The Negotiator by Frederick Forsyth (1989)

Of all the thriller writers I’ve been reading, Forsyth’s come closest to the Wikipedia definition of ‘airport novels’. They are big (this one has 506 pages), with shiny covers embossed with the author’s name bigger than the title (branding), the plot is long and complex and absolutely stuffed with factual background, all of which you completely forget the second you put it down.

The plot

Like The Fourth Protocol, the plot begins in the present and goes forward into an increasingly hypothetical (and, as it turns out, completely inaccurate) future, dealing with the highest possible international politics – the superpower relationship between the USA and the USSR. This one goes on through 1990 and 1991 ie into the future relative to when it was published.

In this parallel universe Ronald Reagan wasn’t succeeded as US President by George Bush Snr but by a tall, noble academic, John Cormack. He meets and gets on amazingly well with Russia’s new young leader, Mikhail Gorbachev and they both move their nations towards a massive arms reduction deal, named the Nantucket Plan, after the East Coast American resort where they meet and agree it.

But elements in both countries are, predictably, unhappy.

Conspiracies

In the US a top oil man, Cyrus Miller, having received a report claiming the US will run out of oil in 30 years, sets in train a wild conspiracy to have Iranian terrorists assassinate the entire House of Saud in Saudi Arabia and set up a fundamentalist Shia regime in the country. The other countries in the region will beg the USA to intervene and overthrow it, after which they’ll be able to impose their own ‘puppet’ Arab leader who will give the US preferential oil deals forever. Sounds realistic, eh?

Miller and his rich, mad Yankee colleagues call themselves the Alamo Group and the plan to overthrow the Saudis in what they dub Plan Bowie. But they realise a major stumbling block to the scheme is the decent honourable man who sits in the White House. He must be undermined somehow. This is doubly advantageous since the patriots among them think Cormack must be a commie for making a deal with Gorbachev. And they are able to recruit some very senior arms manufacturers into the conspiracy, since they will suffer badly if the government stops buying their expensive weaponry. With all this motivation, the Group hire lobbyists and brief tame politicians to start a whispering campaign against Cormack.

But one of the wilder of the conspirators hires an ex-CIA maverick, Irving Moss (it turns out, a known torturer and fan of child pornography), who devises a much quicker, more vicious approach. Known only to a handful of the Alamo, Moss hires some ruthless European mercenary soldiers to kidnap the President’s son, Simon Cormack, who is on a year’s study at Oxford University.

The kidnap

On page 97, Simon is out on his usual early morning country run – as so many American scholars to Oxford he is a very fit athlete as well as an intellectual achiever – when he is ambushed by a group of balaclavaed men. They leap out of an innocent-looking grocer’s van, brutally machine gun the Special Branch and CIA guards following Simon and bundle him into the back of the van. This then trundles off through the countryside to a nearby farm, where they switch to a saloon car and drive fast down to London, round the M25, and out to an anonymous house in an anonymous estate in an anonymous town where they lock Simon in a purpose-built cellar-cum-dungeon and settle down for the negotiations.

For the next 200 pages, from roughly page 100 to page 300, the novel is as exciting and nailbiting as The Day of The Jackal, easily the best, most involving prose Forsyth had written since then. He gives one of his characteristically thorough, hugely well-informed and completely convincing accounts of how alarm bells ring with the local police, the Special Branch, the Met, the SAS, how Whitehall is alerted and the Prime Minster woken up to phone the US President in person, and all branches of US security dragged out of their beds to deal with the crisis.

The man they call, simply, Quinn

Even the deployment of some hefty clichés doesn’t disturb the drive of the narrative. For when the President asks his cabinet who is the best hostage negotiator in the country, the head of the CIA says there’s only one man for the job, the man they call simply – Quinn. ‘But Mr President, I warn you he’s a maverick’. Yes, he’s a tough-minded loner who insists on doing it his own way etc. A lot later in the book, a hotel receptionist thinks to herself that Quinn ‘looked a bit like that gentleman who was always asking people to make his day’ (p.264) and the scenes where we track down Quinn to the quiet Spanish village where he has retired to reminded me of the opening of Clint Eastwood’s movie Firefox (1982), in which the Army/CIA etc come begging the grizzled old vet to come out of retirement ‘to do one last job’. ‘Your country needs you Bob [Hank, Chuck, Quinn etc]’.

Despite the corniness of many elements – Quinn is assigned two CIA minders, one a naive young newbie (McCrea), one a stunning young woman who he ends up falling in love with (Sam Somerville) – the description of his recruitment and briefing and transport to London, the setting up of a safe house, the elaborate wiring and phone tapping laid on by the CIA and MI5 and then the genuinely nerve-racking negotiations with the tough, professional kidnappers is all brilliantly and meticulously described.

I was willing the final exchange of hostage and ransom to go smoothly and was genuinely devastated when it goes very badly wrong, devastatingly wrong, with the horrible murder of the young American.

Part two – payback

Quinn is not exactly implicated in young Simon’s death, but he is widely blamed for his unconventional and maverick approach and so he drops off the radar for part two of the novel in which he and the gorgeous, nubile CIA agent Sam Somerville set about tracking down the kidnappers.

Again with meticulous and in-depth background research Forsyth lays a fascinating trail for them to follow across northern Europe as the kidnappers are revealed to be mercenaries who met in Africa during various post-colonial wars, most notably in the Congo. (The background here overlaps with the deep knowledge of the subject Forsyth displayed in his ‘manual for mercenaries’, The Dogs of War.)

The tiny clue which gives them away is that Quinn spotted on one of the hands of the otherwise hooded and anonymous men, the tattoo of a spider and web, the symbol of one of the African mercenary groups, and which explains the spider in a web logo on all versions of the novel’s cover.

But, despite their brilliant detective work and calling in favours from well-placed policemen in Belgium, Germany and Holland, Quinn and Sam arrive at each location only to find the man they want already assassinated. Someone is one step ahead of them and liquidating the witnesses.

The President Quinn needs to be replaced

Meanwhile, in a separate strand, forensic scientists in Britain have established beyond doubt that the small bomb used to blow up poor Simon Cormack was manufactured in every detail in the Soviet Union. ‘Accidentally’ leaked to the press and TV, this revelation causes a storm of indignation – the President’s son murdered by the commies!! – with Soviet embassies attacked and burned in US cities etc and the whole arms reduction, Nantucket Treaty, in tatters. Excellent news – for the military and arms manufacturers.

Meanwhile, Plan Bowie has had exactly the effect on the President which its wicked progenitors intended, and he is photographed at his son’s funeral, a broken man, and is almost incapable of governing in the weeks that follow. Slowly his cabinet realises they might have to invoke Amendment 25 of the US Constitution, which allows them to relieve the President of his duties. So Quinn and Sam’s travels around Europe in quest of the kidnappers are set against the timeline to the President’s deposition in Washington.

On Quinn’s tail

When they finally track down the leader of the kidnappers – ‘Zack’ – to a bar in Paris they barely have time to establish that a) they didn’t murder the President’s son b) they took detailed instructions from ‘that fat man’, before assassins riddle the bar with Armalite bullets, killing Zack with Quinn and Sam only just escaping through the back and over the wall.

Quinn realises their steps are being tracked and they locate a tracker and bug which have somehow been placed in the handbag Sam bought in London. Aha. That’s how the bad guys were always one step ahead – they were listening to Quinn and Sam working out the location of each of the kidnappers, then beating them to the man in time to execute him.

Corsica

Quinn despatches Sam to a safe house on the Costa del Sol (minded by some London gangland crooks who owe him a few favours) and goes after the last of the suspects, a hardened Corsican mafia boss, Orsini, holed up in his tiny village in the mountains of Corsica. This sequence is powerfully described – the attempt to assassinate Quinn in his village hotel room (which he foils), followed by his tracking of the man through the dense underbrush on the mountainside, the famous maquis.

Quinn is kidnapped

But in the inevitable shootout Orsini dies without revealing the name of ‘the fat man’ who hired them all, the trail goes cold and Quinn heads back to London, dejected. He has only just arrived in a taxi from Heathrow and is walking up the steps to the hotel he’s booked into when a posh Englishman stabs him in the leg with a poisoned umbrella tip, then and asks the hotel staff to help carry a collapsing Quinn into a waiting car.

Quinn wakes up in a cell and for a moment thinks he has been kidnapped by the gang or whoever is behind them. But he is treated civilly and brought upstairs into the stylish surroundings of – the Russian embassy in Kensington! The urbane and civilised Russian KGB colonel apologises for abducting him like this, but the Russians are very upset at being framed like this. They have tracked down a party of Americans who flew to Yugoslavia a few months earlier, and then took a helicopter to Baku. Here they visited a weapons research centre. The Russians now think this was by agreement with the Head of KGB South (himself now under arrest) and it was here they got the parts necessary to build the micro-bomb into the leather belt which Orsini gave Simon Cormack to wear, along with clean jeans and T-shirt just before he was released. The KGB man shows him all the photographic and documentary evidence and Quinn believes him.

The Russians now give Quinn a new identity, a new haircut, a Canadian passport and money, instruct him to fly to Dublin, then to Canada, then travel into America and find the men who organised the kidnap and publish the truth. Quinn accepts.

Vermont

Quinn flies into Canada then makes his way across the border and holes up in a log cabin high in the mountains of Vermont where at this time of year (November) it is absolutely freezing cold and deep in snow – think the Alps or Siberia. From here he sends several messages: one a phone call to Sam designed to be intercepted, telling her the trail has gone cold. Another is a letter he arranges to be delivered her by hand telling her to bring his trusted friend David Weintraub up to the Vermont retreat, where they can plan how to track down the mysterious ‘fat man’.

Except that this message, also, was intercepted and the fat man comes to him. Sam dutifully collects the person she is told is David Weintraub, along with the junior CIA agent (McCrea) assigned to stay with Quinn in his hotel room all those weeks before. But as Quinn steps out of the cabin into the snow to greet the arriving car, it is not Weintraub but the psychopath Irving Moss who steps out, pointing a gun at him. And the innocent, youthful-looking Duncan McCrea pulls a gun too. Turns out they met in Central America, on one of the US’s countless dirty assignments, discovered they shared a taste for torture and assassination, and Moss recruited McCrea to the CIA (before he was himself sacked).

So McCrea, in Quinn’s room all through the negotiations, was a hired hand of Moss and therefore of the Alamo Conspiracy all along. Now Moss interrogates Quinn for everything he knows, realises he doesn’t know the identities of the men at the top, no harm has been done and so takes him out into the snowdrift woods at the back of the hut to execute him then throw his body into a crevasse. Except that a shot rings out and it is Moss who falls to the ground, gushing blood. Crikey. In a brilliantly preposterous, witty and laugh-out loud moment, it turns out it is the ‘posh Englishman’ – Andrei – who stabbed Quinn with the poisoned umbrella tip back in London. The KGB colonel who had briefed Quinn and given him his Canadian passport back in London, had already revealed that Andrei the Cossack was one of his best operatives; now we learn that Andrei tailed Quinn to Canada, then Vermont, and has been staking out his cabin for precisely such an eventuality.

Quinn called across to him.
‘As they say in your country, spasibo.’
The man’s half-frozen face gave a flicker of a smile. When he spoke, Andrei the Cossack still used the tones of London’s clubland.
‘As they say in your country, old boy, have a nice day.’ (p.483)

Sometimes you wonder whether Forsyth is testing how preposterous he can make his plots before the reader puts down the book in disgust. Quinn takes the dead man’s rifle and returns to find the baby-faced sadist McCrea has got as far as stripping Sam naked, tying her to the bed face down and is about to start whipping her with wire. Quinn shoots him dead, unties Sam and cradles her as she cries, which she does for days.

Washington finale

Sam returns to Washington while Quinn searches Moss’s body and comes up with an ancient address book. All the names and numbers are in code. In these last few pages, Quinn works in partnership with Sam, working out permutations of the code, then communicating over a safe line to get Sam to check the numbers in Washington. Finally, a likely contender emerges, a phone number in the prestigious Georgetown district.

Quinn phones this number, pretending to be Moss and the voice at the other end acknowledges him. Bingo! It’s their man. Quinn/Moss demands more money. The voice at the other end hesitates, and then agrees. Quinn recognises it now. It belongs to a member of the President’s cabinet, a close personal adviser. My God, he was behind the whole thing. Forsyth doesn’t identify him, to keep the tension up.

Now Moss/Quinn claims he has liquidated Quinn and the girl but found a manuscript which tells the whole story. He wants more money to hand it over. The voice reluctantly agrees and they arrange a meeting after midnight near the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall. There is an atmospheric sequence in which Quinn stakes out the VIP’s house and then quietly follows his long limousine to the rendezvous.

