Avenger by Frederick Forsyth (2003)

I found this an absorbing and entertaining read for the following reasons:

1. The narrative interweaves the stories of a number of different characters, which start out in different countries, times and places. Their stories are interesting in themselves, but it is also entertaining to try and figure out how they will eventually all be tied together. It has a very wide variety of location, setting, narrative, and a large number of protagonists, in contrast to some of Forsyth’s other, more monothematic fictions focused on one hero.

2. One of Forsyth’s strengths is his snappy, journalistic summary of conflicts. His early experience was in the Biafran Civil War (1967-70), which laid the basis of his ability to not only grasp the essentials of a conflict but to convey it in clear, emphatic prose. Thus, in successive chapters, Forsyth gives us brisk, journalistic summaries of the Battle of Britain, the Vietnam War, the Yugoslav Civil War, the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and then Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s various terrorist attacks.

3. Forsyth’s other characteristic trait as a novelist is his fascination with bureaucratic procedure and his ability to make it not only readable, but compelling. The character Cal Dexter eventually becomes a Legal Aid lawyer in New York and in the two cases of his which are important to the plot – the defence of a poor black boy accused of computer fraud, and the case of two Cambodian refugees seeking asylum – Forsyth explains the bureaucratic processes and introduces all the official personnel involved in the cases in what ought to be mind-numbing detail, but which I enjoyed, because I found the explanations so lucid and logical. I myself work in a government agency – if only our explanations of processes and procedures were so clear and authoritative!

4. So Forsyth’s ‘characters’ may be types and stereotypes – and anyone looking for the kind of depth of character or character development associated with the ‘literary’ novel, will be pretty scornful of Forsyth’s shallowness – but I am less interested in character than situation, and I find Forsyth’s swift, confident depiction of a number of modern conflict situations fascinating and thrilling. Early in my career I worked in international current affairs ie wars and conflicts, and I produced news items about the first Gulf War (August 2, 1990 – February 28, 1991). I find Forsyth’s use of contemporary conflicts make for a fascinating read, and his quick powerful summaries of events are enjoyably muscular and virile.

How many novels do you know set in the Yugoslav civil wars or against either of the Gulf Wars? Why aren’t there more? Why are more contemporary British novels set in the court of Henry VIII or in ancient Rome than in the recent conflicts where British troops have fought and died?

Maybe because the historical settings are so long ago and far away that you can pretty much make it up. Whereas there have been lots of factual accounts of our recent wars and so weaving fiction in among its well-known intricacies is trickier. So I find Forsyth’s confident, almost reckless ability to set his stories amid recent conflicts not just fascinating but admirable.

Plot strands

American Calvin Dexter comes from a tough background, child of an itinerant builder, who volunteers to fight in Vietnam and becomes one of only a handful of ‘Tunnel Rats’. These are the US special forces trained to go down into the Viet Cong’s vast network of underground tunnels, overcome a legion of gruesome booby traps, and kill the enemy. Forsyth’s chapters describing this in documentary detail are riveting and terrifying. Calvin and his partner tunnel rat (nicknamed the Badger and the Mole, respectively) may be clichéd Hollywood heroes, but it doesn’t matter: their role is not to explore the human psyche, but to be tokens, like the pieces in Monopoly or Risk – meaningless in themselves, but important because of the matrix of situations and places they give us imaginative entry into.

In fact having given the novel another of his short abstract titles (cf The Negotiator, The Deceiver) Forsyth goes whole hog and gives every one of the thirty-three chapters an abstract name eg The Lawyer, The Killer, The Geek, and so on. In a novel like this it is the very anonymity of the characters, precisely the way they play powerful types and predictable roles, which gives the narrative its force.

Cal returns to the States and uses his GI Bill money to study as a lawyer. Practicing as a Legal Aid lawyer in the mean streets of Manhattan, he covers thousands of hard luck cases, but two are singled out – he not only gets a poor black boy from the slums off a charge of hacking into a major bank and stealing a million dollars, he hassles the bank’s CEO into hiring the boy as a security adviser. And he takes pity on a middle-aged couple fleeing Cambodia, who stowed away on a ship to New York, persuading the immigration judge to take a kindly view and let them stay in the States – even though Calvin discovers they’re not Cambodian at all, but Vietnamese, and that the husband in fact fought against Cal’s own unit! With typical Forsythian manliness, Cal says, ‘It was long ago and far away and we were both soldiers’ and moves on.

