braddock’s men are injured). Then shoots several of the pursuers with a hand-made bow and arrow as they cross the creek. Then the most committed of Braddock’s men, a Special Forces man who saw action in ‘Nam, tracks Craig silently through the pine woods. But he too is tricked into an ambush and almost has his arm severed when Craig throws an Indian hatchet at him.

Finally, after his gruelling quest, Craig lifts the young woman, now wholly identifying as Whispering Wind, off his exhausted horse who lays down and dies. They roll themselves up in the same blanket as Craig had done 100 years before. The sheriff and his men have caught up with Braddock by this stage and disarmed them. ‘No more shooting, goddamit.’

In the morning he’ll go up the mountain with a white flag of truce. But now the sun has set, it has gotten too dark to continue the pursuit, and the cops make a base and light a fire. Suddenly through the gloom they hear a sharp piercing scream, a cry of ecstasy, as Craig finally takes, possesses and owns his squaw, after waiting a hundred years.

But the temperature keeps falling, down to zero and then lower. Now the men can’t sleep, can barely talk as the sky grows heavy with cloud. The cops retreat back to the forest line where it is a bit warmer, leaving an obstinate Braddock still camped up at the high point. The local ranger explains to Lewis that there is an ancient Indian tradition that sometimes the Everywhere Spirit comes to visit these mountains bringing with him the Cold of the Long Sleep. Aha. So that is what got Craig first time round.

In the early hours, just as 100 years before, steady snowfall gives rise to an avalanche which sweeps down the valley burying Braddock and his men. In the morning Lewis calls in a chopper which flies him up to the ledge where they had seen Craig’s distant fire the night before. They find Linda/Whispering Wind almost frozen to death, and she is choppered out to an ICU at Billings hospital. Next to her is a ragged pile of fibres, hair, the rusted relics of a gun and knife, next to that the bones of a horse long rotted and eaten by scavengers. It is the body of Craig and his horse, given a ghostly existence for these past few months, finally liberated and returned to ashes.

His spirit has returned to the ancestors. Whispering Wind was mated by a ghost, and the whole narrative now has the strangeness of a ghost story, a ghost story with M-16s and police helicopters. The sheriff bundles all these organic remains into a blanket and then gets himself choppered out.

Cut to the funeral for the unknown bones. Whispering Wind is there and, shucks, so is kindly Sheriff Paul. He throws a flower onto the coffin then offers her a lift home. Now Linda Pickett once more, she was visited in hospital by Big Braddock’s widow who liked her, forgave her dumping her good-for-nothing son, and offered her a cottage on the ranch and a job as secretary. As Linda turns her winter coat flaps open and reveals she is four months pregnant with the child of a hundred-year-old ghost! Spooky!

— This story is as free of adult emotion or feeling, but as deep and compelling, as a fairy tale. It doesn’t bother anyone that the three little pigs or the troll under the bridge can talk. In the same spirit, why get upset at the story of a Wild West frontiersman who falls asleep for a hundred years and is then reunited with the reincarnation of the love of his life? Looking for verisimilitude is looking for the wrong thing.

Then she smiled, for she loved him very much, and believed his promise, and was happy again. (p.426)

Or maybe the strangely ‘magical’ affect comes from the way the narrative taps into Jungian archetypes which, no matter how naive and simplistic the surface narrative, stir something deep in all of us. The improbability, in fact the ludicrous implausibility, of the story doesn’t matter at all because of the deeper psychological patterns and emotional needs which it addresses and fulfils, a sense of conflicts faced and reconciled, of mysteries evoked, dramatised and then overcome, which triumphs over the story’s surface corniness.

In fact this last tale, in particular, reminds me of Henry Rider Haggard’s ripping yarns, King Solomon’s Mines or She or the haunting Nada the Lily. It’s odd to think of Forsyth, whose stories are always studded with hi-tech info about guns and helicopters and radios, being in some sense the modern heir to the chaste, unsubtle, unpsychological, yet weirdly compelling yarns of the late Victorians. Kipling would have loved this story.


Humour

Jack Burns was a man of simple pleasures and one of them was his Sunday morning lie-in. That day he did not get it. The phone rang at seven fifteen. It was the desk sergeant at Dover nick. ‘There’s a man just come in here who takes his dog for a walk early in the morning,’ said the sergeant. Burns wondered blearily just how long, if he really put his mind to it, it would take to strangle the sergeant. (p.52)

In among all these facts, though, Forsyth has a suavely dry sense of humour. He understands the world and he finds its ways and people amusing. This humour comes more to the fore in the short stories because short stories often rely on a twist or sting in the tail and unexpected twists are, by definition, ironic, the opposite of what you had up to that moment expected. There are structural ironies or reversals in most of them, the revelation that the narrator has been fooling the reader all along, as in The Citizen, or describing a complicated confidence trick as in The Art of the Matter.

Forsyth’s prose is well turned out, brisk and factual, but he does allow himself the occasional humorous aside, and when they come they generally capture the blokey humour of hard-pressed, hard working police officers, customs officers, pilots and so on. Jokes from the professional classes.

The official view

Sheriff Paul Lewis was a good peace officer, unflappable, firm but kindly. He preferred to help people out rather than lock them up, but the law was the law and he had no hesitation in enforcing it. (p.416)

Forsyth is always squarely on the side of the authorities. His military adventure books (such as The Fist of God) describe in mind-boggling detail how all the relevant sections of the army, navy, air force, special forces and so on take part in Operation Desert Shield. Two of the stories here, about the murder and the drug smuggling, carry on that vein of thorough explanation of the processes and procedures of police, A&E doctors, magistrates, lawyers, of airline pilots and drugs officers. His protagonists may operate outside the letter of the law, but they are good guys with their hearts in the right place.

Acronyms and initialisms

The first story in particular contains a blizzard of acronyms and initialisms. I wondered whether, by listing them in the order they appear, you could piece together the story just from the acronyms. As in an experimental text, a story just from initialisms:

  • A&E – Accident and Emergency unit of a hospital
  • CID – Criminal Investigation Department
  • DI – Detective Inspector
  • POLSA – Police Search Adviser
  • DS – Detective Sergeant
  • ID – identity
  • ABCD – A&E process for securing an accident victim by checking Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability.
  • ICU – Intensive Care Unit.
  • UAM – Unidentified Adult Male
  • CRO Criminal Records Office
  • FMO – Force Medical Officer
  • DNA – Deoxyribonucleic acid
  • PC – Police Constable
  • RIP – Rest In Peace
  • WPC – Woman Police Officer
  • CPS – Crown Prosecution Service
  • GBH – Grievous Bodily Harm
  • SLR – Self Loading Rifle
  • NATO – North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
  • QC – Queen’s Counsel
  • DSS – Department of Social Security
  • BATT – British Army Training Team
  • SAS – Special Air Service

Not really. But the exercise gives a good flavour of the official processes and the bodies and titles into which Forsyth puts all his energy, making little or no attempt at psychology or depth of character. In the two procedural tales, especially, the characters are just cogs in the interplay of organisations, the slender wires which keep the big machinery ticking over.

Not bothering with emotion, motive or unnecessary colour gives the stories an absorbing, no-nonsense, ‘get on with the identification parade’ kind of briskness. In Forsyth, speed of action and detailed factual accuracy completely replace the traditional virtues of the novel. And very enjoyable too.


Credit

The Veteran by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2001. All quotes from the 2002 Corgi paperback 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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