When the nervous VIP sees it is Quinn and not Moss come to meet him, he nearly wets himself. There is a classic ‘recognition’ scene where he admits full responsibility for the entire conspiracy, saying it had to be done, President Cormack has to be brought down in order to save the US of A. He hands over the check for $5 million and Quinn gives him a (worthless) manuscript. He is more relaxed and feeling safe when Quinn says he got a cab there and asks for a lift, so the now-relieved man says sure, my limousine is just over here…

Finale

In the final scenes Quinn phones the President (who had given him his personal number during the hostage negotiations) and tells him to take receipt of the manuscript he’s couriering over. A few days later the President chairs a meeting of his cabinet. a) He is completely restored to his old self, masterful, in control. b) The assembled forces of CIA, FBI, various security forces, all confirm every detail of Quinn’s report down to the make of the bullets at each execution scene. It was not the Russians. It was a homegrown cadre of lunatic right-wing conspirators. c) We see the conspirators being rounded up and arrested or managing to commit suicide as the cops arrive, including the men who had been planning the mad coup in Saudi Arabia. d) The President’s men unanimously agree Quinn was completely right all the way through and did as much as any man could do. e) The President calls off the manhunt for Quinn. Let him go free.

In the final scene Quinn boards a BA flight to Spain, He is going back to tend his vineyard. He is met by his beloved Sam. Yes she will come with him to Spain, yes she will marry him. They embrace and he drops his newspaper which carries two news stories:

  • The President’s close friend and Treasury Secretary Hubert Reed was found dead at the wheel of his limousine which seems to have crashed into the river Potomac. Aha. So it was he that Quinn met near the Memorial. Are we to assume that Quinn murdered him in an act of vigilante justice?
  • An anonymous donation of $5 million has been received by a hospital for paraplegic Vietnam veterans. Quinn has paid his dues and, in some measure, Forsyth has paid his respects to the 58,000 men who died in that war, and to the hundreds of thousands who were physically or mentally scarred by it.

Facts facts facts

If you like pages of factual explanation and background, you will love Forsyth’s novels. Pages and pages are devoted to brisk, no-nonsense briefings about every place, organisation, person, country, city, town, every piece of hardware and equipment the story touches. If you want to know:

  • what the career of a senior KGB man looks like
  • a history of OPEC
  • an explanation of Islam with special emphasis on the distinction between Shia and Sunni
  • the precise layout of Neill Air Force base
  • who the martyrs commemorated in Oxford’s Martys Memorial were
  • a history of Special Forces operations in Vietnam
  • a detailed breakdown of US military spend in Europe
  • an explanation of KGB personnel in Amman, Jordan
  • exactly who attends British Government COBRA meetings and what their roles and responsibilities are
  • what the 13 branches of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Operations Department do
  • that a USAF VC20A is the military equivalent of the Gulfstream Three, complete with two Rolls Royce Spey 511 engines
  • how to negotiate with professional kidnappers
  • how much fuel a stripped down F-15 Eagle needs to cross the Atlantic
  • a potted history of European mercenaries involved in Congo, Biafra and Rwanda in the 1960s
  • the street layouts of central London, Washington, Paris, Brussels
  • the precise location of MOSSAD’s headquarters in Tel Aviv

and much much more along the same lines, then you will love this novel.

As for complaining out that there is little or no psychology in these books, that the characters are paper-thin stereotypes (tall dignified US President, tough Euro mercenaries, tall taciturn hero, nubile sexually available girly sidekick) that doesn’t stop lots of people loving the James Bond novels and the even shallower Bond movies.

Too much plot

What stops Forsyth’s novels being made into the movies they feel like they want to be, or even being taken seriously, is the quite obvious overload of plot. Just American right-wingers seeking to sabotage a liberal President’s arms reduction treaty with the commies would have been enough, more than enough. It is way over-egging it to add in a massive conspiracy to overthrow the entire government of Saudi Arabia and replace it with a firebreathing Shia cleric (as the book progresses that whole storyline, which dominates the first 100 pages, is slowly forgotten). But also in the first hundred pages had been some kind of parallel conspiracy the KGB was hatching to invade an unnamed Arab country (?) This is completely forgotten about by the end of the book, which turns into something very different, ‘the Americans are their own worst enemies’ yarn.

If you can buy into the conventions of the genre and put to one side the stereotypical characters and the over-complex plot, this book is worth reading for the very thrilling central 200 pages.


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 Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth (1984)

My feeling that the characters and institutions in this novel are almost surreally perfect, that all the soldiers, police, Special Branch, secret agents, intelligence operatives, forensic scientists, nuclear advisers, Customs & Excise officials perform their duty with exemplary efficiency, like the Photoshopped figures in a government recruitment poster – was crystallised when our hero catches the 9.25 train from St Pancras to Sheffield and it not only leaves on time but stops at each station stop along the way bang on time. Not in the real world, not in the Britain I live in, and not in the Britain of the 1980s, it wouldn’t have.

As I noted in my review of The Devil’s Alternative, Forsyth’s novels are supremely confident in tackling high-level, diplomatic and geopolitical subjects and stuffed full of a high-end journalist’s obsession with organisational and administrative detail. But the way all the officials behave impeccably, the police, army, agents are all epitomes, exemplars and models of their type, gives the whole story a plastic, unreal feel. So many of the humans mentioned in the plot are wafer-thin, Action Man figurines who perform their function in the clockwork plot like automata.

Short plot summary

Set in what was then the future – 1987 – the Russians hatch a plan, Operation Aurora, to discredit the current Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher and secure the election of a Labour government. The plan is based on the premise – described in great detail (pp.60-74 and pp.94-104) – that the Labour Party has been penetrated at all levels by hard-core Marxist-Leninists who, once the Party is elected, will promptly overthrow the Labour leader and institute a communist government. This government will immediately withdraw from NATO, the EEC, expel all American troops along with their Cruise missiles, and declare unilateral nuclear disarmament. And this will weaken the Western world so that the Russians can, er, will be able to, er… well, that much isn’t defined. It is just stated that the above policies will ‘fatally weaken’ the West and so are devoutly to be wished for by Moscow.

As to the specifics of the plan, the KGB send their best man, Valeri Petrofsky, to adopt the ‘legend’ (ie clean identity) of James Ross and rent an inconspicuous house in Ipswich. 10 couriers will be sent via different routes to meet him at various locations around England. Each will deliver (unknown to themselves) the components of a ‘small’ nuclear bomb. The eleventh man, Vassiliev, will be a weapons expert who assembles the device. Then Petrofsky will detonate it at a US air base in Suffolk, devastating the base and local area. Moscow will publish warnings it has sent the US about the recklessness of using small and unstable nukes, along with technical information designed to blame the Americans’ recklessness for the ‘accident’.

It is this disastrous ‘accident’ which will prompt revulsion against the pro-American, pro-nuke Mrs Thatcher and cause a last-minute swing in the electorate in favour of Labour with its strong anti-nuclear policy, leading to the election of a Labour government and to the communist coup described above. When Mrs Thatcher (for she is named in the novel) announces a snap election for June 1987, the plan kicks into action and the clock starts ticking…

1. Kim Philby Rather amazingly, the real-life character of Kim Philby plays a large part in the first half of the book. We meet him miserable and disillusioned in his Moscow flat, married with young kids but still a respected member of the KGB establishment. To his surprise he is called to a meeting with the old and sick General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union who requests a detailed summary of the political situation in Britain. Philby’s report is included in the text, all 25 pages of it, which gives a thorough and fantastical account of the extent to which the British Labour Party and the Trades Unions have been infiltrated at every level by hard-core revolutionary communists. This is the seed of the daring plan which the novel describes.

2. The burglary The first hundred pages or so interweave elements of this plot with the straightforward narrative of a south London burglar, Jim Rawlings, who breaks into the home of upper-class George Berenson to steal his wife’s legendary diamonds. He also nicks an attache case to put his swag in but is surprised to discover it contains a cache of Top Secret documents. Being an honest crook, guvnor, he posts the documents back to the police, who pass them on to MI5.

3. Special agent John Preston Enter four-square, ex-Paratrooper, now the upright and thorough MI5 agent, John Preston. He and the authorities only have the documents posted to them, showing there’s been a leak but with no evidence who stole them. Preston undertakes a meticulous, and meticulously described by Forsyth, investigation which eventually narrows it down to Berenson. The process by which this is done is fascinating, a master class in Forsyth’s astonishing grasp of bureaucratic and administrative detail.

4. South Africa Preston then tails Berenson and discovers his ‘control’ is an agent in the South African embassy, one Jan Marais. In a long, immensely detailed and extraordinary tour de force of investigation, Preston flies to South Africa, where he is loaned a senior officer to help him out and take him round. This officer, Viljoen, is at first sceptical but Preston demonstrates the superiority of the British secret services by piecing together the extraordinary story of Jan Marais’s life and his career during the second world war to prove that he is in fact a Soviet spy. The South Africans are appalled, grateful and impressed. Back in Britain Berenson is horrified at his own stupidity and treachery; contrary to his intentions he has been passing key documents to the very Soviets he purports to despise. Forsyth has several pungent passages on the narcissism and stupidity of such imbeciles who set themselves against the wisdom of the authorities.

5. Agency rivalries All this ‘action’ – ie Preston’s adventures – is cleverly interwoven not only with developments in Moscow, as Philby’s plan is assessed and adopted, but with detailed descriptions of a power struggle at the top of British security where MI5’s sickly boss Sir Bernard Hemmings is being manouevred out the door by his number two, Brian Harcourt-Smith. Harcourt-Smith hates Preston and suppresses a report he presented right at the start of the book about the left-wing penetration of the Labour Party. The way he did this made me think, for most of the book, that he, Harcourt-Smith, must be a deeper ‘mole’ or agent for the Soviets… Meanwhile, as the evidence mounts that the Sovs are mounting some kind of major operation, the head of MI6, Sir Nigel Irvine, poaches Preston from MI5 where he’s been sidelined, and gives him authority to pursue the investigation as he sees fit.

6. Thrill of the chase The last 150 pages of the novel are structurally similar to Day of The Jackal in the way it becomes a chase: with Honest John slowly piecing together the horrific plan and desperately trying to track down the Russian agent while, in alternating scenes, we follow in detail the preparations, travel, rendezvous of each courier with Evil Valeri. Thus the tension is very effectively ratcheted up and up…

Implausibility

BUT – The plot is fundamentally laughable. The more you think about it, it seems ludicrously paranoid. Sure the Militant Tendency had infiltrated many local Labour parties during the early 1980s, but Neil Kinnock effectively faced them down, and then the year-long Miners’ Strike (1984-85), which began about the time this novel was published, highlighted the superficial power but ultimate weakness of the entire British Trade Union movement, ending in complete defeat and helping Mrs Thatcher to her record third election victory in 1987.

In the scenario of this book, the nuclear ‘accident’ was to swing the electorate at the last moment against Mrs Thatcher and in favour of Labour; and within days of being elected Neil Kinnock would be overthrown in a Party coup and replaced by – …. who exactly? Tony Benn? Really? A few moments’ reflection suggest that, in the light of a nuclear explosion, the electorate would probably be scared and afraid and flee to the party of Law and Order. In fact, such an event would have played to all Mrs Thatcher’s strengths, the resolution she showed during the Falklands War (April-June 1982), her bravery after the Brighton Bombing (12 October 1984).

Even as a political fantasy, the plot doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Elements

The Wikipedia article on ‘airport novels’ doesn’t specify exactly when they were invented or when it evolved into a distinct genre, but it does mention that an airport novel must be:

  • long
  • absorbing
  • exciting and thrilling
  • superficial, containing no depth of characterisation, no profound meaning, no message
  • since the airplane passenger has no works of reference about, it must include its own background information
  • and be forgettable

Long

The Fourth Protocol is the longest novel I’ve read in a while, at 526 pages in the Corgi paperback edition. In fact it feels like several novels crammed into one: a first half which starts with the burglary, segues into identifying the ‘mole’ in the service, before taking John Preston to South Africa to perform his brilliant detective work. This takes hundreds of pages but, fascinating and rewardingly complex though it is, the first half feels only tangentially related to the nuclear plot in the second half.

Absorbing / providing its own background information

Forsyth was a high end journalist before he was a novelist and good gracious it shows. Nothing is mentioned without at least half a page of explanation and description. Every gun, piece of equipment – cameras, microphones, burglar alarms and so on – are lovingly described, along with their complete spec and functionality. How to create a small nuclear weapon is described in minute detail over seven pages, a description which became so intricate I could have done with a diagram (pp.440-447).

But it’s the administrative functions of bureaucracies which really fire Forsyth. We are told at great length about MI5:

The British Security Service, better known as MI5, does not live in one single building. Discreetly, but inconveniently, it is split up into four office blocks. The Headquarters are in Charles Street, and no longer at the old HQ, Leconfield House, so habitually mentioned in the newspapers.

The next biggest block is in Gordon Street, known simply as ‘Gordon’, and nothing else just as the head office is known as ‘Charles’. the other two premises are in Cork Street (known as ‘Cork’) and a humble annexe in Marlborough Street, again known simply by the street name.

