Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth (2015)

The chief reporter was the veteran Frank Keeler, a terrific journalist who became my mentor. He was a stickler for accuracy, dunning into all cubs he ever mentored his personal philosophy: check, check and check again. Then write. I still do. (p.107)

This is a very entertaining, amusing, informative and life-affirming book. What a great life Forsyth has had and with what brio he sets it down in his brisk, non-nonsense style.

The challenge of autobiography

We think and feel and speak and interact with other people all the time in a myriad of complex ways. Just writing down everything that happens in a day would be challenging, because so much of our interactions have a long history of interactions preceding them, and ramify out in all directions. So if describing everything that happens in a day would be challenging, how do you go about writing about your entire life? I was born here. My dad did this, he started out doing that but someone offered him a job, but he was never really happy, I remember him saying one day that… It could go on forever.

Forsyth solves the problem of what to write about yourself by converting his life story into a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales. He has been turning complex political and social issues into 500-word columns for the Daily Express for decades. Briskly told in short declarative sentences, he now applies the same style and technique to his own life, turning it into 60 short (3- or 4-page) chapters, each focusing on a telling moment, incident or event, generally concluding with a humorous or resonant punchline.

A month later I turned six and the dream [of one day flying a Spitfire] did not die.

That summer of 1948 was the first time I had seen a human corpse. It would not be the last. Not by fifty thousand. (p.36)

So much for official denials. (p.245)

I have never emigrated and never will. (p.314)

And that is why I hate mortars. (p.250)

Biographical sketch

Forsyth was born in 1938 and turned out to be an only child. His parents appear to have run a furrier shop in Ashford, Kent (only referred to once or twice with, alas, no detail of furs, skins, pelts etc).

His father had started out as a rubber planter in Malaya in the 1930s but – as is described in one of the early ‘articles’ – was advised to get out and return to England. He did so, a few years later the war started, the Japanese invaded, and none of his fellow planters ever returned from the Japanese prison camps.

Forsyth was evacuated from Kent during the Blitz, but returned later in the war and then had what sounds like an idyllic childhood – camping in the countryside, learning to skin and cook rabbits, cycling round country lanes, fishing in lakes etc. Towards the end there were Americans who let him climb up on their tanks and introduced him to chewing gum.

Around age 10 he was sent to France for four consecutive summers and learned perfect colloquial French. Then to Germany for several more summers and learned perfect German. There followed a spell staying with a Russian countess in Paris to pick up colloquial Russian. His language skills were to hold him in good stead throughout his career.

But the most personal moment comes when he was five and his dad took him to an RAF airfield where, while dad did business, the crew played with the little boy and put him in the cockpit of a Spitfire. From that moment he became determined to fly one.

Tonbridge school and travelling abroad

The furrier shop obviously makes OK money because his parents send him to the fee-paying Tonbridge school which, like so many beneficiaries of a private education of his generation, he hates. We hear nothing about his fellow pupils or teachers. Instead he takes his O- and A-levels precociously young but his main focus is getting onto an RAF training course. Here he secures 30 hours flying training and becomes a qualified pilot capable of solo flying by the age of 17.

He hitch-hikes across France with a friend, having the usual adventures. Back in Blighty he is sent to Cambridge for an interview, where he candidly tells the Master of Clare college that he doesn’t want to go there, he wants to be a fighter pilot.

Age 17 he gets a scholarship to Granada University for a three-month course in Spanish language, history and culture but he skips every lecture and instead enrols in the bullfighting college (where he discovers he is not a natural). He gives a typically interesting account of the training school, the cape and equipment, the moves and the fake bull machine you train with.

Oh and has an affair with a 35-year-old German countess, an ex-Nazi who likes to sing the Horst Wessel song at the critical moment. Too good to be true? At the end of the course, his parents fly in and take him for a week’s holiday in Tangiers, where he encounters Africa, Islam, Third World poverty and a group of Marines from a Royal Navy ship moored in the harbour. Not for the last time his fluent languages come in handy and he becomes the squaddies’ unofficial translator and drinking buddy. God, what a life!

Learning to fly then becoming a journalist

Back in Blighty strings are pulled (his father, the furrier, donates a leopard-skin to the local OTC for their band drummer) and he gets permission to go to RAF training camp before his 18th birthday. His RAF training reads just like the military CVs he gives to so many of the heroes of the books, being mainly a list of bases: RAF Hornchurch, RAF Cardington, RAF Ternhill, RAF Worksop, training first on a Tiger Moth then a Provost, then a de Havilland Vampire!

He gets his flying wings 44 days before his 19th birthday, the award ceremony being the proudest day of his life. But career prospects in the RAF are not good, the real high flyers go to a special fast track college and his training so far will only qualify him for cargo flights or just a lot of desk work, whereas he wants to fly fly fly.

And see the world. So he quits at the end of his short-term contract and makes a complete switch, applying to become a journalist, with a view to working his way up to be foreign correspondent.

He gets an apprenticeship at the Eastern Daily Press and is posted to the westernmost outpost at King’s Lynn, under the tutelage of the veteran Frank Keeler. Three years of reporting magistrates court, births, marriages, deaths and local fetes. Excellent training.

Reuters, in Paris and Berlin

In 1961 Forsyth spends a day walking along Fleet Street, walking unannounced into every newspaper office and trying to get an interview with the editor. Obviously he is turned down everywhere and is taking lunch at a pub when he gets chatting to a hack who had also served apprenticeship in East Anglia, and knows old Frank.

They finish their pints and the veteran takes him to Reuters, where the domestic editor, hearing he can speak four languages, sends him upstairs to the Foreign Desk. They test his French on a genuine Frenchman working in the office – his teenage years in the depths of France come up trumps – and he is offered a posting in Paris.

Here he is taken under the wing of another old pro, the renowned Harold King, just as the Algeria crisis is reaching a head. Thus Forsyth finds himself reporting the various attempts on the life of Charles de Gaulle, which – though he didn’t know it at the time – were to form the basis of his bestseller, The Day of The Jackal, ten years later.

After two years getting to know Paris, following the crisis and sharing drinks with de Gaulle’s bodyguards, Forsyth is offered sole charge of the East German office, with responsibility for other Redland countries eg Czecho, Hungary etc.

Cue anecdotes about life in East Berlin, sending scotch and cigarettes to the surveillance team watching him, disappearing into the countryside for days on end to interview real people, and cultivating a dim Bertie Wooster persona, complete with shocking German accent, to disarm suspicion whenever he’s stopped. There are short bite-sized accounts of the time:

  • He tracked down the US spy plane shot down near Magdeburg, by disappearing off the main roads and using his fluent German to wheedle the location out of local peasants.
  • He nearly set off World War Three by reporting on the huge convoy of tanks he saw rumbling through East Berlin towards the Wall, in the dead hours of one spring morning – only for Western diplomats panicking that the Sovs are about to invade to extract from their puzzled Russian counterparts that the convoys are practicing for the annual May Day parade.

Man of the world bonhomie is the tone throughout these stories, which have the feel of having been honed to perfection at a thousand dinner parties and diplomatic receptions.

Forsyth decides it’s time to leave, and fast, when he discovers the young woman he’s been sleeping with is the mistress of the East German Defence Minister who, if he found out, could have FF locked away forever. He packs his bags and asks London to be withdrawn immediately, which they do.

Bad time at the BBC

Back in Blighty Forsyth joins the BBC full of optimism and ambition to become a foreign correspondent. In the event he had a very bad experience, which obviously still rankles 50 years later. Here, as everywhere in the book, you feel you’re not getting the full picture, that there must be more to it, but Forsyth’s view is that he joined at a chaotic moment when the heads of the Beeb were under fire and resigning, and that – fatally – his head of department was cross that he wasn’t involved in FF’s recruitment and so bore him a grudge right from the start.

Biafra

Forsyth was packed off to Biafra to cover what he was assured, at a Foreign Office and then a BBC briefing, would be a two-week insurrection. Biafra was the eastern most part of Nigeria, which had gained independence in 1960. The majority population belonged to the Ibo people; there had been attacks on the successful, and therefore unpopular Ibos in the north and west of the country and this slowly escalated into a demand for full independence.

As soon as he arrived in the capital of the newly-declared Biafra, FF realised the conflict was much larger than he’d been told and reported back to this effect – but his reports were quashed. He slowly began to realise that the BBC was parroting the line put out by the Foreign Office, itself generated by the High Commissioner in Lagos, all of which supported the official Nigerian government view that Biafra had no right to secede from Nigeria and the ‘rebels’ would soon be quashed. It was the way the BBC didn’t question the official, deeply misleading, line – in fact collaborated with it – which disgusted Forsyth then and now.

In the event the war dragged on for three years (1967-70) and, in its final year, with Biafra totally sealed off from the outside world, approximately 1 million Nigerian children starved to death. It was the first time photos of black children with distended bellies, covered in flies, and dying like flies, had been widely distributed in the West, and caused outrage, as well as mobilising charities and public calls for action.

Forsyth remains disgusted to this day by the deceitfulness of the Labour government of the day, which a) held to the fatuous claim that it would all be over in a few weeks, and b) denied supplying the Nigerians with arms – while all along doing so. He was disgusted with the Foreign Office for supporting such an immoral policy, refusing to concede Bifran claims and help broker a ceasefire or peace conference. And he was disgusted with the BBC for parroting the official line, instead of ripping it to shreds as a proper news operation should.

The experience made him realise the BBC is not a news operation, but a bloated bureaucracy, not a caller-to-account of the powers-that-be, but merely an extension of the smug, sanctimonious Establishment. Fifty years later he is still angry.

That is why I believe this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honour of my country for ever and I will never forgive them. (p.239)

Forsyth quit the BBC and returned to Biafra to report the whole of the rest of the conflict as a freelancer, and these years have more space devoted to them than any other subject, about 90 pages in the middle of the book. When the war ended in January 1970 Forsyth was on one of the last planes out (itself a thrilling adventure, and a scene he reuses in the opening of The Dogs of War).