The spring of the plot occurs early on, when an idealistic young American, Ricky Colenzo, who’s volunteered to go work for a small NGO in Yugoslavia during the brutal civil wars there, kindly agrees to drive one of the Muslim staff up into the mountains to his old village to check on his family. They run into a pack of Serbian psychopaths who have already massacred everyone in the village and who now kill Ricky and his companion, by forcing them into the village cesspit and pushing them under with staves and poles, ignoring their pleas for mercy, drowning them in liquid effluent.

Ricky’s grandfather is an influential Canadian billionaire of a type familiar with Forsyth’s fiction, one Stephen Edmonds, from Windsor Ontario, a man with high level contacts in the Senate and US Administration. (It is here that the early chapter featuring two fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain finally makes sense – one of them was Edmonds, the other a senior official in the Administration who he now asks a favour from). This contact has contacts who have contacts which eventually lead Edmonds to a British firm of mercenaries, in particular an ex-Paratrooper named Phil Gracey, who specialises in finding and retrieving people, for money. In line with Forsyth’s typological approach it is easy to forget Gracey’s name because he is referred to throughout the text as The Tracker.

There is then a long and persuasive account of how The Tracker travels to the Balkans to investigate Ricky’s disappearance. There is a lot of plausible detail about false identities, fake passports, maps and travelling through the wartorn landscape. Forsyth factually but powerfully conveys the topography of warzones, and the pitifulness of its survivors. He is blunt and no-nonsense when describing the gangsters and psychopaths who made up the so-called ‘paramilitaries’ and matter of fact about the way they murder, rape and torture their victims.

The Tracker establishes when Ricky went missing and that he was probably murdered, but the trail goes cold up in the mountains and he is forced to abandon the search, sending Edmonds a full report. The focus then switches to an account of the naive Serbian young man, Milan Rajak, raised in a nice middle-class Belgrade household. He is contacted out of the blue by a friend of a friend who’s in a Serbian paramilitary which needs a radio operator. Naively believing he is doing his patriotic duty, Rajak goes off and joins the gang of a dozen hard men who he soon realises are extremely hardened psychopaths and killers. He is an eye-witness to the sadistic killing of the young American aid worker and, after throwing up and crying, asks to leave the gang. Its psychopath leader, Zoran Zilic, agrees but says if he ever breathes a word of what he’s seen and been involved in, Zoran will find him, cut off his penis with a broken wineglass and stuff it down his throat.

Back home Rajak goes into a long depression marked by anxiety attacks and sweating nightmares. He eventually shocks his parents by asking to go into the (Serbian Orthodox) church. We are introduced to monastery life and a sympathetic abbot, but the point of this plotline is that, eventually, years later, Rajak writes a full confession of the events surrounding Ricky’s murder. It comes to the attention of the authorities and, eventually, to security services who tip off The Tracker. He returns to Serbia, interviews the boy, and establishes the name of the leader of the paramilitary – Zoran Zilic.

As usual with Forsyth, there is some interesting background on the leaders of different gangs, the Serbian warlords, as well as insight into the rise and fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s ugly regime. Through this we learn that Zilic, after acquiring a fortune as thug-in-chief to the regime, realised the end was nigh when the US started bombing Belgrade (March to June 1999), and disappeared. The Tracker establishes all this and, using Rajak’s account, is able to take doctors, police and forensic scientists to the ruined village in the mountains and to the septic tank, and to recover the remains of poor Ricky Colenso. These are cleaned, put in a casket and flown back to the States for burial. The Tracker has finished his task and is paid.

Going after Zoran Zilic

It is now that Edmonds launches part two of the novel by commissioning a different man to track down Zoran Zilic. He uses his contacts to discover the existence of a freelance American fixer, codenamed The Avenger, who specialises in ‘rendition’ ie illegally kidnapping and transporting wrongdoers to the States. The way to contact him is to leave details in an obscure magazine devoted to antique aircraft. Only now do we realise the significance of the opening scene where we were introduced to ex-Vietnam vet, Cal Dexter, jogging round the neighbourhood of his house in the country. Because when he got home, had a shower and squeezed some fresh orange juice, Cal opened a copy of this magazine and saw the ad.