The department is divided into six branches scattered throughout the buildings. Again, discreetly but confusingly, some of the branches have sections in different buildings. In order to avoid an inordinate use of shoe leather, all are linked by extremely secure telephone lines, with a flawless system for identification of the credentials of the caller.

‘A’ branch handles in its various sections Policy, Technical Support, Property Establishment, Registry, Data Processing, the office of the Legal Adviser and the Watcher Service. The last named is the home of that idiosyncratic group of men and (some) women, of all ages and types, street wise and ingenious, who can mount the finest personal surveillance teams in the world. Even ‘hostiles’ have had to concede that on their own ground MI5’s watchers are just about unbeatable… (p.42)

And so on for another three highly detailed, flag-waving pages. Want to know about the Joint Intelligence Committee?

The full JIC is a rather large committee. Apart from half a dozen ministries and several agencies, the three armed forces and the two intelligence services, it would also include the London-based representatives of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and, of course, America’s CIA… (pp.112-113)

The KGB? Specifically, the KGB’s operations in Japan? Yes, we have that in stock:

The First Chief Directorate of the KGB, responsible for all overseas activities, is divided into Directorates, Special Departments and Ordinary Departments. Ordinary KGB agents under diplomatic cover come from one of the ‘territorial’ departments – the Seventh Department happens to cover Japan. These staffers are called PR Line when on posting abroad and they do the run-of-the-mill trawling for information, making of useful contacts, reading of technical publications, etc. (pp.151-152)

In the exciting finale the SAS are called in to storm the house where Petrofsky is hiding out with the bomb. Since I know that no nuclear device went off in 1987, and that Mrs Thatcher won that year’s election and – more importantly – that Brave John Preston never loses a case – I was never in doubt that Bad Russian Petrofsky would be foiled. Nor is Forsyth.

Instead, strangely coldly, factually, there is page after page about the SAS’s structure and organisation, all the things which make it unique etc.

The fighting arm of the SAS is based on a module of four. Four men make up a patrol, four patrols a troop and four troops a squadron. They rotate through the various SAS commitments: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Jungle Training and Special projects, apart from the continuing NATO tasks and the maintenance of one squadron on standby at Hereford. (p.484)

More, far more time, effort and text is spent on this encyclopedia-style content about the SAS and its thorough and careful preparations than on the storming of the house which is over in a brisk, no-nonsense two pages (pp.505-507): one chap shot but not wounded thanks to latest Kevlar body armour; wicked Russkie eliminated; nuke recovered intact, Suh!

Buildings

The text follows the different characters as they travel round quite a bit, to Moscow and various parts of the USSR, all over South Africa to uncover the Jan Marais plotline, back and forth across London and the Home Counties, then journeys up to Derbyshire and, finally, car and motorbike trips criss-crossing East Anglia.

In every place the characters visit we are told not just the building they go to, but the exact layout of that building, sometimes (as with the KGB or MI6 headquarters) pages and pages linking the administrative structure of the organisation with the buildings, annexes, wings occupied by each section. I kept thinking the text was crying out for those Sunday Times, Insight article-type illustrations and schematic diagrams of buildings’ layout, with those little human figures added to give scale.

That’s often how the novel feels – a fascinating tour through the key organisations and buildings involved in Cold War espionage and security, with small black silhouettes, the merest human outline possible, to tie them together.

High level plot

There’s a meta-plot, a higher-level narrative which underpins or overarches the on-the-ground pursuit of the agents. Operation Aurora is top secret and being carried out on the sole order of the ailing General Secretary of the USSR but there is rivalry between Generals in the highest ranks of the KGB. And in Britain, the rivalry between MI6 and its boss Sir Nigel Irvine and MI5 with its ailing leader Sir Bernard Hemmings and its ambitious number two Brian Harcourt-Smith, are the background to Irvine poaching the omnicapable Preston to solve the case.

But at the very end of the book Irvine informs Preston that the whole Operation was deliberately ‘blown’ by a senior figure on the Russian side (one General Karpov). Part of Preston’s investigation had been to follow an agent flagged up by passport control at Heathrow. Preston and his team of ‘watchers’ trailed him to a house in Chesterfield, which the watchers stake out for over a week, on a hunch it contains important information or equipment and Preston’s gamble pays off when key baddy, Petrofsky, eventually arrives. It is this slender thread which allows Preston to tail Petrofsky back to his house in Ipswich and foil the entire plot.

But now Irvine informs him that the sending of the agent, Winkler, was a deliberate gesture by KGB supremo Karpov to ensure that the plot failed, that an atomic bomb was not detonated in Britain, that the Labour Party did not win the election.

The quid pro quo was that our side – Sir Nigel – ordered Petrofsky to be not just captured, but liquidated. And indeed, in the climax of the SAS raid, he was only badly wounded when, to Preston’s horror, the SAS captain steps forward and shoots him in the head. Now Preston discovers that was part of the ‘deal’. KGB scupper their own plot; we ensure their best agent isn’t interrogated, ‘blown’, and spread all over the newspapers.

In the final pages we see Irvine meet Karpov at a safe house in Geneva and exchange documents, Irvine satisfied that the plot was aborted, Karpov with the documentary proof of the Operation’s existence which he will take back to the USSR and use to undermine his rivals, maybe even topple the General Secretary himself, certainly gain promotion, and win debts and favours from the British.

It is almost as if espionage is a dirty, cynical business.

Forgettable and out of date

But as with all the immense detail of organisational structure, the buildings and their layouts, you close the book and instantly forget it. Like any airport novel it is totally absorbing as you read and instantly erased once you arrive at your destination.

Added to which, every element of the story is 30 years out of date. There is no longer a KGB, are MI5 and MI6 still based at the same locations and structured into the same Departments? More to the point, there is no longer a USSR nor a Cold War. And real history turned out to be much more fascinating than this fiction. The Miners Strike was a more concrete demonstration of class war than anything Forsyth could cook up, much deeper, much longer, much more bitter and harrowing – and the arrival of Mikhael Gorbachev in the USSR much more complex and tragic than any fiction.

Forsyth’s novel, like most others of the time, is based on the frozen timelessness of a Cold War it was assumed would go on for generations. Instead, five short years later it was over, the Berlin Wall was coming down and a few years later the USSR passed into history.

The appeal of Forsyth’s novels must largely rest on their documentary thoroughness (it certainly doesn’t depend on their psychological insight or depth of character, of which there is next to none). Which means they are as vulnerable as the newspapers where he learned his trade. Who wants yesterday’s papers? Let alone newspapers from 30 years ago, written in (what now seems like) crippling ignorance of what was about to happen.

Like John Buchan or Eric Ambler’s novels, Forsyth’s speak of a world which has fast receded into the past, which will soon be of historical and antiquarian interest only.

Upper class

Forsyth is incredibly posh. You can almost hear his plummy tones as you read. All the British characters went to public school ie the heads of MI5, MI6, Special Branch etc. I laughed out loud when, in the first half, the head of MI6 reveals that he not only knows the suspected mole, he went to the same school as him! The mole was his fag and cleaned his shoes. Of course he was.

These are the people, this narrow clique of privately educated, inter-married and inter-related, upper class toffs, who claimed then – as now – to speak for ‘the nation’ of 60 million extremely diverse people, the 95% of the population which didn’t go to private school, are not part of the many overlapping sets and cliques and groups which comprise the Ruling Class, the Establishment. In fact there’s a paragraph describing just this:

Brian Harcourt-Smith was the product of a very minor private school and carried on his shoulder a sizeable and quite unnecessary chip. Beneath his polished veneer he had a considerable capacity for resentment. All his life he had resented the seemingly effortless ease which the men around him could bring to the business of life. He resented their endless and interwoven network of contacts and friendships, often forged long ago in schools, universities or fighting regiments, on which they could draw when they wished. It was called the ‘old boy network’ or the ‘magic circle’, and he resented most of all that he was not a member of it. (p.126)

Even the hero, Honest John Preston, the tough, professional Army man turned agent, of course went to private school and is now sending his son to exactly the same kind of school, where he will learn the same values: cricket, philistinism, bad food, snobbery.

In this context, the very early sections of the book are unconsciously funny. Forsyth chooses to have the mole in MI6 revealed via the accident of a break-in to his posh apartment in Belgravia. These opening 30 or so pages describe in customary detail the professional burglar casing the joint and then carrying out the job, complete with minute descriptions of how he neutralises the alarm system, picks the lock, and exactly how he blows the safe. Slick, technically informed professionalism is what we expect of absolutely every character in a Forsyth novel. But as this one is a south London crook Forsyth feels he has to explain to his readers a number of facts about south London and its criminal classes. I particularly enjoyed him explaining what a ‘manor’ is, ie the territory in which a crook operates, what a ‘face’ is, ie a criminal known to the authorities, and so on. I laughed when he daintily explained that a ‘slag’ is the term of art for a hard man, a ‘heavy’.

He expects his audience to know all about Whites and Brooks and the Army and Navy (exclusive clubs for the upper classes) but to have to be carefully informed about criminal argot or south London landmarks.

[Walking to the dining room at Brooks] they passed the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Martin Flannery, coming the other way. Although they knew each other, Sir Martin saw at once that his colleague was ‘in conference’. The mandarins acknowledged each other’s presence with an imperceptible inclination of the head, sufficient for two scholars of Oxford. Backslapping is best left to foreigners. (p.510)

In fact Forsyth’s novels read as if written for the Sunday Times-reading classes, in between the Style and the Arts sections, the parts which advise you which Caribbean island to holiday on or which opera to go to. Sometimes I feel a bit too common to be reading them. Sometimes I’m surprised that anyone without an old school tie is allowed to buy them.

Benefits of the old boy network

That said, Forsyth makes a point I don’t think I’ve seen expressed quite so clearly before, which is that the old boy network works and it works precisely because its network of contacts covers the entire political, security, police and Whitehall machine. Because Nigel was at school with Jeremy, it means that now they’re the heads of MI6 and the SAS, respectively, they can talk quickly, informally, and get things done:

That the procedure can work within minutes is due in part to the fact that it has been rehearsed and honed to a fine art over and over again; and partly to the fact that the British establishment, when required to move fast, contains enough interpersonal relationships to permit a great deal of procedure to be kept at verbal level, with the inevitable paperwork left to catch up later. British bureaucracy may appear slow and cumbersome to the British but it is greased lightning compared with its European and American counterparts. (p.483)

He then goes on into characteristically Forsythian detail, explaining how: the Chief Constable of Suffolk, informed of the terrorist threat, contacts Sir Hubert Villiers in Whitehall, who briefs  his Minister and the Cabinet Secretary, who informs the Prime Minister, who gives approval to deploy the SAS, which is relayed to Sire Peregrine Jones at Defence, who knew about it anyway because he’s already had a little chat with Sir Martin, so that within sixty minutes of the first contact between the head of Suffolk constabulary and Home Office, the Director of Military Operations is talking on a scrambled line to the commanding officer of the SAS at Hereford. Phew. There is no doubting the depth of Forsyth’s research and knowledge. But it is possible to question the way he deploys it.

Condescending attitude

Given the profile of the author implied by his text with its worship of the British police and intelligence services, its rabid suspicion of the Labour Party, its smooth familiarity with the clubs and banter of Britain’s elite, it is no great surprise to read the witheringly condescending opinions of anyone left-wing which sprinkle the text. The anti-nuclear protesters and marchers who play a minor role in the novel (they hold up the Baddy as he drives back to his safe house with the nuke in his boot) prompt a few snooty put-downs.

The Tornadoes had gone back to Scotland but in their place the peace of the rustic neighbourhood had been shattered by protestors, mainly female and possessed of the strangest personal habits, who had infested the fields and set up shanty camps on patches of common ground…. [Behind the leaders of the march] came the column of pacifists, pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninists, anti-Soviet Trotskyites, lecturers and Labour activists, with an admixture of unemployed, punks, gays and bearded ecologists… Up the two sides of the road were scattered the resident female protestors, most sporting placards and banners, some in anoraks and crewcuts, who held hands with their younger lady friends or clapped the approaching marchers… (pp.462-463)

Bet none of them went to a decent school, eh?

The title

The Fourth Protocol is one of the (fictional) secret appendices to a 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed by the USSR and USA. It specifies that neither side may deliver nuclear devices by sneaky underhand methods eg in suitcases. They have to be dropped from planes and on the end of inter-continental ballistic missiles. Thus, the plot consists of Preston and his MI6 boss slowly realising the Russians are breaking the Fourth Protocol. Which is just not cricket, is it?


The movie

It was swiftly made into a movie, directed by John Mackenzie, starring Michael Caine and a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan. It’s much better shot than the film adaptation of Gorky Park, much nicer to look at.

There are no women in the book (except for John Preston’s ex-wife, who has run off with a millionaire and we never meet, and the scared wife of the innocent middle-aged neighbour whose house the authorities commandeer to keep a watch on what they suspect is a Soviet ‘drop’ house in Chesterfield. She’s good at making tea, exactly as a middle-aged, non-public school Englishwoman ought to be.)