Accidental novelist

Forsyth’s career as a novelist is dealt with briskly. Back in London after his African adventure, he found himself broke with no hope of a job, having blotted his copybook with the all-powerful FO and BBC. He was able to doss on a friend’s sofa for a while and conceived the mad plan of writing a novel, having never written one before or never thought about it. In 35 days, through January and February 1970, Forsyth knocked out The Day of The Jackal on a second-hand typewriter.

He then hawked it round publishers with predictable rejections, until he met a man at a party and hassled him into reading the manuscript. When he returned to his office, the agent offered him a three-book deal on the spot! Soon afterwards a film company offered £20,000 cash for all rights in perpetuity to the Jackal which, like the innocent he was, he accepted (it’s made millions over the past 50 years).

Writing was only ever meant to be a stopgap measure and his attitude to writing fiction is as dismissive as can be.

It just occurred to me that if I could make a good living dashing off this nonsense, why get my head blown off in an African rain ditch? (p.271)

Forced to think of two other book subjects he revisited his knowledge of Germany and alighted on the issue of the networks of surviving Nazis. He undertook his trademark in-depth research with the help of famous Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal – and this led to The Odessa File.

Then he put his knowledge of Africa – and the white mercenaries he’d met in Nigeria – to use for The Dogs of War, his incredibly long, detailed account of how to mount an armed coup.

We knew about the thoroughness of the research he did for both books – it’s interesting to discover how autobiographical they are, in that he based whole scenes, journey and encounters on the ones he actually had. Thus the journey of discovery which the hero of The Odessa File goes on closely follows the actual driving round Germany and interviewing ex-Nazis, lawyers and journalists which Forsyth himself undertook. The long interview with a Jewish survivor early on in the book is a retelling of a long interview with a Jewish survivor which Forsyth carried out, with only the name and the city changed.

A little showbiz gossip

There are one or two stories about the director of Jackal, Fred Zinneman, and the actor Edward Fox, but by and large the book is striking for the complete absence of gossip or stories about other writers or people in the arts.

Once these three key books are published, the text reverts to anecdotes which leap over big periods of his life, leaving huge gaps. Thus a chapter on the time he went fishing in a boat off Mauritius and nearly got killed when a tropical cyclone changed course and bore down on the boat. (This experience was recycled into the powerful short story The Emperor.Or accounts of taking his two young sons game hunting in Africa, or scuba diving in the Indian Ocean.

It’s almost like being shown a book of holiday snaps, each one coming with a well-polished comic story.

Jobs for ‘the Firm’

In its final sections Forsyth breaks the omerta of the security services by describing several jobs he did for ‘the Firm’ aka MI6 aka the Secret Intelligence Service. One was a full-scale mission, carrying a package containing documents to a rendezvous with a top agent, a communist General inside East Germany, which reads exactly like the rendezvous you read about in Deighton, le Carré and so on and which Forsyth used as the basis for a similar incident in one of his novels.

On a different occasion his contact at ‘the Firm’ asked him to take advantage of his friendship with senior South African officials, specifically Defence Minister Pik Botha, to ask about the future of SA’s nuclear weapons after the upcoming multi-racial elections and the end of the apartheid system (1994). Botha disarms Forsyth by matter-of-factly telling him to tell ‘his masters’ back in London, that SA will safely dispose of them before the ANC government comes to power.

He loses his money and has to start again

In the early 1990s Forsyth’s financial adviser was revealed to be a crook who had stolen the investments of all his clients, not only leaving them penniless but, in Forsyth’s case, £1 million in debt. Result? He had to start all over again to restore his fortunes.

Forsyth doesn’t spell it out but presumably this explains the latter part of his bibliography, the series of thrillers from The Fist of God onwards which, as I’ve pointed out in my reviews of individual novels, become increasingly repetitive in terms of setting (Islamic terrorism), of factual references (the same anecdotes from the same recent conflicts) and of repeated (wafer-thin) characters.

But his first three novels (Jackal, Odessa, Dogs) are the only ones which merit even a page or two of explanation – the majority of his books aren’t even mentioned in this brisk, business-like overview. The short stories? Not mentioned. The experimental continuation of The Phantom of the OperaThe Phantom of Manhattan? Not a whisper. The genesis, writing and reception of each book? Silence.

This would be an odd oversight if this were the autobiography of a writer, but more than anything this series of well-honed, after-dinner anecdotes is keen to emphasise that Forsyth is a man who has lived, been a journalist, travelled widely, had many adventures and, only last and very much least, been lucky enough to fund it all by churning out his impressively-researched, shallow and undemanding poolside thrillers.

Barely any family

The same skimming over the surface applies to his almost complete absence of references to his family. Only a passing mention of the end of his first marriage, and similarly only a handful of allusions to the second Mrs Forsyth, Sandy. The two boys, Stuart and Shane, are referred to in the context of the fishing or hunting expeditions but barely anywhere else: there’s certainly no detail or feeling about family life, of the prolonged trials and tribulations of being a parent.

His autobiography is, in other words, as devoid of emotion and character as any of his books. Except that, like the books, the lack of character is the character, and instead of the usual sympathies for family or friends, what there very much is is the love of machines – of cars, fishing boats, of recent military history, armies, weapons and, above all, of planes.

A dream come true

Thus it is entirely fitting, and unexpectedly moving, that in the autumn of his years, the 76-year-old author was finally able to fulfil his childhood dream and not only go up in a Spitfire, but (being a specially adjusted two-seater model) was able to fly it solo for a spell. It is a wonderfully uplifting ending to this account of a charmed life and I found it impossible not to be moved by Forsyth’s simple, boyish joy.

It was over too soon but it was done. The seventy-year-old promise was fulfilled and the little boy’s dream had come true. (p.366)

Comment

If this book is anything to go by Forsyth has led a charmed and wonderful life in a world he regards with tolerant good humour, flecked with occasional outrage at injustice and suffering. The most attractive thing about the book is its buoyancy. Nothing seems to get him down. With the unflinching nervelessness displayed in all his novels, he just gets on with it, waltzing through extraordinary situations and the direst peril (as when he gets caught, a white man in his 70s, in a real-life coup in Guinea-Bissau) with extraordinary sang-froid.

He has been a happy man, a lucky man, a man with the knack of presenting himself in the right place at the right time, and if this autobiography lacks almost any psychological or emotional depth or complexity, it is still a marvellous record of an extraordinary life, and its robust optimism is a welcome counterbalance to the all-too-familiar negativity and pessimism of our age.


Credit

The Outsider: My life in Intrigue by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2015. All quotes and references are from the 2016 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.

The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth (2013)

There’s a strong sense of déjà vu about the early parts of this novel.

Like his previous novels Avenger and The Afghan it is about Islamic terrorism. The focus is very American, with scores of pages giving a factual account of the mushrooming of US security and intelligence forces after 9/11, including J-SOC (Joint Special Operations Command – ‘a component command of the United States Special Operations Command, USSOCOM’) and TOSA (Technical Operations Support Activity) the agency which will end up running ‘the Tracker’.

Like the previous books the protagonists don’t really have ‘characters’, they have CVs and functions, more like the avatars in a computer game than characters in a traditional ‘novel’. As in Forsyth’s most recent books, they barely even have names but are more commonly referred to by their roles: thus ‘the Preacher’ is delivering blood-thirsty sermons on the internet instructing young Muslims to carry out personal attacks on individuals inside the Great Satan, and this is leading to a wave of fanatical young men stabbing or shooting US senators and other VIPs.

When one of these fanatics shoots dead the retired general father of lifelong US Marine Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson, a fluent Arab speaker who has seen action in Afghanistan and the Gulf – it becomes ‘personal’ (p.99). (As in a thousand action movie trailers, the character actually says that phrase.) Carson morphs into The Tracker and that’s how he’s referred to by everyone he subsequently encounters and the narrator for the rest of the book.

Not only are the themes and many of the organisations and the character ‘types’ repeated from previous novels, but so are some of the scenes. For example, this is the third novel where Forsyth references the massacre at Qala-i-Jangi fortress in Afghanistan in 2001, picking out the death of the first American casualty in Afghanistan, Johnny Spann, who was beaten to death by Taliban prisoners.

There is yet another reference to the battle of Shah-i-Kot, where three Chinook helicopters full of special forces were attacked by Taliban fighters and, when a SEAL fell out of one as it did emergency evasion manoeuvres, the others went back overland to rescue him, leading to a prolonged firefight with the baddies. Forsyth places the protagonist of this book, Carson, at the heart of this very battle, where he saves the life of a fellow American who later rises to power in one of the countless security services and – very conveniently – helps Carson get the job to tracking down The Preacher.

The repetitions continue: late in the book there is a page devoted to the method of East German security chief Markus Wolf, who dispatched Adonis-like young men to seduce the ageing spinsters who worked as personal secretaries to numerous West German politicians, thus extracting priceless intel over decades (p.279). This is historical fact. Forsyth uses it as a roundabout introduction to an elderly (aged 75) lady who works as the tea lady at a hostage negotiating firm, but who also happens to be an agent of MI5 and reports back everything she hears of the hostage negotiations (see below). But what strikes this reader is that Forsyth included the same page-length explanation of Wolf’s technique in his previous novel, The Cobra (where a cocaine cartel’s daughter was seduced by just such a good-looking man, who was an agent leading her on).

Similarly, mention of the SAS prompts Forsyth to retell the story of how his heroes ‘took out’ the West Side Boyz in Sierra Leone, in Operation Barras, August 2000 (p.338) – an incident which is mentioned in several of his previous novels. Elsewhere Forsyth gives a couple of pages explanation of the hundi method of money transfer, by which terrorists can avoid using banks (p.309) – also a repeat from previous work.

So throughout the novel the reader stumbles on passages which are strongly reminiscent of, or plain copies from, previous novels.

The truth about Islam

A large example is the scene where – as part of his long and minutely-described military career in Egypt learning Arabic – Carson has several conversations with a peaceable Koranic scholar, who explains how unIslamic Islamic terrorists are, in the way they take small quotes from the Koran or hadith out of context and distort them for their hate-filled purposes. This repeats the scenes in the previous two Islamic novels where Koranic scholars have delivered ‘Author’s Messages’ about how the Koran specifically bans the murder of civilians, the murder of women or children, the taking of hostages etc.