Through a series of front companies, secret drops, fake names etc, The Avenger takes his instructions from Edmonds. Not to eliminate Zilic – that would be too easy, too merciful. To bring him back to the US to stand trial and be locked up forever. Now begins a long sequence where we observe Cal call in favours from the miscellaneous characters we met early in the story: for example, the black kid he got off the computer hacking charge, Washington Lee, is now a successful computer security consultant and Cal asks him to break into certain databases to help his search. It turns out the wife in the Vietnamese couple is an expert forger: Cal gets her to make various passports.

Cal tracks Zilic to the United Arab Emirates where he is seen consorting with various unsavoury types including, to his astonishment, a representative of the CIA. Puzzled but undeterred, Cal makes the breakthrough in his investigation, which is to establish that Zilic has spent his ill-gotten fortune building a James Bond-style impenetrable fortress-cum-farm, a self-sufficient colony almost, on the Caribbean coast of the fictional South American country of San Martin.

This section is both tense and meticulous as Forsyth characteristically devotes a great deal of attention to the multiple identities, fake passports and backup stories which The Avenger constructs in preparation for, flying to Amsterdam to create one. But Cal’s blood goes cold when he receives an anonymous phone call tipping him off that the authorities are on to his plans; the CIA knows he’s coming.

Project Peregrine

Because unknown to Edmonds or The Avenger, Zilic is at the centre of an extremely secret CIA plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden, Project Peregrine. We now have some more lengthy backstory describing the intelligence career of Paul Devereux III. Unlike his intelligence colleagues, he wasn’t deceived that the war was over when the Soviet Union collapsed and communist regimes around the world disappeared. He was an Arabist, familiar with the thoughts and rhetoric of the Islamic world and realised a new threat was arising in that area. Forsyth, once again, gives a useful, brisk and authoritative overview of the slowly rising tide of Islamic terrorism and, in particular, a potted biography of bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

This is the plausible historical background to the rather far-fetched plot. For in the ruins of Belgrade amid the chaos after Milosevic’s fall, was some weapons grade uranium. For years Al Qaeda have been trying to get their hands on some to fulfil their aim of striking a blow against the West. The plan is this: Zilic will play the part of a murderous Serbian warlord (easy enough), rich but greedy, who stole some of the uranium before he fled Belgrade. Now he is willing to sell it to the highest bidder. Through underworld contacts he will establish contact with Al Qaeda. Negotiations will lead to a meeting with senior AQ staff. At this meeting Zilic will suddenly and unreasonably double his price. Almost certainly this will prompt the AQ VIPs to make a phone call to their boss, bin Laden, who never leaves his Afghan hideout. High overhead US spy satellites will be primed to intercept the call and establish the location of the recipient. The split second it is established a Tomahawk cruise missile will be fired from a US warship stationed in the Gulf. Three minutes later the location which took the phone call and everything and everyone around it will be obliterated.

This elaborate (and pretty flaky) plan has been two years in the making, and now we see the whole thing from Devereaux’s point of view. All the chatter, all the word on the street, is that Al Qaeda are about to launch some major attack, a big one, against the US. Devereaux sees his mission as absolutely vital, to cut off the head of the organisation before some dreadful atrocity is carried out. So: Avenger or Devereaux: who are we rooting for?

Throughout the book Forsyth makes us constantly aware of the timeline of events: as the murder of young Ricky in 1995 led onto the Tracker’s return visit to Serbia in 1999, and then the commissioning of The Avenger. Now it is August 2001, just turning into September. Devereaux is frantic that Project Peregrine is not disrupted. For if Zilic feels he is being threatened in any way, he will abort his role for the CIA and the entire anti-AQ plot will collapse.

It is this which informs his panic-stricken orders to stop at nothing to prevent The Avenger finding or even spooking Zilic. But someone in his own organisation is leaking: hence the anonymous tip-off to Cal before he leaves the States.