But a Hollywood movie must have sex in it, so they first invent a neighbour, who works at the air base and has a horny wife who makes a pass at Petrofsky/Brosnan. And then the bomb maker, Vassiliev, turns out not to be the cold, calculating agent of the novel but the gorgeous Joanna Cassidy. They assemble the bomb together and then the camera closes up on the sweat dripping down her cleavage. When Pierce moves in to snog her she says, ‘I thought you’d get to that,’ and so must every single person who’s ever seen the film have felt the same heavy clang of inevitability. There is a vivid sequence of them having sex before – just as inevitably – he kills her. What a thankless role for this beautiful actress.

Indeed, there is a lot of callous killing in the movie, much more than in the book. The tone is set in the opening scene where, after a long car journey to a remote dacha in the snowy Russian countryside, Philby, who has come all this way to meet the General, is instead shot in the face by his subordinate. It is crude and shocking and doesn’t happen, couldn’t happen, in the original, for we need Philby to write the very long analysis of the Labour Party which is the premise of the whole thing.

Here, his being shot in the face lacks any of the intelligence or subtlety and, of course, none of the amazing wealth of background information, which is the dominant characteristic of the book. In the final scenes of the novel, when he learns about the Russian double-cross which underpins the plot, Preston mulls over the complexity of his trade and in the postscript is seen happily leaving intelligence to go and work for a commercial security firm.

The movie, typically for this and so many other film adaptations of novels, ditches all the subtlety, reducing pages of thoughtfulness to the absolute minimum number of words, to have Michael Caine’s Preston confront Irvine and Karpov, and yell, ‘It’s about time they put you in a fucking museum’ – a trite and immature outburst nicely suited to the petulant teenagers most films are aimed at.

Glad it only cost me £1 in a charity shop.


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.

No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth (1982)

A collection of ten short stories. No first publication dates are given, which is a shame because it would be interesting to know which are from the 1970s (or even the late 1960s) and because so many are quite different in tone from his book-length thrillers. In that so many of them are, unexpectedly, comedies.

The stories

1. No Comebacks (29 pages) Mark Sanderson is a rich property developer with all the trappings of a playboy millionaire lifestyle – apartments in New York, south of France, sports car, yacht, endless dolly birds. At a party he meets a stunningly beautiful woman (we never get her name) who resists his charms. He becomes infatuated. She says she can’t divorce her weedy bird-spotting husband back in Spain (Major Archie Summers) because he needs her (which rather prompts the question, What is she doing swanning round cocktail parties in London? but never mind).

So, possibly over-reacting a tad, Sanderson hires a hitman (Calvi) to kill the weedy husband. This, the core of the text, is an interestingly detailed and precise account of how to contact the kind of foreign mercenary you’d need for the job and then how the hitman goes about planning and organising the hit – especially the methodology of smuggling a firearm from France into Spain. (There is a long description of how to glue together a book’s pages, then carve a hole in the centre, then insert a plastic mould to contain the disassembled sections of a gun.)

In this, heavily procedural, respect it is an offshoot of Forsyth’s massive ‘novel’, The Dogs of War – itself more like a 400-page manual on how to hire mercenaries to mount a coup in an African country than a traditional novel. Forsyth’s descriptions of organisations, procedures and hardware are always compelling.

A silencer on an automatic is never truly quiet, despite the efforts of the sound-effects men in television thrillers to pretend it is. Automatics, unlike revolvers, do not have a closed breech. As the bullet leaves the barrel the automatic’s jacket is forced backwards to expel the spent cartridge and inject a fresh one. That is why they are called automatics. But in that split second as the breech opens to expel the used shell, half the noise of the explosion comes out through the open breech, making a silencer on the end of the barrel only 50 per cent effective. (p.31)

Everything is planned down to the last detail, including the detail that the beautiful woman had told Sanderson that she goes swimming & sunbathing every afternoon between 3 and 4. The twist is that, on the day the assassin arrives at the isolated villa in Spain, a freak rainstorm breaks out. Calvi shoots the weedy husband alright but – as he tells Sanderson back in London as the latter is handing over the cash for the job – unfortunately, some bird caught him at it. Rather a good looking lady, too. But don’t worry. He shot her, too. ‘There’ll be no comebacks!’

Boom boom.

2. There are no snakes in Ireland (31 pages) Harkishan Ram Lal is a medical student from the Punjab studying at the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast. He takes a vacation job with a cash-in-hand bunch of ‘demolition experts’ who are being paid to knock down an old brewery by an unscrupulous property developer. The enormous, rough foreman of the group, Big Billie Cameron, relentlessly bullies Harkishan, not just calling him ‘darkie’ and ‘nigger’, but giving him all the dangerous jobs (such as perching on collapsing walls etc). When Harkishan rebels, Billie attacks him, knocking the student to the ground. The others in the gang, sympathetic but scared of the bully, tell him to stay down…

So that evening Harkishan sets up a little shrine in his Belfast flat to the goddess Shakti and prays for guidance, and the drizzling rain on the windowpane leads his eye to the corner of the room where the belt of his dressing gown lies huddled in the shape of… a snake!

Aha. So now – and this is a classic example of the preposterousness of the stories – Harkishan goes to a Sikh he knows, borrows the money for an air fare, flies to Bombay, and takes a taxi to ‘Mr Chatterjee’s Tropical Fish and Reptile Emporium’, where he buys the most venomous snake available – Echis carinatus, the saw-scaled viper – slips it inside a cigar box with airholes cut into it, which he wraps in towels and puts in his luggage, which he has loaded into the return flight to Dublin, collects it all innocently from the baggage carousel at Dublin airport, strolls through Customs and returns to his cheap digs. First part of the mission accomplished!

Here he transfers the snake to a coffee jar and returns the next day to the building site. When asked to get something by Big Billie, Harkishan surreptitiously empties the snake into the pocket of Billie’s jacket, which the big man has hung up as usual on a nail in a wall apart from the main demolition site.

Then Harkishan waits anxiously for lunch break to come round, for he has noticed that Billie always puts his hand in his pocket to get his tobacco. Harkishan watches surreptitiously, waiting, expecting the big man to be bitten. But lunchtime comes and Big Billie rummages around in his jacket pocket and fills his pipe with impunity. Harkishan, on tenterhooks, sees a wiggling in the fabric and realises the snake has escaped and is loose in the lining of the jacket! Damn!

There follow a tense 48 hours as Harkishan trails Billie back to his cheap terrace house and agonises that his wife or children might be bitten and killed by the snake. Instead, the family find it as it slithers across the kitchen floor one mealtime and, more by luck than judgement, pick it up in a pair of oven gloves and pop it in a jar. None of them realise it is a snake; after all, everyone knows ‘there are no snakes in Ireland’. Billie’s son, a bright schoolboy, says it must be a harmless slow-worm.

Billie decides to play a cruel joke on Harkishan by taking it to work and slipping it into the ‘darkie’s’ sandwich box. And so, the next Monday, when Harkishan opens his sandwich box and sees the snake Billie has slipped into it, he jumps out of his skin, throwing the whole lot across the waste ground where the crew are eating.

Harkishan hysterically insists that it is a real, deadly poisonous snake, but none of the navvies listen to the crazy ‘darkie’, and Big Billie laughs till he cries, leaning back in the grass as he finishes his lunch and puffs his pipe. He doesn’t pay attention to the two scratches on his wrist he seems to have picked up over lunch – what’s a few more among so many scratches, cuts and grazes? And so an hour or so later he collapses of a massive haemorrhage brought on by the bite of the saw-scaled viper! Harkishan’s revenge has been achieved. Everyone thinks it was hard work on a hot day and then maybe the laughing fit brought on by Harkishan’s terror. A fitting misunderstanding.

There follows an odd epilogue, a scene of peculiar veracity, for the bully boy Big Billie turns out to have been a member of the illegal paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Very hard men from this organisation insist on knowing whether there was foul play and so force the authorities to hold a second, in-depth post-mortem and inquest to decisively ascertain the cause of death – which I thought Forsyth might use to somehow implicate Harkishan, who would then come to a very sticky end at the hands of the UVF.

But it doesn’t. He has got away with, effectively, murder – scot free – and reassures himself with the thought that the snake, having no mate, will live eventually die and his secret will be safe forever.

But in the final paragraph, Forsyth introduces a final ironic twist, as he reveals that the snake is in fact a female, was in fact pregnant when Harkishan illegally imported it – and has made itself a nice snug hole near the demolition site in which it is even now laying no fewer than twelve eggs!

Comment

The story is an extremely uneven mix of content and styles: there is the gritty realism of the hard men and their tough banter on a building site, a compelling description of impoverished family life on a Belfast council estate – and over the whole tale blows the chill wind of the Troubles, with the appearance of the UVF hard men. And yet the core storyline of the Punjabi immigrant who flies back to his homeland to collect a poisonous snake at the suggestion of his god, could come from the Arabian Nights or Kipling or any collection of children’s fairy stories. And then the final vision of the snake multiplying and, in effect, repopulating Ireland with a new species of highly poisonous snake, has the ominous threat I associate with many a science fiction short story.

3. The Emperor (47 pages) A timid bank manager, Mr Murgatroyd, wins a competition held by his bank (the Midland) and, along with lucky winners from other branches, goes on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday to Mauritius. His wife Edna accompanies him, a fat, pink-fleshed, blue-rinsed, nagging monster. Despite her constant abuse, Murgatroyd begins to unwind and enjoy the warm weather, the swimming in the warm sea, the young people in their gaily coloured outfits.

A few days into the week, he is buttonholed by a colleague who says a group of Americans who’ve paid for a deep sea fishing trip have pulled out and it’s on offer at half price. Eventually, ‘Murgatroyd from the Midland’ is persuaded to go.

The tone then significantly changes as Forsyth goes into technical mode, describing in clear, effective prose the whole process of going game fishing in a hired boat – from a description of the battered boat, through the wizened old captain, ‘Monsieur Patient’, who’s done this all his life, his grandson Jean-Paul who is the ship’s boy, and the lean South African, Andre Kilian, who is along to coach Murgatroyd and his colleague.

The description of the successive catches and hauling in of fairly small fish is told with documentary accuracy, typically thorough Forsyth and very enjoyable for readers who like factual accounts of technical processes. But these pages are just the prelude to the core of the story, which is that Murgatroyd, by complete luck, hooks a notorious marlin known to all the local fisherman, the twenty-foot-long monster they call ‘The Emperor’.

There then follows an extremely compelling description of the gruelling endurance test as Murgatroyd, strapped into the ‘fighting chair’, expends every ounce of his strength for seven and a half hours, becoming badly sunburned, his hands developing blisters which burst then bleed, his lips cracking and bleeding, tearing muscles in his shoulder, wringing himself to the uttermost, as he wrestles and reels in the monster on the end of the line.

Finally, as the marlin gives up and allows itself to be reeled in, Murgatroyd, barely capable of walking, frees himself from the ‘fighting chair’, collapses forward onto the stern where the South African and the boy are handling the metal rods caught in the marlin’s mouth, with a view to tying him to the boat before they head back to the harbour – Murgatroyd leans over them and, with a pair of wire cutters, cuts the fish free, to make a last bound on the wave and disappear into the depths.

There is an immense power in Forsyth’s description of the struggle, and a clichéd but effective dignity in the action of this modest suburban man thrown into a completely unexpected situation, who rises to it with unexpected strength and dignity.

Unfortunately, Forsyth has a way of embedding even his most powerful sequences in crass and bathetic anti-climaxes.

And so, after the boat has docked and the South African taken Murgatroyd to the local hospital where he is covered in anti-burn cream, his hands bandaged, his shoulder put in a sling and generally fixed up after his ordeal – Murgatroyd returns to the hotel to find the story of his exploit has preceded him and he is greeted like a hero, cheered by the crowd of holidaymakers all the way to the steps to his apartment.

And this is where he is confronted by his disapproving gorgon of a wife, the fearful Edna. She launches into a tirade, telling him how cross she is that he disappeared without a by-your-leave etc, when he cuts right across her and, for the first time in his life, tells her to SHUT UP. And not only to shut up, but that he is divorcing her, she can go and live with her sister in Bognor as she always says she wants to, she can have the house and car – he is going to cash in his investments and life insurance policy and stay in Mauritius, buying the boat, learning the trade, and himself becoming a deep sea fishing instructor.

Cheers from the surrounding crowd.

Comment

The stereotype of ‘the mouse who roars’, the timid official who finally stands up to his nagging wife, strikes me as dating from seaside postcards of the 1930s or back to Victorian times. The nagging wives in these stories remind me of Sibyl in Fawlty Towers. And yet the description of being out at sea, of the roll of the boat and the green walls of the high waves, is totally compelling and the long account of man against fish is obviously reminiscent of Hemingway’s late masterpiece on the subject, The Old Man And The Sea.

This is the contradiction at the heart of Forsyth’s fiction, between the utterly compelling handling of physical or technical, procedural or weaponry subjects – and the crass, flat-footed handling of character and psychology.