I dare say the teaching is correct, it’s just a) the naivety of dumping it into the book like a piece of newspaper editorial, as if b) Forsyth’s page or two asserting that Islamic terrorists are plain wrong about their own religion will have any impact on any real life terrorists and c) the fact that the same message has recurred in all the recent predecessor books.

Critics could call it laziness or repetitiveness – using more or less the same plot, on the same subject, incorporating many of the same incidents and the same them-and-us, black-and-white Daily Mail point of view. But I see Forsyth’s ‘novels’ as being so devoid of character, so lacking in suspense and – towards the end of each one – so lacking in plausibility, that they become almost avant-garde.

They are like the shiny metal surface of one of his beloved fighter planes. Smoothly tooled and assembled from identikit parts, they present the same forces-of-law-and-order-worshipping worldview in the same super-factual style, devoid of any psychology or character – about as subtle and characterful – but as sleek and shiny – as a cruise missile.

The plot

The Preacher is publishing videos of hate on the internet. Kit Carson aka the Tracker is commissioned to track him down and eliminate him, by a special Presidential Order relayed to him via Gray Fox, director of TOSA. He recruits a computer whizz who he codenames Ariel, and who tracks the Preacher’s ‘secret’ IP address to Kismayo in south Somalia.

[As in the previous novels, the good guy is helped out by a computer whizz kid, this time a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome, who is scared to come out of his bedroom but can work miracles online – one Roger Kendrick (p.79). (Even when Forsyth characters actually have names, they are generally bland, empty and characterless; monikers like the Tracker, the Preacher, the Killer, the Geek, have more flavour and depth than the various Rogers or Christophers or Bobs.) Forsyth tells us the Preacher has his own techno whizzkid, a British-born Muslim alumnus of Manchester University, who our guys nickname the Troll – so one recurring strand in the text is the conflict entirely in cyber-space between these two hackers.]

Amid a wealth of false passports and background info about the country’s notorious Intelligence Service, the ISI, the Tracker visits Pakistan, where he is hosted and given a good backgrounder by the local CIA officer. Using intel from various sources he establishes that the Preacher is the runaway son of a Pakistani General, that his name is Zulfikar Ali Shah, that he was radicalised during the Afghan War during which he took the nom de guerre Abu Azzam.

The Tracker concocts a childishly simple plan, which is to recreate in a Hollywood studio the exact backdrop and look of the room which the Preacher uses, to hire an actor (Hollywood bit-part player, Tony Suarez) who looks like him and a voice mimic who can sound like him, and to impersonate one of the Preacher’s broadcasts – then use Ariel to get it published via the Preacher’s authentic website.

But, in this fake video, the Preacher will abjectly apologise for inciting violence, saying Islam is really a religion of peace and love, and begging forgiveness for his errors (p.264). The idea is that his many millions of followers will be so disgusted by his ‘apostasy’ from the cause that one or more of them will kill him in revenge. Forsyth goes into the mechanics of hiring studio, actor, mimic and so on with his customary thoroughness – but the reader can’t help thinking it’s a silly plan.

Luckily, Forsyth throws a massive spanner into this linear plot, and the thing which – for all its repetitions – makes The Kill List different from its predecessors and a genuinely interesting read. He introduces the Somali pirates.

Somali pirates

A Swedish cargo ship, the Malmö, a 22,000-tonne general cargo freighter carrying Volvos to the East (p.203), is hijacked by Somali pirates, led by one of the most cruel and sadistic, Al-Afrit, meaning ‘the Devil’. Forsyth gives fascinating background information about Somalia the country, its geography and recent terrible history, the reason for the rise of the pirates and the evolution of their methods, which have reached such a maturity that London shipping companies now employ professionals to negotiate the release of their hijacked ships, and some of the London negotiators have become quite familiar with their Somali negotiator opposite numbers.

Thus when news come through that the Malmö has been hijacked, the London insurance firm of Chauncey Reynolds turns to the experienced Somali-hijack-negotiator Gareth Evans who is himself delighted to find, in the first phone call the firm receives, that the pirates are represented by Mr Ali Abdi, a suave, Western-educated lawyer, with whom he has done business previously.

We learn that the Western ship owners are always in a hurry to secure the release of their ship but how that works in favour of the pirates, who have all the time in the world. Forsyth tells us the ransoms normally start out around $20 million and invariably fall, through lengthy and protracted discussions, to around $5 million. This, like so much else in the book, is eye-opening stuff, like a well-written article in a high-end newspaper.

But this (fairly routine) hijacking impinges on the plot because the ship’s owner, Harry Andersson, had sent his youngest son, Ove Carlsson (19), aboard the ship as his first experience at sea. It turns out to be a very bad experience as, when the ship is anchored off shore and Al-Afrit visits, he takes a fancy to the tall blonde boy and has him dragged of the ship, thrown into a dungeon, chained and whipped. Just for kicks.

Opal

After the broadcast of the fake sermon begging forgiveness, the Preacher obviously knows someone is out to get him and has hacked into his computers. This is confirmed when his computer whizz kid, the Troll, is murdered by Israeli agents in a typically complicated and well-organised raid from an inflatable dinghy, which Forsyth describes in mind-boggling detail. The Israeli operatives rendezvous with their permanent agent in Somalia, codenamed Opal, on a deserted beach, before arranging the Troll’s assassination.

In a plot development which stretches credulity, Opal is then tasked with taking the package the Troll was carrying up to the Preacher’s compound in the north. Here he is to play the innocent who just happened to come across the Troll dying in a car wreck (in fact carefully staged by the Israelis), and say that the Troll asked with his dying breath for Opal to deliver the package.

On arriving at the Preacher’s compound with the Troll’s package and this unlikely cover story, it is no surprise that Opal is imprisoned while his story is checked out. So good is the Mossad arrangement of the Troll’s ‘accidental’ car crash that the Preacher’s men return and say Opal’s story checks out, so he is kept hanging around the Preacher, and then – as his knowledge of languages becomes known – the Preacher realises he may be able to use Opal and asks him if he wants to work for him as fixer and translator. Perfect. ‘We’ have an agent inside the enemy camp.

This was the Tracker’s plan all along. The compound had been identified using computer technology to track it down as the source of the internet sermons and is under surveillance by a Global Hawk permanently monitoring it from five miles up in the sky. But there is no replacement for human intel, and it is only when Opal, as instructed, slips on the red baseball cap the Mossad agents gave him, that our boys can be really certain that the Preacher is actually there, in residence in the compound. So the Tracker and his team finally have all their suspicions confirmed.

At this point all their planning hits a roadblock, for the powers-that-be ie the President, as advised by his chiefs of staff, vetoes all the options for taking the Preacher out. The compound is in the heart of Mogadishu ie too near innocent civilians to send cruise missiles. And no US President is going to send in troops after the catastrophe of Black Hawk Down (the 1993 debacle when some 18 US Rangers were massacred in a botched raid).

Fortunately for the Tracker, though less so for the victims, what changes official attitudes is a further Preacher-inspired attack in the States, this time a ruthless machine gun attack on a coach load of CIA employees which turns the coach, stuck in rush hour traffic, into a charnel house. Within hours a message is relayed down to the Tracker from the Top – terminate the Preacher.

The blonde hostage

Through his contacts in the Somali underworld, the Preacher becomes aware that the notorious Al-Afrit has hijacked a Western ship and has taken captive a very Western-looking blonde boy. He has a brainwave. The cruel murder and decapitation of the hostage on live TV, in the best Taliban-ISIS tradition, might just restore his image among his disillusioned internet audience as a scourge of the West.

So the Preacher sends a message to Al-Afrit offering to buy the boy. In the parallel conversations which have been going on all this time between the Somali negotiator Abdin and Gareth Evans in London, Abdin tells the Brit that his ‘principal’ has agreed to the $5 million ransom and that the Malmö will finally be released – hooray – but then has to reluctantly admit it will be without the blonde boy, who has been sold on to what Abdin thinks is the Islamic terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Gareth puts his head in his hands.

Taking out the Preacher

The novel builds to a surprisingly effective climax. The spy-in-the-sky tracks the Preacher as he and his bodyguards depart his compound in a Toyota Landcruiser and drive south to the rendezvous point with Al-Afrit’s men, there to buy the blonde boy. (Opal’s presence is vital because he manages to sit in the exposed back end of the truck and once again puts on his red baseball cap to confirm to the via-satellite-watchers that the Preacher is there in person. But Opal’s presence also means they can’t take the convoy out with a cruise missile: Mossad would never forgive them.)

Therefore, it has to be a boots-on-the-ground operation. And there is an entertaining and plausible account of how the Tracker escalates a request via TOSA to the Prez himself, to ask him to phone British PM David Cameron, and request use of an SAS squadron, he’s found out just happens to be training in the Gulf.

Thus the final fifty pages or so are another hymn to the rugged professionalism of the Special Air Service, the unit Forsyth hero worships and who appear in nearly all his novels, each time with much the same detailed backgrounder on their history and structure and training etc (p.352ff).

But, for the first time in several novels, this final sequence is actually very gripping because, instead of giving us his usual high-level and brief summary of an action, Forsyth’s narrative descends ‘into the action’, as it were, with page after page describing the tense build-up to the parachute drop of the six SAS men and the Tracker into the Somali desert near the rendezvous point. I was gripped by this blow-by-blow account like I haven’t been for ages.

Our boys parachute into the desert, ‘tab’ the 8 or so klicks to the village, chuck doped steak to the pye dogs to make them sleep, then attack. In a textbook engagement, they ‘slot’ or ‘take out’ all the Somalis pirates in one village house, then slot the Preacher’s bodyguard as they run across the village square, meantime managing not to kill the Israeli agent, Opal, who slipped his identifying red cap on as soon as the shooting started.