Final act

Like a Jacobean tragedy, a set of players or tokens or ‘characters’, enmeshed in a whole matrix of plans and intentions, are now launched on collision course, and it makes for a gripping and thrilling read. The Tracker makes his way to San Martin – itself portrayed as a typical banana republic with a very evil head of secret police, well used to torture and, of course, friendly with the CIA. Devereaux sends his number two to work with this loathesome man to try and catch The Tracker, a decorated war hero.

Thus the final chapters pit Devereaux, his man on the spot and the San Martin police, against the solo mission of Cal Dexter: who will get to Zilic first? Will The Tracker even be able to smuggle himself into the country now all its border guards are alerted? Will he make it to Zilic’s coastal fortress and stand a chance of penetrating the awesome defences built for Zilic by his South African architect, with all its razor wire, Afrikaans security guards, Doberman guard dogs and so on? Will Devereaux be able to warn Zilic and so carry through his long-planned operation Peregrine, or will the Tracker bring the whole thing down in flames?

9/11

And all this is set against something the reader knows but the characters do not: for The Tracker’s entry into San Martin and final attempt on the fortress happens in the first days of September 2001. Ie Devereaux is correct, Al Qaeda are planning a terrorist ‘spectacular’ against the US, and it will occur on 9/11.

At moments I wondered whether it was kind of ‘blasphemous’ for Forsyth to use the grotesque tragedy of 9/11 as backdrop to a novel. But plenty of novels (and movies) use the Holocaust the same way, and all aspects of the Second World War, and 9/11 has itself been the setting for novels and movies so, logically, no…

Maybe it’s the bloodless, nerveless way Forsyth uses it as just another backdrop which rankled slightly, illogically. It isn’t given any special resonance or depth of horror. It is another in Forsyth’s gallery of atrocities.

Which prompts the thought that Forsyth’s fictions exist in a world of permanent war. In this world there is only conflict between cunning enemies and bonds forged between tough professional men. There are hardly any women in Forsyth’s novels and no romance (Cal’s teenage daughter is abducted and murdered by Hispanic sex slavers, who he pursues and executes, in a vivid sub-plot. When he returns some weeks later it is to find his wife has committed suicide. The net result, though is to make him, once again, a Man Alone.)

With no women or love interest, with no civilising or restraining forces, in Forsyth’s world there is just endless conflict, driven by evil men, causing appalling civilian casualties, which the intrinsically moral & decent Western nations struggle to combat and contain. The lack of psychology, the lack of women, the lack of realistic characters, the often preposterous plots, have led Forsyth to be widely ridiculed in literary circles. But three points:

1. Forsyth would always have said that we do live in a world of constant conflict and threat; it’s just that most people in the comfy West refuse to acknowledge or admit it. And – from my days in international affairs – I couldn’t agree more with him. Our way of life is faced with serious existential threats. Events of the past year or two have finally brought this to a lot more people’s attention, whether it’s the machine gun attacks in Paris or the escalating refugee crisis.

2. Forsyth used to be ridiculed for being an alarmist right-winger. Ironically, he has lived to see a lot of Western opinion move in his direction. When terrorists are massacring civilians in Paris or London, when a million refugees, terrorists and criminals among them, threaten to swamp European countries ie when push comes to shove, it turns out that many citizens of the comfy West are forced to make decisions about the actual world, the larger world beyond their comfortable lives, and those choices are the ones Forsyth was way ahead of us about. Yes, we do want strong security services; Yes, we do want increased funding for intelligence and surveillance work; Yes, we do want hard men from the Army and armed police to patrol the streets, if it is the only way to guarantee our security. It turns out that we do live in a world of permanent conflict which Forsyth has been portraying.

3. In a narrowly literary sense, Forsyth’s novels are so flat, so lacking in psychology or nuance, as almost to be avant-garde. In fact reading the next novel, The Afghan, I find many of the wars covered in this book also feature in that one. Of course this is because the same wars have occurred in the last 25 years, but within Forsyth’s fiction, they are used like familiar settings or landscapes, like the topographical features of, say, Hardy’s Wessex. A familiar and recurring and even repetitive backdrop against which the minutely detailed, carefully worked-out and somehow totally improbable narratives are set.


Credit

Avenger by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2003. All quotes and references are from the 2003 Bantam 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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