4. There Are Some Days… (23 pages) Innocent long distance truck driver Liam Clarke arrives in Dublin from France and his articulated lorry promptly springs a bad oil leak in the Customs Shed, delaying him by 24 hours while his company send an engineer to fix it.

The next day, soon after the next day’s ferry has docked, he drives out of the Customs Shed, a bit irritated, but the company paid for him to put up at a B&B, so no harm really done. What he doesn’t know is that a criminal gang was lying in wait for a lorry from the same haulage company to arrive on this, the next day’s, ferry. They have been tipped off that this lorry will be carrying 9,000 bottles of French brandy which they are planning to sell to a gang from the North of Ireland for a tidy profit.

So the gang of small-time criminals, led by scrap dealer and seller of dodgy second-hand cars, Murphy, proceed to dress up as traffic cops and pull over and kidnap Liam and his lorry. They drive it to a rendezvous with a gang of scary crims from ‘the North’, but when they open the trailer, instead of lucrative bottles of brandy they find packs of fertiliser. The Northern gangsters take one look and are not amused at all. They all turn on the poor Clarke who, once they’ve taken his gag off, explains the mistake ie they shanghaied the wrong lorry. the tough Northerners leave the hapless Murphy stammering and stuttering. Fortunately, they don’t kill or even hurt him and his colleagues, just disappear off into the night.

Murphy now drives the lorry up into the hills with a view to abandoning it, but – it just isn’t his day – accidentally crashes into a tractor coming the other way in the dark. The police arrive on the scene before he can flee and, when they examine some of the bags of fertiliser which have tumbled out of the trailer – discover the snouts of a bazooka and machine guns poking out of the bags. Aha.

In a flash Murphy, who has by now emerged as the bumbling lead in what has turned out to be a broadly comic tale, realises the truck driver Liam – probably in all innocence – had been carrying this consignment of weapons for the IRA in the North.

Now, through the concatenation of accidents, it would look very much to the IRA as if he, Murphy, had hijacked their arms shipment. It is unlikely he would survive the ‘questions’ they would ask. All things considered, Murphy realises it might be better to plead guilty to arms smuggling and get to spend some time in the relative safety of prison.

Comment

This story typifies Forsyth’s sense of humour. Ultimately, it is meant to be a comedy, but the comedy depends on you accepting as a premise an underworld of tough criminals, armed gangs and terrorists, and the possibility that cock-ups among these groups can be wryly amusing.

5. Money with Menaces (24 pages) Mr Samuel Nutkin is a timid insurance broker who catches the 8.31 from Edenbridge to Charing Cross every day, sitting in the same carriage opposite the same commuters doing the same crosswords. One day he finds a magazine stuffed under his seat which advertises the services of, ahem, women of ill repute. Now, Mr Nutkin’s wife (Lettice) has been bedbound for a decade and never gave him much physical pleasure anyway. Taking a big risk he writes to one of women advertised – ‘Sally’ – and receives a letter back a few days later, inviting him to come to her flat in Paddington. So a few days later he goes, with the requisite £20 in cash. She invites him to hang up his jacket and remove his other clothes and accompany her into the bedroom.

A few days later he receives a large format letter containing photos of himself and Sally in the act. Horrified, he then gets a phone call from a threatening man who gives no name, and realises he is being blackmailed. He must bring a package containing £1,000 cash to Battersea Park on a certain day at a certain time.

So far so expected – but then the story takes a twist, as timid Mr Nutkin goes on an extended shopping trip, buying a battery, fertiliser, copper wire and so on. Hmmm. He assembles and wraps up his package, then takes it to the rendezvous in Battersea Park, where a masked man on a motorbike relieves him of it quickly. Ho hum.

Some days later a policeman, Detective Sergeant Smiley of the Criminal Investigation Department comes knocking at Mr Nutkin’s house. He tells Mr N that his name and address were found at the flat of a couple who were obviously luring men to sleep with ‘Sally; and then blackmailing their ‘customers’. His was just one out of hundreds of names, addresses and photos they found: had he received a threat of blackmail?

Nutkin perfectly feigns horror and embarrassment and shame and says, No, nothing – oh how horrible! Smiley is completely deceived, but reassures him he won’t be getting any blackmail threats now, for the couple have met a sticky end. ‘Oh how dreadful,’ Mr N gasps.

After the policeman has left, Nutkin dusts off a photograph in its old frame. It shows himself and a colleague from the war, when they worked for the Royal Army Engineers and made up one of the most successful bomb disposal teams in the country. Ha! Amateurs.

Comment

The whole thing reminds me of umpteen Monty Python sketches about the timid commuter with his bowler hat (‘Are you a man or a mouse, Arther Pewty?’). The fear of ‘respectability’ and the furtive shame about sex strongly brings back the twitching curtains of the 1970s, when English people seemed obsessed by, but unable to even mention, this terrible awful thing, ‘sex’. And the sudden ironic reversal at the end of the story looks forward to other unexpected reversals in Forsyth, specifically when timid or non-descript men turn out to have a powerful and violent Army past – notably the twist in the tail of The Veteran, from 20 years later which, despite myself, I found myself liking.

6. Used in Evidence (39 pages) Dublin, the Mayo Road along the side of what used to be a huge slum called the Gloucester Diamond. All the squalid terraces have been razed to the ground and the inhabitants shunted off to new high-rise hutches in the sky. Only one old geezer remains in his squalid slum, refusing to leave. Finally, the rainy morning comes when the police, local authority, council, social workers and wrecking crew assemble with final permission to evict Mr Herbert James Larkin from his home and demolish it.

As usual, when it’s anything to do with officialdom, Forsyth is formidably knowledgeable about every rank of every one of the numerous organisations and companies involved (the demolition crew tasked with knocking the house down, the removal men who will cart the wreckage away, the builders who’re commissioned to cover the area in tarmac to create a shiny new municipal car park).

Supervising it all is Forsyth’s hero, Chief Superintendent William J. Hanley. Hanley is, of course, a gentle giant with a heart of gold. He was ‘the best lock forward to ever come out of Athlone County’ and part of the best rugby team the country ever produced. He is precisely the kind of solid, experienced, by-the-book official that Forsyth reverences in story after story.

Hanley shepherds the bewildered old man off to a local caff and pays for him to have probably the first hot meal in months.

But then this mundane event is transformed when the demolishers find the body of a woman stuffed into a space behind the fireplace. Suddenly it becomes a murder enquiry and Forsyth launches into another detailed account of all the personnel and procedures who are now called into action (forensic police, coroner, more police to cordon the area, murder squad, and so on).

To cut a longish story short, every conceivable police procedure is followed and described, which turn up the anomalous facts that Larkin’s young, vivacious wife disappeared sometime in 1963, after a series of rows about her flirting with other men. Hanley thinks he’s got a cut and dried murder on his hands – until the forensic scientist comes through with the strange news that the corpse discovered in the building died during the 39-45 war. Can’t have been done by Larkin who was, in any case, out of the country, a prisoner of war of the Germans.

Hanley, puzzled, releases Larkin – who still hasn’t said a word and who wanders back to the site of his now-demolished house, where he sees the tarmac contractors squabbling about a broad slab of concrete they’ve discovered in the foundations. When the contractors fail to break or move it and just go ahead and pour tarmac over it, Larkin turns from the building site, and for the first time has an expression on his face – he is smiling with relief.

The implication being that he did murder and bury his wife in the house – but the body they found was his predecessor’s murdered wife. A gruesome sense of humour.

7. Privilege (26 pages) Bill Chadwick is a small businessman. He’s awoken by a neighbour phoning to see if he’s seen the article about him in the Sunday paper. Turns out the article, in the Business section, strongly implies he was in league with a company of crooks which went out of business. Chadwick is livid since it is a complete falsehood. He writes to the paper, tries to see the editor to present his case, but is fobbed off. Then goes to visit a solicitor and here begins a lengthy explanation and critique of the libel laws of England, hopelessly skewed towards the rich and powerful, and how extremely unfair they are to the ordinary punter who is defamed by a newspaper.

Chadwick goes to research the law himself and comes up with a humorous solution. He tracks down the author of the article (Gaylord Brent) in his nice house with a nice wife in a nice part of Hampstead – knocks on the door and biffs him on the nose. Then he finds the nearest police constable and turns himself in, insisting at the police station that a crime has been committed and insisting he is charged.

So Chadwick is charged with common assault and pleads not guilty to ensure that Brent must attend the resulting court case, along with a prosecuting council. He then phones the editors of every national and local newspaper in London, suggesting they send a journalist to the court for an entertaining session.

And then he uses the law of privilege (which is that a witness may not be charged with libel or defamation for anything he says in open court) to mount a stinging attack on Brent in front of the massed ranks of his colleagues – calling him a drunk who listens to bar room gossip instead of doing his research, and so on. When Brent tries to interrupt proceedings the magistrate threatens to have him thrown out. After Chadwick has quite finished his character assassination – to the glee of all Brent’s rival scribes who have scribbled it all down – he is fined £100 with £50 costs by a now-sympathetic magistrate. Well worth it.

Outside the court Brent comes up to him and says, ‘You can’t call another man things like that.’ ‘Why not?’ said Chadwick mildly, ‘You did.’ (p.235)

Comment It is another comedy story, and another story on one of Forsyth’s favourite themes, poetic justice, administered with childish glee.

8. Duty (19 pages) This is only story told in the first person; all the others are told in Forsyth’s robust journalistic third-person voice.

It is narrated by an Irishman who tells the story of a cheap holiday in France he took in a beaten-up car with his girlfriend Bernadette, in the early 1950s. Somewhere in the unspoilt Dordogne the car breaks down and a friendly parish priest a) says he’ll get the garagiste out the next morning to look at the car b) recommends they put up for the night at the farm of a friendly old farming couple, and arranges a lift to the farmhouse.

The plump farmer’s wife makes them lovely potato soup and then the farmer enters the kitchen, a giant of a man who is amazingly slow. Very slowly indeed it emerges that he is not French but Welsh, was badly wounded in the Battle of the Marne in the Great War, and fell in love with the pretty nurse who looked after him – and here they are.

He then goes on to reveal that he was stationed in Ireland during the early part of the war, in fact in Dublin. And then the whole atmosphere changes abruptly, when the giant goes on to say that he took part in an execution firing squad.

The narrator feels his girlfriend stiffen and grow tense – her uncle and brother both died in the civil war and in the Troubles since. Coldly and quietly Bernadette asks if the giant can remember who it was he helped to execute, but the big man can’t remember.

Eventually the meal is over and it is obviously bedtime. The narrator and Bernadette go to bed troubled. The next morning, as they are leaving in their car which has been fixed and delivered to them at the farmhouse, the big strong slow farmer comes running up with a smile on his face – he’s remembered who he executed. Some poet called Pearse! [This was Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the Easter 1916 Irish Rising against British rule which led, eventually to Irish independence ie a really famous Irish patriot, hero of the independence movement, and martyr to the detested British authorities.]

The giant is upset when his hard work in remembering the name doesn’t trigger the gratitude he was expecting. As the couple drive off, Bernadette remarks that the giant is a brute, a beast, a swine. No, says our narrator sagely: just a soldier doing his duty.

Comment This story didn’t work for me, perhaps because it is trying to be genuinely moving and tragic, whereas almost all the others are played for laughs. As any reader of his books knows, Forsyth has a highly developed sense of the honour and dignity of soldiers and policemen and along with that goes a respect for soldiers on both side of any conflict, professional men doing a professional job. I think this story of duty performed by an ‘enemy’ is meant to evoke the tragedy and pity of all conflicts, but it doesn’t have the depth to do it for me.

What most sticks out is how many of these stories are set in Ireland. Why? Does Forsyth have family roots there?

9. A Careful Man (37 pages) Timothy Hanson is another multi-millionaire, like Mark Sanderson in the first story. His doctor tells him he has incurable bowel cancer and 6 months to live. It is repeated several times that he is ‘a very careful man’. Now he makes elaborate – very elaborate – plans for his death and his will.

It is another comedy, like so many comedies surrounding rich men’s wills. Briefly, Hanson dislikes his sister and brother-in-law and their spoilt son, Tarquin. He stipulates in his will that he must be buried at sea in a lead casket which he has had manufactured specially. So on a blustery day they all take a trawler from Brixham which heads into the depths of the English Channel and tips his casket overboard.

Only then is the solicitor allowed to begin searching for Hanson’s money and discovers all his assets were liquidated in the last few months of his life and converted to cash. The family hire a private detective who tracks down the evidence to show that Hanson spent all the ready cash from his assets on platinum, which he converted – in a workshop built at his Kent mansion – into a casket of great weight… at which point the sister and brother-in-law and awful son realise the dreadful truth burst out shouting and wailing — the sadistic so-and-so made them throw his fortune away: the casket they tipped into the sea wasn’t made of lead but of rare and valuable platinum! To the value of over £3 million! Hanson’s solicitor, who has taken a strong dislike to the greedy sister and her family, stifles a grin.