And the whole movie, er, novels builds to a traditional climax when the Tracker comes face to face with the Preacher on the dusty, flat roof of one of the peasant houses. Here the two men have a short, intense knife fight among billowing washing hanging from the peasants’ washing lines by moonlight, which ends with the Tracker nutting the Preacher and, taking advantage of the latter’s momentary loss of grip, stabbing him in the heart. As the light goes out of the baddy’s distinctively amber eyes, our hero gets to whisper in his ear the words his father whispered to him as he died, the motto of the Marine Corps, semper fidelis, shortened to semper fi.


Thoughts

Anyone saddened by the steady decline in Forsyth’s books will be surprised: in my opinion the plot is more interesting and believable than its three predecessors and, because of this, it actually builds to a thrilling and gripping conclusion. It is certainly a return to form after the strange fizzling-out of the previous novel, The Cobra.

Many critics deplore Forsyth’s lack of character or credible plot. Many others dislike his enthusiastic depiction of his heroes’ outside-the-law, vigilante approach to ‘justice’. All true – but I find the books interesting. Hundreds of their pages may consist of little more than detailed background research linked together by far-fetched plots, but it is background information on extremely relevant subjects ie the international drugs trade, international terrorism.

As a tiny example, Forsyth can’t describe a meeting of Mossad officials discussing whether to co-operate with the Tracker’s scheme and commit Opal to his plan, without mentioning that they’re meeting in the same room where their predecessors planned ‘Operation Wrath of God’ to avenge the Israeli athletes murdered at the 1974 Munich Olympics.

The stories are so geopolitical in nature that they are larded with interesting information and insights into recent (war) history on almost every page. Snippets like this are interesting in themselves but also link the action back to previous conflicts. Through the hundreds of similar references, Forsyth’s fictions create a matrix or web bringing together the history of recent conflicts, wars, insurgencies, international crises and weaving them into a compelling (and terrifying) worldview.

It is the coherence of this worldview which I find compelling and, seen from this angle, the repetitions of accounts of recent conflicts aren’t a negative, they positively reinforce his military point-of-view.

Also I admire his ability to keep up to date. There is none of the ‘chaps meeting in gentlemen’s clubs’ which I associate with thrillers of the 1970s, 80s and even 90s. Instead US operatives sit in darkened bunkers staring at screens on which they see the images from Global Hawk predator drones relayed to them by America’s global network of spy satellites. They waggle joy sticks and press a button and a cruise missile obliterates the target they’ve identified.

The protagonists of the last few novels can’t get anywhere without the assistance of young digerati, computer dudes, surfing the dark net, hacking into banks and hidden internet IPs, setting screen against screen.

I admire Forsyth for, after 40 years in the trade, keeping up with not just the latest technology, but the way the hyper-digital world of today shapes every aspect of crime, terrorism and the efforts to combat it.

So, in conclusion, the lack of characterisation and the sometimes simple-minded plots don’t matter to me compared to Forsyth’s compelling vision of the world we live in now, a fast-moving and very dangerous world of skilled terrorists, throwaway mobile phones, 6-mile-high drones, Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the infinite complexities of cyberspace.

A world in which men with grievances born in Palestine or Afghanistan or Yemen might start machine gunning us on beaches in Tunisia or concert halls in Paris or nightclubs in Florida, with no warning – while, on the other hand, an unprecedented level of surveillance of every aspect of our lives by numerous ‘security services’ has slowly insidiously grown up in the last fifteen years.

Forsyth’s latter books are not great novels – from a purist point of view they are lamentably bad novels – but I think they offer fascinating, compelling and snappily-written visions of the dark side of the world we live in now, a world in which terrorists can attack anywhere at any moment, and our side ‘kill people based on metadata’, and most of us are caught in the middle.


Credit

The Kill List by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2013. All quotes and references are from the 2014 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.

The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth (2010)

‘Good information is vital, accidental misinformation is regrettable, but skilful disinformation deadly.’
The Cobra (p.400)

After a sequence of thrillers dealing with the Muslim world and Islamic terrorism, Forsyth makes an (apparently) clean break with a novel about cocaine smuggling from Latin America. In the event, we are soon introduced to characters from previous novels, which gives it a pleasing sense of continuity.

Forsyth appears to have begun by asking himself: if the President of the USA asked his people to STOP the cocaine trade, what would it involve? He sketched out all the steps and operations which would be required – and then placed them in the hands of a couple of tried & trusted characters from a previous novel, to implement.

The novel is divided into four sections, named with typically tongue-in-cheek humour: Coil, Hiss, Strike, Venom.

1. Coil (pages 17 to 74)

The grandson of a servant of the US President dies of a cocaine overdose in a Washington slum. The old servant weeps at an important State dinner. The First Lady goes to comfort her. She and the Prez can’t sleep that night: ‘Is there nothing we can do about this curse of drugs?’ In the early hours, the Prez phones the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency: I want a briefing about cocaine in three days.

The narrative includes this briefing, a characteristically interesting summary of the production and sale of cocaine in the US and Europe (though obviously out of date if you Google the subject). The Prez asks the Director of Homeland Security, ‘Can we abolish the cocaine trade?’ DHS says, I’ll need a man who used to work for the CIA. They called him The Cobra, lol (of course they do).

This turns out to be Paul Devereaux, the highly educated Boston-born Catholic who we last saw masterminding a two-year project to assassinate Osama Bin Laden in the novel before last, Avenger. He was (unwittingly) foiled by one-man seize-and-kidnap operator, Cal Dexter, formerly a Tunnel Rat in Vietnam, now known as The Avenger.

So the head of Homeland Security calls Devereaux and asks if it can be done: Devereaux thinks about it for a month and then says, ‘Yes’,on the following conditions: $2 billion of funds, no record of the project, the recategorisation of cocaine as a terrorist threat, and if he can hire Cal Dexter. He then phones Dexter, who mulls over the offer before saying Yes. Reuniting these old characters is either a) lazy and unimaginative or b) has the same humorous impulse as reuniting the original cast of The A Team or Mission Impossible for one last mission. This is not Henry James; it is thrillerland.

Forsyth cuts and pastes entire paragraphs from the earlier book to describe first Devereaux then Dexter’s biographies. This also could be described as lazy – but it also has a slightly avant-garde feel.The exact repetition of previous text is like the re-use of the same conflicts and wars which recur as backdrops in Forsyth’s fiction. You could think of them like a pack of cards containing the same limited number of ‘characters’ and ‘conflicts’, which is cut and dealt out anew in each novel.

— To give a sense of the ubiquity of these illegal drugs, the text is interspersed throughout with descriptions of shipments of cocaine arriving in Hamburg, Portugal, California and Vancouver, and in West Africa, in different boats, using different smuggling methods – a steady drip of scenes designed to give a sense of the vast scale and the unrelenting nature of the cocaine smuggling, going on every day,day and night, as I write and you read this review.

2. Hiss (pages 77 to 255)

Forsyth claims that, after years of chaos following the death of Pablo Escobar, recent years have seen the emergence of a ‘super-cartel’, the Hermandad. As far as I can tell, this is entirely fictional. Part two commences with a summit meeting of the various members of this ‘Hermandad’, led by Don Diego Esteban, held at one of his vast haciendas, the Rancho de la Cucaracha.

Procedural We watch Esteban convening the members of the Brotherhood; cut to the British Prime Minister consulting with his chiefs of staff at his country house (Chequers) and asking whether the UK should join the US’s crusade (yes). Then go with Dexter round the City of London where Forsyth demonstrates his knowledge of merchant shipping to show how Dexter goes about buying two grain cargo ships which can be converted into anti-drugs boats. Also the purchase and building of a secret airstrip on the Cape Verde island of Fogo…

In fact, Forsyth sets quite a few strands running in parallel, enough to become a bit confusing:

  • The priesthood Devereaux meets the Father Provincial of the Jesuits in Colombia and suggests he distributes throwaway mobile phones to every priest in the land with the invitation to anonymously phone in any information about drug smuggling which they might learn in confession.
  • Guinea-Bissau Dexter flies to the failed state of Guinea-Bissau with two black SAS men to spy on cocaine being smuggled in by boat to the coastal region of the Bijagos (p.127)
  • Letizia Arenal Spanish police send the team full lists of people leaving and entering the country, and computers flag up oddities of behaviour. Thus the Cobra learns about a Colombian lawyer, Julio Luz, who makes monthly and unusually short visits to Madrid. Dexter flies in with a team of CIA spooks. They break into Luiz’s hotel room and ferret through his correspondence (p.140). They tail him and observe that on every trip Luz exchanges not only attaché cases (full of smuggling details) but meets a pretty young woman and exchanges letters. Dexter establishes she is Letizia Arenal and, by palming a cup with her saliva on, gets a DNA test and establishes she is the daughter of Roberto Cardenas, one of the Don’s inner circle. In a long sequence she is seduced by a handsome, art-loving young man into a love affair. They get engaged, then he says he has to return to New York, can she fly out to join him? Ignoring all her father’s orders, Letizia does and is promptly pulled over in Customs who find a brick of cocaine in her baggage, obviously put there by Dexter’s people. Tearfully, Letizia is hauled into court and faces 20 years in a state penitentiary. The handsome man disappears and she realises she’s been framed. At this point the Avenger smuggles a letter into Luz’s luggage to carry back to her father, Roberto Cardenas, in charge of the Brotherhood’s logistics, arranging a tense meeting in a hotel in Cartagena. Here Dexter confronts the evil, violent man and simply says: tell us what you know, and she goes free. Some weeks later a flashdrive arrives with names of corrupt officials across Europe and their bank accounts in the Cayman Islands etc. Dexter arranges for a fall guy to be caught in Spain (temporarily), who confesses to planting the cocaine in Letizia’s baggage. The court in New York dismisses charges. She is released and deported back to Spain. The Cobra has his List, the ‘Rat List’.
  • The two Q ships The two grain ships are extensively converted into anti-smuggling warships in a pestilential shipyard south of Goa, India. Each will contain a deck just big enough for a small helicopter and a brig to keep prisoners in. They are MV Balmoral, crewed by Royal Navy and Special Boat Squadron and MV Chesapeake crewed by US Navy SEALs.
  • Captain Francisco Pons flies a converted Beech King aircraft loaded with a tonne of cocaine from Brazil to an isolated airstrip in Guinea-Bissau.
  • Juan Cortez Father Isidro uses one of the throwaway phones to inform on one Juan Cortez, a master welder who creates smuggling places inside steel hulls. Dexter, using the Cobra’s limitless powers, co-opts a Hercules transport plane and six Green Berets who first stake out Cortez’s daily commute, then stage an elaborate mock road smash, kidnapping and chloroforming Cruz, putting a recent (American) corpse of an unknown drifter in his car dressed in his clothes, with his ring, watch and wallet, then set the car alight. Cruz is airlifted back to the States; his family are told through official channels that Cruz died in a car smash and is tearfully buried. Then, a few days later, Dexter turns up at their house with a tape recording and photos proving Cruz is still alive but can never return – the Cartel would murder him and his family. Faced with no alternative, his wife and kids pack up, leave a message saying they’ve decided to emigrate (!) and are secretly flown to rejoin Cruz in Miami. Now reassured as to the safety of his family, Cruz starts to ‘sing’, and gives the name of some 78 cargo ships which he helped adjust to create concealed smuggling places. The Cobra has his list of drug ships.
  • Forsyth continues his description of the route of the cocaine after it lands in Guinea-Bissau, being broken up into smaller packs and driven various routes north across the Sahara. From the north African coast it is shipped in knackered steamers like the Sidi Abbas to Calabria, under the control of the ‘Ndrangheta mafia, to be watered down and sold on the street.
  • The fighter pilot Dexter recruits Major João Mendoza, ex-Brazilian Air Force, to fly the vintage Buccaneer jet fighter he’s had re-engineered to become a drug buster. We meet the team of engineer enthusiasts who’ve carried out the retooling and his (woman) instructor, Commander Colleen Keck (p.193).
  • Global Hawks Dexter supervises the repurposing of two spy-in-the-sky flying probes, to watch shipping in the Caribbean and off the coast of Brazil. They operate BAMS – Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, and will monitor all shipping from the Latin American coast, either heading north to the States or East to Africa. Humorously, Dexter names them after the wives of the Prez and the UK Prime Minister – Michelle and Sam.

3. Strike (pages 259 to 354)

The Prez’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Silver, phones the Cobra to say, You’ve had your nine months of planning: is everything good to go? ‘Yes,’ replies the Cobra. What follows is a sustained and co-ordinated attack on the Cartel’s activities, which Forsyth describes in documentary detail.

1. The spies in the sky identify all shipping heading north or east from Latin America. When they identify a ship on either Cortez or Cardenas’s lists, they flash the news back to the hi-tech project headquarters in Anacostia, a neighbourhood of Washington DC. The nearest of the two MV boats is dispatched. The small helicopter appears out of nowhere with a sniper pointing a rifle at the captain’s head. It is followed by fast dinghies containing the SEALS or SBS men. They board and hood the crew and locate the cocaine. By this time the big MV boat has arrived. Crew and coke are transferred to the brig/prison and hold, respectively. This is repeated scores of times, as Project Cobra clobbers the smuggling boats. Crews and coke are taken back to the Cape Verde island, then flown to the other base, Eagle Island, we saw being constructed in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There they will be held forever without trial.

2. At the same time, Dexter meets with Customs authorities across the States and Europe and shares the list of corrupt port officials. One by one these are caught in ‘sting’ operations, along with the deliverers and the receivers, thus trapping the maximum number of people along the chain.

3. In the third strand, Major Mendoza scrambles from his base in the Cape Verde islands, and flies his retooled Buccaneer to intercept suspicious planes, suspicious in that they’re unusually small to be making the trans-Atlantic flight (but are able to, as Forsyth explains, because of extra fuel tanks with fuel often pumped manually by Latino peons). Mendoza simply blows them out of the sky.

Thus, within a few weeks Don Esteban realises his operation is under co-ordinated assault. In usual style he tortures and murders a number of ‘suspects’ to find out who the ‘traitor’ is: various unfortunates along the pipelines – either in Colombia or Guinea-Bissau – are tortured to death, chopped up with chainsaws, decapitated, or have their noses, ears, fingers and genitals removed to make them talk. Forsyth doesn’t stint on describing the really super-brutal methods of the cartels. Eventually Esteban establishes Cardenas as one of the leaks, and he is gunned down in a mass raid on his remote jungle hideaway.

But the Cobra still has the Rat list and the ship list and the devastation of the Brotherhood’s operations proceeds apace. Eventually the gangs down the supply chain become restless with the Cartel. Black gangs in Africa, the mafias of Italy and Spain, all the suppliers in Mexico who pass on to the US, all these middle men gangs are suddenly not receiving wholesale shipments. They start complaining to the directors of the Cartel responsible for distribution, they start wondering if the Cartel is favouring other gangs, they start looking round for other suppliers. Forsyth, with his usual documentary authority, describes the visit of one Cartel rep to the gangs of North America, and one to Europe, in both giving breakdowns of the races and ethnicities of the gangs.

The sting Then we find out why the Cobra has been so careful to seize and not destroy the cocaine shipments. In elaborate sting operations, the Cobra arranges for some of the ‘missing’ coke to be bundled in with shipments which they do let through. Then organises police raids, carried out with the usual publicity and lots of photos in the newspapers. Photos which show the consignment numbers of the jute-wrapped packs (for everything in this highly organised industry is numbered and monitored). Then arranges for the raids to be given maximum publicity.

As intended, the information gets back to Don Esteban and his lieutenants: the information that some of the bales from the boats and planes which disappeared did in fact get through. The disinformation that this sends the Cartel is that someone, somewhere is betraying them on an industrial scale: ‘disappearing’ planes and boats then stealing the shipments. Vengeance will be awesome.

4. Venom (pages 397 to 447)

Having planted the suspicion in Don Esteban’s mind that he is being double crossed, the Cobra now manufactures evidence suggesting the culprits are some of the key gangs who control the trade in Mexico. The Don carries out punishments, which lead to revenge attacks, and soon the Cobra’s campaign of disinformation has sparked a massive and very bloody war among the Mexican drug gangs.

In fact this is just the opening of an extensive campaign of lies and deceptions – spearheaded by a blog the Cobra sets up, which carefully mixes accurate info about the drug seizures with inflammatory posts carefully assigning blame to the numerous heavy duty drug gangs in Europe and the US — until all these strategies have prompted a major outbreak of public violence in US cities second only to the street shootings of the Prohibition era. The public outcry, the newspaper headlines, politicians screaming, a groundswell of protest escalates up to the Senate and then the Prez himself.

The Cobra explains it all very clearly and cynically to Dexter. This is what he aimed for all along: for the only people who can ultimately defeat the drug gangs are the drug gangs themselves, fighting themselves to extinction, wiping out the infrastructure for a generation. The Cobra delivers what sounds very much like an Author’s Message – that the comfortable societies of the West are happy to dole out violence abroad (and Dexter’s career alone has given us eye-witness accounts of just fractions of the appalling bloodshed caused in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) but don’t like the reality when they see it on their own streets. (This sounds like the traditional soldier’s contempt for cosy civilians who have no idea what real combat is about – a timeless complaint).

The Prez is a democratic politician, coming up for re-election, and he asks his Chief of Staff to tell the Cobra to stand down the operation. Right on the brink of success. These final pages have a bitter flavour, as the elected politicians turn out not to have the balls to see the job through (and all because civilians are getting injured and killed in the epidemic of violence which has rampaged across the States.)

In a puzzling final section, the Cobra flies to Colombia to meet the Don, in a Catholic church. He candidly reveals that his country (the US) has betrayed him by cancelling the operation. He has 150 tonnes of cocaine hidden. He will deliver it to the Don in exchange for $1 billion, which will allow him to disappear and live out his life in luxury. I found this bewildering because the Cobra had up to this point been portrayed as a man of inflexible rectitude. He flies back to Washington and calls Dexter in to tell him:

a) The entire operation is being stood down: the two ships handed over to their respective navies, the soldiers and special forces returned to their units etc.

b) He orders Dexter to fly to a tiny coral atoll in the Bahamas, there to find and torch the 150 tonnes of cocaine. Dexter does so, arriving with instructions which are actually carried out by the Marines on the spot. But as they’re being splashed with petrol, Dexter cuts into a bale and takes a taste. It’s cooking soda. He allows the Marines to proceed, but asks them what ship brought the bales. He pieces together the evidence that there’s another steamer, which has been dumping these fake bales and keeping the real ones. Reacting fast, he calls the Project computer headquarters and quickly identifies the steamer which must be carrying the missing cocaine. Just as quickly, he gets through to Major Mendoza on Cape Verde and tells him there is one last job. He tells the Major (whose brother died of a cocaine overdose and so takes the mission deadly seriously) to fly out across the Atlantic, identify the steamer carrying the coke to Colombia as part of the Cobra’s deal with the Don, and sink it. Which – in a bravura passage giving documentary description of an air force strike – he does.

In the Epilogue Dexter returns to the sleepy New England town he left nine months earlier, to resume his quiet, unassuming existence as a small-town lawyer. And reads in his paper that locals found the body of Paul Devereaux in his Washington mansion. He and his housekeeper had been brutally murdered. The last words are, ‘Nobody treats the Don like this.’

This ending really puzzled me: I was expecting the fake cocaine ploy to be a subtle last cunning strike by the Cobra – like, maybe the cocaine he was sending back to Colombia would be poisoned or booby-trapped. But it seems not. So are we really to accept that the shining beacon, incorruptible good guy, Cobra, at the last minute made a sell-out deal with the head of the world’s cocaine industry? Really? And that Dexter’s spotting that the cocaine in the Bahamas was fake, then quickly dispatching Mendoza to blow up the real shipment, in effect condemned his boss and the man he’d come to respect so much, to certain assassination? Dexter doesn’t seem very upset when he reads the news in his paper. Is that because he has discarded Devereaux – despite the immense feat he pulled off of nearly ending the world’s cocaine trade – as a broken reed, as turning out-to-be-corrupted?