But in fact there is a further twist: for, the text goes on to explain, unbeknown to investigator, solicitor or sister, Hanson had not had his casket made from platinum; he only made it look that way in order to punish his sister.

In fact Hanson spirited the cash into a bank account in the Channel Islands. And now an incident from the very start of the story becomes relevant. Just after he’d been given the news he was going to die, Hanson had been riding in his chauffeur-driven car to his stately home in Kent, passing along the Old Kent Road in shabby south-east London. A crocodile of schoolkids from a Catholic school for orphans happen to cross in front of the car which comes to a halt, and one naughty boy thumbs his nose at Hanson. To his own surprise the silver-haired tycoon finds himself thumbing his own nose right back at the grubby child – and they both burst out laughing.

Now a banker from the Channel islands arrives with a tax-free charitable donation of over £3 million at that very same orphanage, giving the Mother Superior in charge the biggest shock of her life! Hanson has managed to both drive his sister distraught with grief and anger, and give all his money to help orphan children. He really was ‘a most careful man’.

Another example of Forsyth’s central theme – poetic justice trumps the dead hand of laws and empty obligations.

10. Sharp Practice (24 pages) It is 1938 and we are on the slow train from Dublin to Tralee. In a nice quiet compartment is sitting Judge Comyn hoping to do some work, but into it comes first a short, nervous, wispy-haired man and then at the last moment, as the train is pulling out, a breathless priest. To cut a long story short the other two are confidence tricksters who inveigle the judge into getting involved in a game of poker in which he ends up losing £50. Next day he sits in the Assizes and is surprised then not so surprised to see the very same wispy-haired man brought before him, charged with carrying out just such a card-based confidence trick on another passenger on another train.

Why are so many of these stories set in Ireland, and historic Ireland at that? And who’d have guessed the author of the sensationally gripping thriller, The Day of The Jackal would turn out in his spare time, as it were, to be the author of humorous short stories.


Stories for children

These are almost stories for children. The ‘psychology’ is naive and bathetic. It is like watching old Morecambe and Wise or Two Ronnies sketches – funny maybe, but predictable, and from a simpler world, a world free from adult nuance or complexity, a world of stereotypes – the heartless millionaire, the cruel assassin, the timid bank manager with his nagging wife, the timid insurance broker with his nagging wife, the lean, tanned manly South African guide, the sturdy, unflappable six foot Irish copper, and so on and so on.

Every character is like a stereotype from a sketch. This doesn’t stop them being enjoyable. Just don’t expect any depth.

Stories from the 1970s

The shallow effect may partly be because the stories are so dated. Neither the paperback edition I’m reading nor the Wikipedia article about the collection give dates of publication for individual stories, but it’s a fair bet most of them were written in the 1970s. Thus the hen-pecked husband stereotype who appears in two of the stories seems a creature from another world, and his nagging, blue-rinse wife in each case like something from Monty Python or a Donald McGill cartoon. Types from the now remote world of the 1970s.

This gives the collection a sociological interest, making it a window into a world of lost attitudes and expectations.

Absurd

Many of the stories’ plotlines are laughably absurd. It’s another way in which they’re childish. You have to be prepared to swallow the complete implausibility of the events, to enjoy the climactic scenes they lead up to.

Technical grip

When Forsyth describes technicalities he’s completely convincing. Thus the hiring of the hitman in the first story reads like a manual on how to do just that. Similarly, the long description of the game fishing in The Emperor is highly detailed and hypnotically absorbing. This is the paradox at the heart of Forsyth’s writing. A lot of the plots are absurd. The characters are paper thin. A lot of the payoffs are cheap and silly. But along the way, there are often sections of clear, intelligent and informative prose which are totally gripping and persuasive.

Lucid prose

His prose style is wonderfully clear and lucid. It is like eating sweets. There is no complexity. Everything is laid out in a crisp, neat stylee, both the gripping technical descriptions and the lamentably shallow psychology. Which makes these stories, like the novels, ideal pool-side reads for holiday makers dazed by the sun and too relaxed to read anything demanding.


Credit

No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth was published by Hutchinson Books in 1982. All quotes are from the 2011 Arrow 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 Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth (1979)

While Adam Munro was changing trains at Revolution Square shortly before 11am that morning of 10th June, a convoy of a dozen sleek, black, Zil limousines was sweeping through the Borovitsky Gate in the Kremlin wall a hundred feet above his head and one thousand three hundred feet southwest of him. The Soviet Politburo was about to begin a meeting that would change history. (p.46)

Forsyth’s fourth novel, published in 1979, is long (479 pages long), very densely factual, and set in what was then the future ie June 1982. It’s far bigger than a ‘spy novel’, it’s a thriller about international affairs, a geopolitical thriller, rooted in the machinations of Cold War politics at the highest level.

Plot – part one

A catastrophic grain harvest in the USSR prompts a split in the Soviet Politburo: If they do nothing the USSR will be plunged into famine by the spring:

  • half the delegates, led by current General Secretary Maxim Rudin (a sort of ‘moderate’, in this context), want to explore lengthy negotiations at a neutral venue (turns out to be Ireland) in which the US and Canada can be persuaded to sell the USSR their surplus grain at a knock-down price in exchange for reductions in Soviet conventional and nuclear arms;
  • the other half, led by Party theoretician Yefrem Vishnayev backed by head of the Red Army, Marshal Kerensky, put forward the gob-smacking plan of invading Western Europe in the spring to seize the West’s grain and to further the glorious communist revolution – using tactical nuclear weapons if necessary, and ready to reply to any American long-range strikes, ie are prepared to start World War Three.

When put to the vote, six delegates opt for peace, six for war; the deciding vote is cast by Rudin for negotiation, but Rudin is a sick man and knows the opposition will use any pretext they can seize to force a vote of no confidence, overthrow him and proceed with the war plan.

Such an opportunity comes along when the head of the KGB is assassinated while visiting his mother in Kiev by a group of Ukrainian nationalists well-organised by their (improbably) English emigre leader, Andrew Drake (Andriy Drak). These nationalists want to strike a devastating blow at the ‘tyrant Russia’ which has invaded their country and destroyed their culture. The hit is carried out with the kind of technical and organisational precision we expect of all Forsyth characters: the best long-range rifle, night-sight from Britain, and so on. The conspirators knock the KGB boss’s mother over as she crosses the road, but are careful not to be fatal. They know the hospital she’ll be taken to; they know the security back entrance to it; they are waiting for the KGB boss to arrive to visit his stricken mum. One shot is all it takes to plunge the Politburo into seething chaos as the various factions jockey for power and the security organisation moves to hush up this catastrophe…

The conspirators’ next step is to smuggle the two assassins (who happen to be Ukrainian Jews) out of the country, ideally to Israel, where they can reveal at a press conference that the KGB is leaderless and rudderless. This, they hope, will prompt their people – largely kept in thrall by fear of the Russians’ security organisation – to rise up and throw off their oppressors, an uprising against communist tyranny.

The conspirators are blithely unaware that a famine of massive proportions is heading towards the whole USSR unless the negotiations in Ireland work out ie that this unprecedented famine will foment widespread unrest and massively help their cause – but the Kremlin knows and institutes both a massive manhunt for the killers and a ferocious clampdown on any witnesses to the assassination: the dead man’s driver, security guards, the doctors that treated him, the undertaker etc are all swept off to prison camps, while the official story put about is that comrade Ivanenko has suffered a heart attack.

The two assassins make their bid to escape by hijacking a domestic Soviet passenger flight and insisting it fly to West Berlin. When the pilot tries to trick them by landing at the East Berlin airport some kind of accident happens – maybe the wheels touching down bumpily or the terrorist with the gun at the pilot’s head panicking – the gun goes off, the pilot is shot dead. The terrified co-pilot flies them on to an airstrip in West Berlin where they are both promptly arrested, charged and set for trial.

When the Ukrainian terrorists learn this, the leader of the group back in England formulates a bold and dramatic rescue plan, which will both liberate his comrades and achieve massive publicity for their cause. He and the original cell members recruit more Ukrainian nationalists for the dramatic gesture which will form the second part of the novel.

Plot – part two

A reformed group of seven Ukrainian nationalists led by Drake hijack the largest supertanker in the world, the Freya, as it approaches the Hook of Holland carrying the largest cargo of crude oil ever carried by one vessel – 1 million tonnes.

It is only at this point that the reader realises why the many threads and storylines covering the previous six months or so (and many of which I haven’t mentioned) had included one about the commissioning, construction, launch and maiden voyage of this behemoth, as well as a biography of its craggy Norwegian captain, Thor Larson.

The nationalists demand the two hijackers are released from West German prison and flown to Israel within two days: otherwise they will blow up the Freya, killing its crew of 30 and causing the biggest environmental catastrophe of modern times, destroying marine life in the North Sea and polluting the beaches of France, Britain, Holland, Germany for years.

Until this point the narrative had covered days, weeks and months as the various storylines (agricultural reports, Politburo power struggle, US President and advisers, UK embassy staff in Moscow, construction of Freya, career of Larson) had slowly unfolded. With the hijacking, about half way through the text, it changes tempo and the chapters gain a timeline measured in hours (‘1500 to 2100’) as the pace quickens to fever pitch.

A number of world leaders now face a complex of interlocking dilemmas, each of which Forsyth explores in his straight-talking no-nonsense style, supremely confident of putting words into the mouths of the members of the Politburo, the US President and his advisers, the British Prime Minister, West German Chancellor and Israeli Premier and so on.

It boils down to:

  • The North Sea nations put pressure on West Germany to release the terrorists, the German Chancellor having to balance giving in to terrorism against the ecological and political results of the oil explosion
  • The Israelis also have to balance acceding to terrorism with the complication that the two Ukrainians happen to be Russian Jews, a powerful constituency within Israel who will applaud their release
  • It falls to the British to follow the European line but to make independent plans which involve the SAS and its seaborne wing the Special Boat Service: we are introduced to them, their leader and all their equipment, as they make an elaborate plan to storm the Freya and kill the terrorists, liaising with the Americans
  • Meanwhile, as the siege progresses, the nearest US warship ordered to take a station near the Freya (but outside the 5 mile zone the terrorists have stipulated) has orders to blow the Freya, its crew and cargo out of the water, when signalled by the President

Having created the situation or dilemma, Forsyth explores the logical possibilities for all the main players with the thoroughness of a chess instructor or an academic paper on international affairs.

The Devil’s Alternative

But all calculations are thrown into turmoil when the Russians suddenly and unexpectedly announce they will cancel the arms treaty if the West releases the two terrorists. Now there is a real stand-off:

  • Release the terrorists and the treaty will fail, raising the prospect of the overthrow of the Soviet leader Rudin, by the hawkish Politburo faction and the very real threat of another European war;
  • don’t release them and the terrorists will blow up the Freya, killing its captain and crew, destroying nearly a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of boat and oil, creating the largest environmental disaster of the century. (It is to avert this last scenario that the President has ordered his own ships – as a last resort – to blow the Freya up, since phosphorus shells will ignite the crude oil which will mostly burn off in a fiery inferno, leaving a lot less residue to be cleared up than the raw crude.)

This is the Devil’s Alternative of the title which confronts, more than anyone else, the US President. What should he do?

The Nightingale

And it is here that the ‘Nightingale’ thread of this amazingly multi-faceted text assumes a central role. Much earlier we had learned that the head of British Security in Moscow, Harold Lessing, had gone off sick with suspected gastric ulcers. At short notice, a slightly maverick replacement, Adam Munro, is selected on the basis of his flawless Russian during what is bound to be a tricky period of negotiations.

Munro’s secret is that fifteen years earlier he was in love with a beautiful Russian woman, Valentina, who spied for him in Berlin but wouldn’t desert her family and walked through the early stages of the Berlin Wall away from him, never to return, leaving him devastated.

Not long into the new role in Moscow Munro is astonished to be contacted by her and told she now has a highly sensitive role in the secretariat of the Politburo itself! And she has notes from the most recent meeting which she proceeds to show him, the one where Kerensky made his suggestion that Russia kick off World War Three. Aware that this is one of the biggest security coups of all time, Munro immediately makes her his agent, under the codename Nightingale, and forwards her reports back to England where Forsyth conveys, with characteristic attention to organisational structure, protocol and detail, how the information is processed and then fed up the pecking order to the Prime Minister.

This back channel into the reality of Politburo infighting provides a vital source of information for US President Matthews and British (woman) Prime Minister Carpenter.

And it is here, in the vital final stages of the plot, when Rudin springs his surprise that he will walk away from the arms for grain negotiations if the hijackers are released, that Nightingale becomes vital. Matthews asks the Prime Minister who asks the head of SIS who passes on the request to Munro to ask Nightingale to risk everything to lay hold of the notes of the most recent Politburo meetings to find out what the devil the Russians are up to.