I’ve reread the last chapter twice and am still surprised and puzzled by what happened and what I’m meant to make of it.


Thoughts

This novel is a fantasy of what the existing forces of law and order (or FLO, as Forsyth calls them) could do if they abandoned ‘political correctness’ and ‘human rights’ and all the other namby-pamby concerns for legal process which, in Forsyth’s view, clearly hamper them. It is a ‘right-wing’ fantasy of how an upright and pure police force could stamp out this massive social problem.

Given the epic scale of the crime now associated with drug smuggling, it is a beguiling fantasy, not least because:

a) It’s not that serious. Like all Forsyth’s novels – despite the blizzard of factual research into recent conflicts and geopolitical history, into official and illegal organisations, the detailed accounts of ranks and structures of army, navy and air force and their precise weaponry, as well as factual backgrounds on international crime and terrorism, of organisations or technologies (preceding the text is a list of no fewer than 27 acronyms and abbreviations) – despite these mountains of research, there’s a simple-minded cartoon feel to the whole enterprise.

b) The serious question of to what extent civil liberties can be suspended in the war against terror or the war on drugs, is something that can be debated forever by moral philosophers and lawyers, politicians and columnists – and never reach an actual conclusion. But The Cobra is a fiction which, despite the weight of research behind it, in origin is similar to the creation of countless other fictional vigilantes and crimefighters-without-the-law, from Dirty Harry to Batman (b.1939). Gotham City/San Francisco/the Western world is overwhelmed by crime. The police are too corrupt or overwhelmed to cope. Into the breach steps a superhero – Dirty Harry/Batman/the Cobra, prepared to use unconventional methods to get the results we all deeply desire. Same stable.

Forsyth’s novels are crisply written, full of fascinating background information and the cardboard heroes – just like the heroes of a thousand movies and TV cop series – always get their man. We live, for the few days we read it, in a simpler, fairer world, a world of violence and immorality and illegality, where the good is unquestionably Good, and if it also behaves violently and immorally and illegally, behaves thus in a good cause and so we should cheer it on. Come on the good guys!

What more do you want for your £6.99?


Credit

The Cobra by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2010. All quotes and references are from the 2011 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.

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth (2006)

The two F-16 Falcons were already airborne and three minutes distant. There is a squadron at Pensacola Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle that maintains a five-minute-to-scramble standby readiness round the clock. Its primary use is against drug smugglers, airborne and sometimes seaborne, trying to slip into Florida and neighbouring states with (mainly) cocaine. They came out of the sunset in a clear darkling sky, locked on to the tanker west of Bimini and armed their Maverick missiles. Each pilot’s visual display showed him the smart missiles’ lock on the target and the death of the tanker was very mechanical, very precise, very devoid of emotion. (p.428)

Colonel Mike Martin, ex-Parachute Regiment and SAS, was the hero of Forsyth’s 1994 novel, The Fist of God, where he almost single-handedly won the Gulf War – first by organising resistance groups among the occupied Kuwaitis, then by infiltrating into Baghdad itself and radioing back information from a top secret source inside Saddam’s cabinet, before then going on to locate and help destroy Saddam’s top secret Supergun which was primed to launch a nuclear weapon at the invading Allies, before escaping unscathed back to Allied lines. Phew!

7/7

Well, Mike’s back! The novel opens with Mike, now retired, doing up a nice cottage he’s bought in rural Hampshire and, being a manly sort of man, doing it all himself. Forsyth then gives an account of 7/7, the co-ordinated Islamic suicide bombing of London buses and Tube trains. As I read this (and the countless other factual sections of the novel) it occurred to me that Forsyth doesn’t so much write or describe the events which makes up his novels; he reports them. He doesn’t write novels; he files them.

One of the throwaway mobile phones bought by the suicide bombers is left over in the bags of stuff left with their Middle Eastern mentors and instructors and so ends up being taken back to Pakistan, where a lowly jihadist uses it when his own one runs out of battery, just long enough to give the Pakistani security forces a location for the call, and a snatch squad to be dispatched to the working class, fundamentalist quarter of Islamabad, accompanied by a British observer. They break into the fifth floor apartment, shoot dead a jihadist who reaches for a gun, capture the other three, then hear a bustle from the bedroom, run through and are just too late to stop a turbaned man throwing himself out the window to his death.

Before he jumped the man had attempted to trash the laptop he was using, but US and British experts can extract a surprising amount from even a badly damaged computer. The dead man was Tewfik al-Qur, international banker for Al Qaeda. There was disappointingly little that was really useful on the laptop, except for several documents referring to something called ‘Al-Isra’. What’s that?

The Koran Committee

Cut to the States where Forsyth gives a full explanation of the history and structure of the CIA and its history of involvement with Islamic terrorism, before explaining that it’s to answer that question that the head of its Mid-East division convenes a meeting of ‘the Koran Committee’, four leading academic experts on the Koran and Muslim teaching.

One of the four is Dr Terry Martin, the gay brother of Colonel Mike (who we also met in Fist of God). The four agree that Al-Isra is the term referring to the Prophet Mohammed’s night flight up into the seven heavens as described in The Koran (p.54). As used in the documents salvaged from the laptop, they guess it must refer to a major AQ attack, but they have no idea what. In the car to the airport, his colleague says if only we had someone who could infiltrate AQ as one of their own, but we don’t know anyone like that.

‘I do,’ replies Terry, ‘My brother,’ then wishes he could bite his tongue off. The car is, of course, bugged. The CIA contact British Intelligence and we witness high-level discussions about the feasibility of infiltrating a Westerner into AQ. Not from a standing start, no-one could get in without a tremendous amount of vetting among himself and his family, tribe, clan etc – but what about impersonating an existing AQ member?

The Afghan

Where would you find one? Well, what about the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, would there happen to be someone there who is the spitting image of Colonel Mike (with the dark colouring, black hair and brown eyes he inherited from his Indian grand-mother and which came in so handy infiltrating Baghdad 15 years earlier)? Yes, there is! And would Colonel Mike in fact just happen to have fought side by side with that inmate in the far off days of the Mujahideen resistance to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan? Yep.

For incarcerated in ‘Gitmo’ is one Izmat Khan, senior commander in the Taliban, who could be the double of Colonel Mike and who Mike in fact not only met, but whose life he saved during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Yes! As Sacaramanga would say, ‘Funny coincidence department!’

So the plan is hatched: the CIA will brief and train Colonel Mike to infiltrate AQ ranks to find out whatever Al-Isra is – and prevent it!

All this is established by page 100 of this fast-moving 400-page thriller. The remaining 300 pages tell the twists and turns of Colonel Mike’s attempt to impersonate Khan, larded with huge amounts of trademark Forsyth factual background and journalistic thumb-nailing.

There are three strands:

1. Operation Crowbar

Mike replaces Khan at Gitmo, is returned to Afghanistan after a carefully arranged trial, where the CIA arrange him to be ‘liberated’ by fighters in a staged break-out. Thus ‘set at large’, Mike makes his way into Pakistan and to the nearest radical mosque. He identifies himself as the legendary fighter known as ‘The Afghan’. Word is passed of his escape and he is moved into a ‘people funnel’ which carries him to the United Arab Emirates, to a safe house where he is interrogated by the suave Westernised Dr Al-Khattab. This is the hinge of the plot and Mike swings it when he mentions that he has actually met the Sheikh aka bin Laden (which he did in a cave complex in Afghanistan all those years ago) and, via a lengthy string of intermediaries, word comes back that OBL remembers him. Thus ‘approved’, Mike is dispatched with one of his minders to the Philippines, there to join a cargo ship.

2. The rogue ship

All these chapters are interspersed with other chapters telling the fate of two innocent cargo vessels, captained by European crews. Both are hijacked by terrorist pirates who force the captain of the first one, the Java Star, to radio mayday, before killing him and all his crew. The hijacked ship dumps all the ‘wreckage’ it can for passing boats to find, then sneaks into a creek of a nearby island and is transformed by hired Chinese engineers. Transformed to a) be full of powerful explosive b) look like another cargo ship, The Countess of Richmond. This also is hijacked, and its captain and crew murdered and genuinely sunk.

The Java Star will now masquerade as The Countess of Richmond except that instead of genuine containers of filk and teak, it is carrying explosives. Only in the final pages of the novel do we realise that it is going to be used, not to enter a highly populated port and detonated, as Western experts are worried – but to ram the newest biggest cruise liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2. Why?

Because, after the massive protests attending the G8 summit in Scotland in July 2005, the organisers of this biennial summit of the most powerful leaders in the world solved the problems of security and protestor containment, by holding the next G8 summit aboard the biggest, most luxurious cruise liner in the world.

(And so narrative strand emerges during which we see the ship docked, boarded by the national leaders, and then departing New York, all from the point of view of its First Officer, David Gundlach, p.432.)

3. The safe house in the Rockies

Interspersed is the third strand, the events surrounding the real Izmat Khan who is transported from Gitmo to a specially-built security facility high in the Rockies near the Canadian border, built solely for him and manned by CIA and Army. It is a shame that, towards the end of the novel, as the ship plot reaches its climax, an Air Force fighter plane (a F-15 Strike Eagle, described in loving detail) develops a mechanical fault and crashes while flying over the base.

In a convenient coincidence the wreckage falls on the security post, killing half the staff and, miraculously, tearing down the wall of Khan’s cell. By the time the security guards recover from the disaster Khan is long gone into the snowy wastes.

Khan comes across a local who had heard about the plane crash, saddled his horse and was riding to help. A seasoned fighter, Khan kills the American, stealing his horse and gun and provisions.

But a highly-trained US snatch squad is soon on his tail. This strand climaxes as the squad finally catch up with Khan as he stands in a phone booth at a settlement next to a rough road through the mountains. He is looking for change in the pockets of the dead American’s winter coat and dialling a number he was given years earlier, the number of the AQ organiser in the West. Just a few words would alert AQ to the fact Colonel Mike is an imposter.

The phone booth happens to be just across the border into Canada but the captain in charge of the snatch squad tells his best sniper, a half-Indian tracker, to take Khan out. Bang. The back of the Afghan’s head is blown off.

The explosive climax

During the Java Star’s long steam from the Philippines through the Indian Ocean, round Africa and into mid-Atlantic, Colonel Mike had been racking his brains about how to either a) send a message to his CIA/SIS minders b) sabotage the ship or killing some or all of the crew of seven. But neither is ever quite feasible and so he continues to play the role of Afghan fanatic, set on suicide, along with the other terrorists, not really knowing what is hidden in the hold of the ship, nor where they are steering or why. All this is kept entirely to himself by the Jordanian AQ leader of the crew, Ibrahim.

In the tense last few pages we watch as the Queen Mary steams towards the rogue Countess of Richmond, now stationary in the water and claiming, over the radio, to have an engine malfunction. Most of the crew slip into an inflatable dinghy which Colonel Mike knows they’re going to use to pull away from the ship and video whatever the event is going to be, instantly transmitting video of the ‘spectacular’ to websites which will beam it round the world to admiring Muslim youths.

As the crew, except the fanatical leader, descend the ladder into dinghy, Colonel Mike, coming last, leans down and slashes the side of the dinghy wide open, then cuts the arm of the crew member holding the rope to the ship. Instantly, the dinghy starts to drift astern the ship, taking water, and is quickly dragged down by the weight of its outboard motor, taking all hands, yelling impotent threats of abuse till the last.

Mike climbs back up the rope ladder and returns to the bridge, where the leader-cum-captain tells him he should have left. The dinghy was full, Mike replies, and I want to be martyred here with you.

The captain grunts then blows the small explosive charges which had been placed in the ship’s hold a month earlier. These blow open the lids of the six huge containers holding Liquid Gas Petroleum. In a flash Mike realises this heavier-than-air and hugely combustible gas will now silently roll across the surface of the sea towards the Queen Mary. When detonated it will cause an explosion as big as an atom bomb, incinerating everything in a five mile radius, including the leaders of the eight most powerful nations on earth.

His eyes flick from Ibrahim to the radio, then to the red button at his side, obviously linked to a detonator. Ibrahim sees the movement and in a flash realises Mike is an imposter and traitor. Mike goes for the knife he’d used earlier, but Ibrahim pulls a gun quicker. Mike realises he has no chance of reaching the detonator but goes for it anyway, lunges for the button, takes a bullet direct to the heart but carries on to press the plunger. Mike, Ibrahim and the Countess of Richmond disappear in a vast plume of fire.

Which can be seen from the Queen Mary 2, still 15 miles away and unscathed. Satellite, helicopter, plane and escort ships investigate and conclude the Richmond blew up but now poses no threat. The QM2 steams on unmolested. Colonel Mike has saved the leaders of the Free World and 4,000 other sailors, diplomats and bureaucrats.

Epilogue

Ten pages detail the investigation which pieces together the story of how terrorists funded the capture of two ships and the creation of, effectively, a bomb ship, but with the covering papers of an innocent cargo ship. Dr Al-Khattab is arrested and (improbably) sings like a canary, revealing the identities of hundred sleeper agents in the UK (if only) and confirming the story of ‘the Afghan’. He is amazed and appalled to learn the man he OKed for the job was in fact a Western agent.

The novel ends with a hymn to the courage of Colonel Mike, in the form of a muted description of the ceremony held to mark his death at the SAS headquarters in Hereford.

[Is there a Forsyth novel where the SAS don’t play a massive role? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on a retainer to write what sometimes seems like extended recruitment literature for them.]


The good and the bad

When I summarised the plot to my teenage son, he rolled his eyes and said, ‘That sounds awful; the impersonation story sounds sooo unlikely and then all those convenient coincidences! How cheesy!’ Well, yes. There is something laughably preposterous about the whole story.

But I enjoyed reading it. Why? Because I enjoyed the factual research which dominates, which saturates, the text.

Izmat Khan isn’t really a character, he is a token through which Forsyth is able to retell the long, lamentable story of Afghanistan from the time of the Soviet invasion (1979). The account of his childhood on his father’s tiny farm in the mountains, of the village and tribal structure, of what happened to it during the years of the mujihadeen resistance, of the US cruise missile strike which wiped out his entire family and village and gave him an unswerving hatred of the West, all this is fascinating. As is the detailed account Forsyth gives of the Battle of Qala-i-Jangi, a bloody uprising inside a prisoner of war camp in the early stages of the US invasion of Afghanistan. Powerful, convincing and a true event, into which Forsyth skilfully inserts his Taliban ‘hero’.

Just as fascinating is the long account of Colonel Mike’s military career, especially the awesome training of the Parachute Regiment and then the SAS.

Fascinating is Forsyth’s account of the rise of the Taliban within Afghanistan, and the parallel rise of Al Qaeda under the tutelage of bin Laden.

Equally absorbing are the many places where Forsyth explains the measures taken by US and British security to address the threat of terrorism, especially the astonishing advances in computer technology and digital communications.

Just flicking back through the pages I come across the description of how the F-15 Strike Eagle malfunctions, with a lengthy explanation of how its advanced ejector-seat technology works, the sensors within the pilots’ suits which allowed the air base to monitor their temperature, pulse and so on, the microphones and headsets which can be patched through to the radios of the rescuers who set off to find them in the snowy wastes – all this is fascinating and compelling, for the gadget-obsessed teenage boy in all of us.

When the Army trackers finally shoot the fugitive Khan, the event is described coldly and clinically. If you expect your ‘novel’ to pay some kind of homage to human life, you will be disappointed. What Forsyth’s novels do is pay a kind of homage to the technology of killing. Whether the homage is revoltingly right-wing, cruel and violent for its own sake – or is factual and precise, accurate and unillusioned – is a matter of taste.

Lying prone at Captain Linnett’s feet was his leading sniper, Master Sergeant Peter Bearpaw. He was a half-blood Santee Sioux with a Hispanic mother. He came from the slums of Detroit and the army was his life. He had high cheekbones and eyes that sloped like a wolf. And he was the best marksman in the Green Berets.

What he cradled as he squinted across the valley was the Cheyenne .408 by CheyTac of Idaho. It was a more recent development than the others, but over three thousand rounds on the range it had become his weapon of choice. It was a bolt-action rifle, which he appreciated because the total lock-down of a closed bolt give that tiny extra stability at the moment of detonation.

He had inserted the single slug, very long and slim, and he had burnished and buffed the nose tip to eradicate the tiniest vibration in flight. Along the top of the breech ran a Jim Leatherwood x24 scope sight.

‘I have him, captain,’ he whispered. (p.395)

All the sentences are factual. They are lean. There isn’t a redundant word. You can dispute the fundamental stance of Forsyth’s hero worship of soldiers and policemen. But if war, conflict and killing are to be described, this is the way to do it. Without grandstanding rhetoric, without fancy words, with no attempt at all at psychology or feeling. Instead, the complete devotion of the prose to the craftsman and his tools. A rhetoric of efficiency and effectiveness. Forsyth’s novels contain page after page with this taut, thrilling, heartless velocity.

I read this novel when it came out and remember being so disgusted with how far Forsyth had fallen from the heights of Day of the Jackal that I threw it away. Now, having read all his novels in order of publication, I realise DOTJ was a one-off achievement and almost all Forsyth’s other books are rubbish, if judged as ‘traditional’ novels.

But their merit is the immensely thorough and absorbing descriptions of the settings and political histories, the technology and organisations which they explain in such loving detail.

Rather than unsatisfactory novels with an immense amount of background information, I read Forsyth’s novels as fascinating articles about recent conflicts and geopolitical issues, studded with compellingly described technological information, all livened up by cheesy thriller plots – which you are under no obligation to take at all seriously.


Credit

The Afghan by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 2006. All quotes and references are from the 2007 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.

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.

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.

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.


Thoughts

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.

Icon

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.

Humour

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)


Credit

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.

The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth (1994)

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.

Storylines

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’.

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.

Nuclear verification

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’s mission

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.

Epilogue

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.


VIP characters

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


Credit

The Fist of God by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1994. All quotes from the 1995 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.

The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth (1991)

‘Don’t worry, old boy,’ he said to Dobbs. ‘If one of them moves I’ll just blow his nuts off.’ (p.464)

Intriguingly, this novel which Forsyth published at the end of the Cold War and as the USSR collapsed is, like John le Carré’s novel of the same era, The Secret Pilgrim, not really a novel but a collection of linked but self-contained stories, four in this case. For both writers the linked short story format gives them an opportunity to review the Cold War years through different episodes. Or to use up old plots before they become irrelevant…

The frame story is set in 1990 as senior civil servants in Whitehall set about reforming the intelligence services. Convinced the world will now be a safer place they want to save money by offering older intelligence officers alternative, lower paid positions, or compelling them to retire. They decide to kick off the process with a high-profile example and so offer a selection of accounting or admin jobs to the legendary Sam McCready, the so-called ‘Deceiver’, a rumpled, unclubbable man (shades of George Smiley) who was unexpectedly appointed head of the SIS in 1983 and surprised everyone by running it efficiently for the past seven years.

When McCready turns down the jobs he’s offered, and refuses retirement, it triggers a tribunal into his case. Here his number two, Denis Gaunt, presents evidence of The Deceiver’s sterling work for the nation, and makes the case for keeping him on as a senior intelligence officer, via the four long tales which make up the body of the text.

1. Pride and Extreme Prejudice McCready sends a German agent, Bruno Morenz, over to the East to rendezvous with a Russian General and collect a book containing Russian Army deployments. But Morenz is already unbalanced by a crime of passion – murdering the prostitute he thought loved him, when she taunts him. And so his trip across the border, and then to the arranged rendezvous, is fraught. Serioulsy on edge, Morenze collects the book as arranged, but is in no position to handle the fairly minor road accident which happens ten minutes later. Panicking, he flees the scene by nicking the police car which had come to attend the accident, sparking a giant man-hunt led by East German security. Meanwhile, a scarily efficient and cold-hearted woman KGB Colonel has been tracking the movements of the General who handed over the book, suspecting him of being a traitor and now becomes involved in the hunt for Morenz. Thus it is with multiple enemies that McCready has himself smuggled across the border and sets out to find Morenz. By good investigative skills, he interviews Morenz’s old schoolteacher and so deduces the childhood hideout where he might have gone to ground. Sure enough, he is there but a complete nervous wreck, incapable of moving and so, with the Stasi closing in, McCready is forced to put the distraught agent out of his misery, before returning successfully through the wire with the vital book. Surprisingly entertaining.