Despite being sickened at the risk this exposes her to, Munro asks her and, because of the personal bond between them, she copies and gives him the vital notes. These minutes of the most recent Politburo meeting reveal that the War Party blames Rudin for the KGB head’s assassination and that, if the terrorists are released and are allowed to make their public declaration that they assassinated the head of the KGB – that the world-famous security force is in fact vulnerable – and if this prompts rebellions (aided by the widespread food shortages) all this will lead to the overthrow of Rudin and triumph of the War Party.

And it is this this secret information gained by this backdoor channel which explains to the West the real motivation behind the USSR’s sudden threat to abandon the talks and which gives President Matthews the confidence to go ahead with a complicated and immoral solution to the dilemma. This is a plan hatched and carried out by the same Adam Munro, the man who knows his final request to his beloved Valentina has almost certainly consigned her to her doom in the gulag, and who therefore pursues his high-risk plan in the final chapters of the book fuelled by anger and bitterness.

Cliffhanger

So, does the West give in and release the terrorists? Do the terrorists make the announcement which threatens to spark uprisings in the Soviet Union and overthrow the ‘moderate’ Rudin? Or does the West stand firm against ‘terrorist blackmail’ and risk the detonation of the Freya and an environmental apocalypse, in the better cause of keeping the arms for grain talks on track? Or does Munro’s cunning and complicated plan manage to square the circle and reconcile both the devil’s alternatives?


Walls of facts

In the early 1960s record producer Phil Spector invented the ‘wall of sound’ in which every element of a pop record was doubled or trebled, which chucked in lots of additional percussion, and used echo chambers to fill out the dynamic range of the instruments to create a ‘wall’ of sound with no gaps or chinks – a solid sonic block.

Forsyth does something similar with the factual research for his novels. No name, no body, no institution, no place goes unsupported by a paragraph of factual information. Before we get to the characters in the Kremlin we are given a tourist’s guide to the precise layout of all the buildings in it. Before we meet the British Prime Minister we are treated to a couple of paragraphs describing the exact layout of buildings in Downing Street. Before anyone shoots anyone else we get paragraphs explaining the exact provenance, origin, design and full technical specification of all the guns, bullets, silencers and sights involved. Before the US President meets his security advisers we get several (very interesting) pages explaining the exact relationship between the various (competing and bickering) US security services. And so thoroughly on.

Forsyth’s background is as a high-end journalist working for The Times and Reuters and boy it shows. For stretches the text reads more like one of the Sunday Times Insight team specials, the kind of highly technical, detailed pullout they did about the SAS storming the Iranian Embassy or any aspect of terrorism or counter-terrorism for the past 50 years or so. A very male focus on precision of timing, complexity of organisation, on hard-eyed special forces trained to kill, suave diplomats capable of the subtlest manipulations, hierarchies of steel-eyed men all displaying incomparable competence and professionalism.

Nobody makes a mistake in a Forsyth novel. Nobody is human or fallible. They are like terminators all starting from different positions on the board, programmed with certain aims, and then let loose into the shiny, steel and chrome tracks of the narrative.

Character

Brilliant at organisation structure, complex fast-moving dilemmas described with documentary realism and the hard burnish of the latest military hardware, Forsyth is rubbish at human character. The characters aren’t really characters in the traditional sense, they are ciphers in the schema, functions in complex programs. Forsyth’s novels show an astonishing, a peerless grasp of documentary fact concerning international corporations, governments, espionage and security departments, armies and their technologies. He puts a vast cast of characters through an asonishing maze of logical permutations and possibilities. The text is less like a novel than a complex flowchart, populated less by characters than by animated organograms.

Predator World

At a deeper level Forsyth’s novels have an evolutionary biology element. All carnivores have large complex brains to help them outwit slow-moving herbivores. After all, the brain evolved to help mammals survive in a shifting matrix of predators and prey, including – in the apes and other large mammal communities – rivals within the same group, rival lions or chimps, rival humans. A key function of the brain, a key driver in its evolution, has been to help us assess and outwit other animals, and other rivals within the same cohort.

It seems to me that Forsyth’s novels are designed to pique and pleasure that part of our primitive mind; the revelation of complexities within complexity, the deceptive power arrangements of human societies, organisations, nations, political parties, leadership groups. Seems to me that the webs of machiavellian scheming and counter-scheming described in this novel please a particular type of (probably male) reader, and a particular part of that reader’s brain, in a very deep way.

But the other, more traditional pleasures of the novel – in depth characterisation; development of character through moral events pondered on and analysed; imaginative use of language – are completely, deliberately and clinically absent.


Related links

2011 Arrow paperback edition of The Devil's Alternative

2011 Arrow paperback edition of The Devil’s Alternative

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 Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth (1975)

Christmas Eve 1957. A young RAF pilot takes off in his de Havilland Vampire from Celle airfield in Germany to fly back to England. But somewhere over the North Sea his instruments fail. And when he radios for guidance, all 12 channels are dead. Beneath him is an unbroken sea of cloud, giving no indication of landmarks or his position. With only 50 minutes of fuel left, he realises he is flying blind, and begins to fly in triangles, a standard emergency procedure, hoping radar monitors will spot him.

With only five minutes of fuel left he is nerving himself to fly East, blindly out over the North Sea (to avoid crashing on land, into inhabited areas) and bail out into the freezing water. He’ll be dead in under an hour.

And it’s at  this point he notices that a plane has appeared just above the cloud layer and is shadowing his triangles. He descends low enough to see the pilot through his perspex canopy signalling him to follow. Controlling his panic, our man indicates he only has five minutes of fuel left. He is amazed to see his guide is flying an old turbo-prop de Havilland Mosquito, a relic of the war. He follows it in a wide circle and then the other pilot indicates they’re going to plunge down into the fog layer.

Because all the description up to this point in the narrative has been so technical, with lots of detail about navigation aids and signals, about how radio direction finders work, even about how fog forms easily off the Norfolk coast, that the description of the pilot’s fear is all the more gripping. He signals with controlled panic to the other pilot that his fuel gauge is now on zero. He can feel the sweat making his suit stick to his back.

The other pilot guides him down through the fog and suddenly there are the lights of an airfield. He pushes down onto the landing strip then clamps on the brakes, bringing the Vampire to a juddering halt just yards from the end of the runway. It takes a while for an old lorry to come lumbering out to him from the airfield buildings, which all seem to be dark for some reason.

A super-annuated and rather tipsy Flying Lieutenant Marks greets him and drives him back to the base buildings. He isn’t at RAF Merriam St George, as he expected, but at a disused, all-but-abandoned airfield called RAF Minton, which was decommissioned soon after the war. The narrator confidently puts to Marks his theory that one of the pilots from the weather station at RAF Gloucester, who still use Mosquitoes, must have guided him in. But when he phones RAF Gloucester there have been no flights that evening, and they stopped using Mosquitoes months ago. He calls RAF Merriam but they haven’t had their GCA location finder equipment turned on that evening. He is deeply puzzled. Who was his mystery saviour? And why guide him to this almost derelict airfield?

The only other employee on the base, an old boy named Joe, fixes the narrator a bath then a hot meal of bacon and eggs. There’s an old photo in the bedroom he shows him to, of a certain Johnny Kavanagh, star of the Mosquito squadron which was based there during the war. Joe explains that Johnny was the best pathfinder in the squadron, could fly blind through fog and rain. Once back from missions, he made it a personal task to go back out to find any heavy bombers which had been damaged during their mass raids on Germany, guiding them back to the nearest landing field in England.

Having eliminated all the other possibilities of who the mystery Mosquito pilot was, the narrator now builds an elaborate theory around this ‘Johnny’. Must have retired, built up a nice business, maybe bought one of the old Mosquitoes and kept it as a going concern himself. Must have been him who found the narrator and guided him to safety with literally only seconds to spare as his fuel ran out.

‘Oh no,’ says Joe the servant. ‘Johnny went out on his last patrol on Christmas Eve 1943. Never came back.’ Then… then… was the narrator rescued by… a ghost?

***

This is a nice, tidy Christmas ghost story, told with Forsyth’s habitual concern for practical and technological detail, all of which ground it in a prosaic reality – and with a typically short story-esque shock ending.

The slender text is padded out into a slim 120-page long paperback by the wonderfully atmospheric black-and-white illustrations of Chris Foss. There are lots of them – I counted 48, sometimes filling two pages – and they vividly convey the black and white night-time ambience of the story, with especially vivid wide shots showing the plane in the huge empty sky, or looking like a tiny toy on a huge airfield, or a vivid picture of the restlessly cold waves of the North Sea.


Credit

The Shepherd by Frederick Forsyth was published by Bantam Press in 1975. 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 Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth (1974)

Methodically he began to go over the possibilities he could envisage. (p.322)
Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. (Oscar Wilde)

The Dogs of War was Frederick Forsyth’s third novel and another doorstopper at 438 pages long, easily twice the length of the average novel by Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley et al.

Plot

The ‘plot’ is relatively simple: Machiavellian industrialist and head of a multinational mining firm, Sir James Manson, learns that a hill in the (fictional) African state of Zangaro contains a fortune in platinum, the third rarest element on earth. Only problem is the despotic ruler of Zangaro is a) a paranoid maniac b) likely to give any mineral concession to the Soviet Union. Therefore Sir James hires mercenaries to overthrow him and instal a friendly alternative. Meanwhile, he plans to buy up an old, worthless company in the UK, with valueless shares. He’ll get the new ruler of Zangaro to assign the mining rights to this company, publicise the fact along with the scale of the platinum discovery, sit back and watch the value of the shares go through the roof. That’s where he and his creepy subordinates will make their fortunes.

There are some complications –

  • the scientist who did the survey leaks the story to a friend, who is a communist, who leaks it to the Soviet Union, who despatch a rival prospecting mission
  • the leader of the mercenaries, Cat Shannon, has a bitter enemy in the underworld who takes out a contract on him
  • Cat himself starts an improbable and scanty affair with Julie, the daughter of the industrialist

But the striking feature of this book is not the plot.

The information

It is the overwhelming deluge of information about every subject even peripherally related to the story which drowns the plot. Large chunks of the book are pure information. Not dialogue, or character exploration or description –  but encyclopedia entries or high-level journalistic articles on the following subjects:

  • how to collect, label and analyse mineral samples
  • the world market for platinum, with the leading producer countries and main firms
  • the history of mercenaries in Africa with a rundown of the leading men in the field and their full CVs
  • the colonial and post-colonial history, geography, economy and ethnic make-up of Zangaro
  • how to get a forged passport
  • a history of the post-WWII arms trade with a full rundown of the leading companies and governments in the sector
  • a detailed explanation of how to search for and then take over a shell company
  • explanations of the private banking sectors of Belgium, Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Luxemburg
  • the intricacies of finding an end-user licence for arms dealing
  • what exact type of boat you need to ship arms through the Mediterranean to Africa
  • a detailed breakdown of the entire kit – clothes, equipment, all armaments and ammunition, radios, flares etc – required to mount a small coup
  • a detailed costing of the above
  • a detailed project plan for the above
  • how to smuggle arms across the Franco-Belgium border
  • how to arrange transit certificates in Spain
  • the ethnic and linguistic make-up of Yugoslavia
  • the role of Freetown in supplying stevedores

and many, many more. The central 200 pages of the book, although they feature ‘characters’ and dialogue, are really a lightly fictionalised project plan for the various tasks and actions the central figures have to undertake, complete with a thorough detailing of all risks and dependencies. To say that the dialogue, or the prose generally, is ruthlessly cut back to the exposition of fact is an understatement.

‘I shall be in Madrid on the 19th and 20th,’ he said. ‘I have another business deal to attend to. I shall be at the Mindanao Hotel. If you want to contact me, you can find me there. If loading is for the 20th, the chances are the convoy and escort from the Spanish Army will run the shipment down to the coast during the night of the 19th to arrive at crack of dawn. If you are going to board the ship at all, I think you should do so before the militay convoy arrives at the docks.’

‘I should be in Madrid on the 19th,’ said Shannon. ‘Then I could check with you that the convoy had indeed left on time. By driving fast to Valencia, I could be there ahead of it, and board the Toscana as the rejoining seaman before the convoy arrives.’ (p.359)

The majority of the content falls into two types: 1. fantastically detailed, dry and dull descriptions of the immensely convoluted comings and goings of Shannon and his team as they fly all over Europe arranging the funding and buying of the equipment for the coup – interspersed with fantastically detailed, dry and dull descriptions of Manson and associates setting up the shell company.