2. The Price of the Bride A KGB officer, Colonel Pyotr Alexandrovitch Orlov, with the usual secrets, does a bunk from a British Army exercise where he and post-Soviet comrades are being shown British troops on manoeuvre. He insists on going straight to the Americans and the next 100 pages develop a very tangled web whereby it is slowly wormed out of him that there is a high-level Russian mole in the CIA. The lead American character, Joe Roth, handles his initial defection, then is tasked with his prolonged debriefing, and then gets caught up in the investigation into Orlov’s accusations. Forsyth has total mastery of the organisational structure and processes, the rivalries and tensions, within MI5, MI6, the CIA, the FBI, and their overlaps into the British Army, police, the Met and Special Branch. He shows us American investigators meticulously gathering the circumstantial evidence which points the finger at senior CIA man, Calvin Bailey. Unfortunately, it is a frame-up, laboriously created over many years by senior KGB officials, to create dissension and demoralise the CIA. We know this because McCready has himself been running a senior KGB mole in the Russian embassy – codename Keepsake – who explains it all to the Brits. Keepsake is himself at high risk of being captured-tortured-shot by his own side, until rescued from Moscow by McCready in a complex, high-stakes heist. But too late to save Bailey, bumped off by his own side. War is hell, kids.

The story is fairly thrilling, and bubbles over with Forsyth’s trademark factual accuracy, the big chunks of journalistic background, about names, the addresses and organisational structures, processes and procedures of the KGB, CIA and SIS. And at moments the story is almost believable – but ends up too pat, too symmetrical, too easily cynical, like one of those War Commando comics.

3. Casualty of War Tom Rowse is a disillusioned SAS man who quit after service in Northern Ireland and publicly criticised the British operation there. He’s got a nice new life, writing thrillers and living in Gloucestershire with his new young wife, who makes rugs. All the bigger surprise when Sam McCready turns up and says MI6 have information about a major arms shipment for the IRA. Involved is one particular IRA man who Tom has reason to hate which is enough to pull him out of retirement and send him on travels to Hamburg, Malta, Libya, then on to Cyprus, as he investigates the connections between the IRA and a major shipment of arms despatched by Colonel Qaddafi’s Libya.

The details of police operations, the world of mercenaries and arms dealing, the atmosphere of Hamburg and Valletta and Tripoli, the co-operation between MI6 and the CIA, the description of airports and remote monasteries and luxury hotels and a fishing boat in the Atlantic, are all fluent and persuasive. Only when Forsyth describes people do the shallow psychology, the paper-thin characters and the trite moralising let down the otherwise ripping yarns.

The exotic locations and the smooth-talking baddies (cold-eyed IRA man Kevin Mahoney and suave, gambling, threatening Head of Libyan Intelligence, Hakim al-Mansour, who both enjoy watching Rowse get beaten up while filing their nails or sipping a brandy), the way the gorgeous blonde, Monica Browne, first tends Rowse’s wounds and then unzips her dress and slips off her bra to have sex with him and then, inevitably, turns out to be a gun-toting member of the gang herself – all this is strongly reminiscent of James Bond.

4. A Little Bit of Sunshine Sunshine is a fictional island in the Bahamas. An American cop is on holiday fishing, when he catches sight of a drugs cartel contract killer he and his buddy interrogated years before. He trails the baddie to his remote villa but, unfortunately, is seen and identified. Afraid, he makes his way to the tiny airfield where he blags a seat aboard a flight out but the killer has a man tailing him who slips a bomb aboard the little charter plane and it blows up high above the Caribbean. In a separate storyline the Foreign Office are compelling the islanders to leave the Commonwealth, become independent and hold an election. Two wealthy candidates return from abroad, each presenting themselves as the island’s saviour. But a sizeable part of the population wants neither independence or election, they want to stay British. They go to petition the British Governor, the lofty Sir Marston Moberley, who refuses their requests and, a few days later, is shot dead in what looks like a professional ‘hit’. The stage is set for the murdered American cop’s partner to fly in from Miami, for British detectives to fly in from London and – guess who was taking a few days’ holiday in the region, after a boring conference in the States? Yes, Sam McCready, the Deceiver himself.

Despite the killings, this story is played for laughs, for example the way old pro Detective Chief Superintendent Desmond Hannah is lumbered with a deputy who’s never been on a murder case before ‘but loves reading about criminology in his spare time’. He is further exasperated by the inexperienced local authorities in Sunshine, and harassed at every turn by the Press who’ve flown in to cover the ‘murder in Paradise’ story. At many places it was laugh-out-loud funny – interesting to see how funny Forsyth can be when he puts his years of experience as a high end journalist to comic ends.

The climax is like an Ealing Comedy when McCready finds an investiture form in the dead governor’s desk and appoints himself Governor for a day, using his power to deputise various locals and – with a helping hand from Forsyth’s beloved SAS – they run the two crooked political candidates out of town.

Facts and fictions

Interwoven into the stories are countless chunks of recent history as Forsyth does his trademark thing of interweaving recent events with fictional characters and plots. Unsurprisingly, the story about the fake Soviet defector is littered with references to other famed double agents including the British Cambridge spies and US double agents from the 1960s onwards. The story makes repeated reference to various Soviet defectors – eg Anatoly Golitsyn who defected in 1960 and fuelled the paranoia of CIA chief James Jesus Angleton for years (p.164). Also stories about defectors who made the catastrophic mistake of returning to the Soviet side – only to be interrogated and executed. And there is the particularly gruesome fate of the CIA’s Beirut chief, William Buckley.

The third story, about Libyan arms bound for the IRA, is dense with references to the IRA’s terrorist campaigns, to its ways of meeting and procedures. I’d forgotten about the Hyde Park Barracks bombing (1982: 11 soldiers dead, 52 soldiers and civilians injured), and the Harrods bombing (1983: three police and three civilians killed). Forsyth actually takes us into the presence of Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi, and explains his twitchiness and need to move between safe locations, following the US-led air raid on his palace 15 April 1986. It references the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight 181 on 13 October 1977 – a factual event – and spuriously claims that the hero of the story, Tom Rowse, was one of the SAS stormers of the plane.

It is this interweaving of completely true events (the various double agents, spies and defectors, the IRA campaigns or Arab hijackings) and real contemporary figures (Ronald Reagan is name-checked, we are taken into Chequers to observe Mrs Thatcher at close quarters, reading the paper, having lunch and intervening in the Sunshine case) with completely fictional characters and storylines, which gives Forsyth’s fiction its particular factual density and verisimilitude.

The four qualities of a successful terrorist organisation

In a typically factual aside, Forsyth spends several pages early in The Casualties of War section (pp.273-274), describing in brisk, authoritative fashion the four qualities required by a terrorist organisation if it is going to last:

  1. a pool of keen young recruits
  2. safe havens or bolt holes to retreat to
  3. ‘the ruthlessness to stop at no threshold of atrocity’
  4. money

Interesting to apply these criteria to the terrorist organisations currently dominating our headlines some thirty years later.

Swearing

It is a relief to come from other, more literary authors, to the clarity of Forysth’s brisk, virile, no-nonsense, upper-class tones. Part of the enjoyment is the way he not only details the organisational structures and procedures of the spy organisations, police and army which he appears to know inside out, but also lets us in on their foibles, nicknames, shortcomings and rivalries: the Americans this, the Russians that, MI5 the other.

Forsyth is unreservedly on the side of the authorities – the police, Special Branch, the SAS, can do no wrong – but it is typically Forysthian that in the fourth story, where he details the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the satellite technology the Yanks use to monitor every flight and ship movement in the Caribbean, as well as the satellites which monitor all phone traffic, that in fact one radio ham hearing gossip in the island bar radios it to a pal in Washington so that

About a billion dollars’ worth of technology worked it out three hours after a radio ham with a home-made set in a shack on the side of Spyglass Hill had told a pal in Chevy Chase. (p.387)

In fact he makes this point in several places: technology is no replacement for men on the ground, for human contacts. Which is why – as le Carré has Smiley emphasise in The Secret Pilgrim – spying will always be with us.

But apart from Forsyth’s usual sardonic attitude, it was a surprise in this book to come across some uncharacteristically vulgar language. On page 254 McCready describes the number two in SIS who pompously claims that the fall of the USSR will be followed by a new era of peace and harmony, as a ‘dick brain’. On page 272 McCready describes the same man, Timothy Edwards, as an ‘arsehole’ for his sneaky, conniving ways. And on page 358:

You really are a prize arsehole, Timothy, he thought.

I had already been surprised when Forsyth tells us on page 153 that MI5 sometimes refer to MI6 as TSAR, standing for ‘Those Shits Across the River’, but I wasn’t prepared for the Author’s Message on the ante-penultimate page. Gaunt realises McCready is resigned to resigning, and so asks him why he bothered going through the farce of the tribunal:

‘Because I care about this fucking service and they’re getting it wrong. Because there’s a bloody dangerous world out there and it’s not getting less dangerous but more so. And because dick-heads like Edwards are going to be left looking after the security of the old country, which I happen to love, and that frightens the shit out of me.’ (p.475)

The characters’ swearing presumably reflects Forsyth’s own genuine concerns about misconceptions surrounding the end of the Cold War (concerns which are exactly the same as Smiley’s in The Secret Pilgrim). But, on the level of language, it’s also connected to the greater humour in these stories, as if Forsyth feels more relaxed not having to create one 500-page blockbusting thriller and is happier, shoutier, swearier in the shorter format. It feels like these stories were more enjoyable to write and they are certainly more enjoyable to read, than his last couple of novels.

Credit

The Deceiver by Frederick Forsyth, published by Bantam Press in 1991. All quotes from the 1992 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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