He rang BEA and booked an economy class return on the morning flight to Brussels, returning at 1600 hours, which would get him back to his flat by six. Following that he telephoned four telegrams abroad, one to Paarl, Cape Province, South Africa, one to Ostende, one to Marseilles and one to Munich… Finally he summoned a taxi and had it take him back to Lowndes Hotel. He checked out, paid his bill and left as he had come, anonymously. (p.173)

Or

Simon Endean’s letter sent on Tuesday night arrived at ten on Thursday morning at the Handelsbank in Zürich. According to the instructions in it, they telexed £10,000 to the account of Mr Keith Brown at the Kredietbank in Brugge. By noon Mr Goossens had seen the telex, and wired £5,000 to Mr Brown’s account in the West End of London. Shortly before four that afternoon, Shannon made a check call to his bank and learned the credit was there waiting for him. He asked the manager personally to give him drawing facilities in cash up to £3,500 the following morning. He was told it would be available for collection by eleven-thirty. (p.204)

Or

Shannon spent the evening writing out a full statement of accounts for Endean. He pointed out that the total had eaten up the bulk of the £5,000 transferred from Brugge, and that he would leave the few hundreds left over from the sum as a reserve. Lastly, he pointed out that he had not taken any part of his own £10,000 fee for the job, and proposed either that Endean transfer it straight from Endean’s Swiss bank account into Shannon’s Swiss account, or remit the money to the Belgian bank for credit to Keith Brown. (p.215)

Or

There was still £7,000 in the Keith Brown account, but a debit of £2,000 for the four mercenaries’ salaries was due in nine days. He drew a banker’s cheque in favour of Johann Schlinker and placed it in an envelope containing a letter from him to Schlinker that he had written in is hotel room the previous night. It informed Schlinker that the enclosed cheque for 4,800 dollars was in full payment for the assorted marine and life-saving articles he had ordered a week earlier, and gave the German the name and address of the Toulon shipping agent to whom the entire consignment should be sent in bond for export, for the collection of M Jean-Baptiste Langarotti. Lastly, he informed Schlinker he would be telephoning him the coming week to enquire if the end user certificate for the ordered 9 mm ammunition was in order. (p.281)

There are literally hundreds of pages like that – prose written by a computer describing the activities of robots or automatons.

The second type of subject matter is the article – a 2-, 3- or 4-page-long factual explanation of one of the many aspects of the practical job of funding, organising and mounting a coup.

Belgium has, from the point of view of those wishing to operate a discreet but legal bank account, many advantages that outweigh those offered by the much better publicised Swiss banking system. Not nearly as rich or powerful as Germany, nor neutral like Switzerland, Belgium nonetheless offers the facility of permitting unlimited quantities of money to pass in and out without government control or interference. (p.179)

Or

Under British company law, any person acquiring ten per cent or more of the shares of a public quoted company must identify himself to the directors within fourteen days. The aim of the law is to permit the public to know who owns what, and how much, of any public company. (p.185)

Or

To establish an indigenous arms industry is not difficult, provided it is kept basic. It is relatively simple to manufacture rifles and submachine guns, ammunition for both, along with hand grenades and hand guns. The level of technology, industrial development and the variety of the raw materials is not large, but the smaller countries usually buy their weaponry ready-made from the larger ones, because their internal requirements are too small to justify the necessary industrialisation, and they know their technical level would not put them into the export market with a chance. (p.229)

Or

Metal can be welded to metal, and to get the hardest join, it usually is. But a barrel that has once contained oil or ignitable fuel always retains a residue film on the inner surface of the metal. When heated, as it must be by welding, the film turns to fumes, and can easily explode very dangerously. ‘Sweating’ a piece of tinplate onto another piece does not give the same strength of join, but can be done with steam heat at a lower temperature. (p.311)

Or

There is no great technical difficulty in running an illegal consignment across the Belgian-French border in either direction, and that includes a quantity of black market arms. Between the sea at La Palme and the junction with Luxembourg near Longwy, this border sprawls for miles, and most of it in the south-east corner is through heavily wooded hunting country. Here the border is crossed by scores of side roads and tracks through the forest, and by no means all of them are manned. (p.337)

This is not really what is usually thought of as ‘fiction’. It is an article or encyclopedia entry. As is:

Cargo sent [to the other end of Africa] will be shipped in a bigger vessel. The advantage of a small coaster is that she can often load a cargo at very short notice and deliver it two days later a couple of hundred miles away. Big ships spend longer in port while turning round. But on a long run like that from the Mediterranean to South Africa, a bigger ship makes up in extra speed what she spent in port. For the exporter [the small coaster] has little attraction over 500 miles. (p.307)

There is little or no colour, life, whimsy, imagination, insight, awareness, fancy, wit or humour in the book. It is a relentless list of bank accounts and transactions and flights and travel arrangements and purchases of guns and boats and combat gear and meetings and deals in colourless hotels. By about page 250 I had had enough and reading this book had turned into a real grind.

Characters or cogs?

As in the previous novels there is quite a large cast of characters whose intricate interlockings Forsyth manages with amazing skill and precision. But reading this one made it more obvious than before that the characters play stock roles: the Machiavellian industrialist, his sex-mad daughter, his sleek fixer, the conscience-stricken scientist, the tough prospector, the grizzled mercenary, the brutal African dictator.

Worse, novelists generally tell you the background of their characters but it is characteristic of Forsyth that, every time he introduces a new person, he presents their entire CV in one go. There is absolutely no subtlety.

Alan Baker was an expatriate, a Canadian who had settled in Germany after the war and married a German girl. A former Royal Engineer during the war, he had got himself involved during the early post-war years in a series of border-crossing operations into and out of the Soviet Zone, running nylons, watches and refugees. From there he had drifted into arms running for the scores of tiny nationalist or anti-communist bands of maquis who, left over from the war, still ran their resistance movements in Central and Eastern Europe. (p.241)

A brisk résumé of their life & career replaces the more traditional literary strategy of creating character through accumulated psychological insights. There are no psychological insights. –This is X’s history. Right, now you know all you need to know about X. Right, Shannon met X in this hotel at this time and they made the following decisions about the shipment of guns and arranged the transfer of x amount of money to the y bank in z.

Mr Harold Roberts was a useful man. Born sixty-two years earlier of a British father and a Swiss mother, he had been brought up in Switzerland after the premature death of his father, and retained dual nationality. Entering banking at an early age, he had spent twenty years in the Zürich head office of one of Switzerland’s largest banks, before being sent to their London branch as an assistant manager. That had been just after the war, and over the second twenty-year period of his career he had risen to become the manager of the London branch, retiring at the age of sixty. By then he had decided to take his retirement and his pension in Swiss francs in Britain. (p.289)

The interest isn’t in the characters per se – once created they remain the same with little or none of the development we might expect in a novel. It’s in the way the large cast of characters fit together so intricately – and not even necessarily into a ‘plot’ (none of Forsyth’s plots after the Jackal have anything like the same excitement). It’s the way they fit together into a worldview, a worldview in which worldy wise men transfer funds between secret bank accounts, set up shady holding companies, meet mercenaries in safe hotel rooms, buy illegal weapons, pass each other in the departure lounge of an international airport without realising it.

They’re not characters, they’re the parts in a beautifully-crafted Swiss watch, unchanging, predictable cogs which interlink to make the whole go tick tick tick.

A worldwide web

The trope of two characters in the plot having their paths cross without either knowing it occurs several times in each book – not to further the plot, but to foreground this feeling of the web or network. The classic instance in Day of the Jackal is one evening towards the climax of the novel when the two protagonists, detective Lebel and the Jackal, are both in Paris, and both lean out of their windows one night, and it turns out their windows are only 300 yards apart – but of course, neither knows what the other looks like.

Here, on page 118:

The evening that Cat Shannon was changing planes at Le Bourget to catch the Air Afrique DC-8 to West Africa, Dr Chalmers was having dinner with an old college friend, now also a scientist and working in industrial research.

Or

Martin Thorpe stepped into Sir James Manson’s office about the time Cat Shannon was taking off from Hamburg. (p.245)

These ships-that-pass-in-the-night moments aren’t important for the plot. They are symptoms or epitomes of Forsyth’s worldview, which is all about complex interlinking. When I was a teenager, reading this kind of book, I think these moments added to the thrilling sense that this was the grown-up world, and that everyone behaved like this. The ships moments create a world.


But God, for really long stretches, this book is soooo boring.

Shannon was invited into Mr Stein’s private office, where Mr Lang and a junior partner were already seated. Along one wall were three secretaries, as it turned out the secretaries of the three accountants present. With the required seven stockholders on hand, Mr Stein set up the company within five minutes. Shannon handed over the balance of £500 and the thousand shares were issued. Each person present received one and signed for it, then passed them to Mr Stein who agreed to keep them in the company safe. Shannon received 994 shares in a block constituted by one sheet of paper and signed for them. His own shares he pocketed. The articles and memorandum of association were signed by the chairman and company secretary, and copies of each would later be filed with the Registrar of Companies for the Archduchy of Luxembourg. The three secretaries were then sent back to their duties, the board of three directors met and approved the aims of the company, the minutes were noted on one sheet of paper, read out by the secretary and signed by the chairman. That was it. Tyrone Holdings SA existed in law. (p.276)

Climax

After such an unconscionably long foreplay this reader was hoping for a spectacular climax.

The actual firefight starts on page 413 and is all over by page 423. It is described as coldly, clinically and thoroughly as all the preparations – but because of the subject, and the stakes, it is actually heart-poundingly thrilling. And bloody.

Not often does one see a bazooka the size of the warhead on a Yugoslav RPG-7 hit a man in the small of the back. (p.420)

But the payoff turns out to be not in the brutal ‘battle’ (in reality the wholesale slaughter of scores of more or less defenceless African guards under the steady pounding of the mercenaries’ mortar rockets, bazookas and machine guns), it’s in the final few pages, when there is a massive plot twist and Shannon – wildly improbably – is revealed to have been behaving for the finest humanitarian principles after all.

Why? How? What? You’ll have to buy or borrow The Dogs of War and go on the same gruelling pilgrimage yourself to find out.

Textbook

According to Wikipedia, the book is quoted and praised as ‘a textbook for mercenaries’. I’m not surprised. But textbook is the key word. It is exactly like reading a long, exhaustively thorough textbook. Fine if you’re taking an exam in the subject or toying with mounting your own African coup. Not so great as a work of fiction…

The movie

Took a while for this one to be turned into the movie, which wasn’t released until 1980. It was directed by John Irvin and stars Christopher Walken and Tom Berenger, along with a long tail of British character actors (Colin Blakeley, Jim Broadbent in a minor role, George Harris later famous for BBC TV’s Casualty).

At least part of the interest of the novel is the extensive network of characters and deals done exclusively in Europe, repeating and extending the extraordinary knowledgeability which Forsyth demonstrated in Jackal. But the movie makes the hero and background of most of the characters American. Crucially, it transforms Shannon from a decent, extremely intelligent and methodical European into a New York street punk, swaggering, chewing gum, torturing people, tossing empty beer cans around, shouting a lot. It’s a surprise he can even read, you wouldn’t trust him to throw a party in a bar, it is not credible that such an uptight, angry adolescent could organise something of the byzantine complexity of Forsyth’s coup, and this switch decisively throws away the professional (surprisingly moral) integrity of the novel.


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 Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth (1972)

‘You youngsters today don’t realise what it is to be proud of being a German. It lights a fire inside you. When the drums beat and the bands played, when the flags were waving and the whole nation was united behind one man, we could have marched to the ends of the world. That is greatness, young Miller, greatness your generation has never known and never will know. And we of the SS were the élite, still are the élite.’ (p.292)

Forsyth’s follow-up to the sensationally successful Day of The Jackal (1971) and published just one year later, The Odessa File is also a historical novel – in fact set in the same year, 1963, as Jackal. It is also a ‘documentary thriller’ ie it is deeply based on real events, organisations and figures which require a good deal of factual explanation in order to situate the foreground narrative into the full historical, geopolitical and diplomatic context. So much so that, at numerous points, the book reads like an encyclopedia or a Dictionary of Nazi Biography.

In Jackal the reader has to be informed about the war of independence in Algeria and its impact on French politics in order to understand the plot – here, there is a great deal of background information about the SS, their crimes against humanity during the war, how many of their officers managed to escape at the end of the war, and about the secret organisation – the Odessa – which helped those escapees and which then continued to provide a support network to former SS men in post-war Germany.

The hero

Peter Miller is a successful German freelance journalist. He made a packet tracking down and selling early photos of the Beatles from their Hamburg nightclub days, so he can now afford to pick and choose his stories, which he then sells to glossy magazines. He lives in a penthouse apartment in Hamburg with his girlfriend, Sigi, a bosomy stripper at a local club. Although a man of the world with many contacts in post-war Germany, he is surprisingly ignorant about both Nazi crimes during the war and the extent to which contemporary German society is still riddled with former Nazis. On one level the novel is a pilgrimage, a journey to understanding, in which we follow the investigative journalist as he – to his horror – discovers the power and extent of the Odessa.

The Forsyth approach – ruthlessly honed

Nothing can match the hurtling pace of Jackal as the stories of the various characters all accelerate towards the fateful day of the assassination attempt. In The Odessa File the narrative is, to start with, more discursive and contingent, slower to coalesce – although right from the start Forsyth is keen to convey the high stakes of his narrative with a bit of classic thriller prolepsis.

It is always tempting to wonder what would have happened if… or if not. Usually it is a futile exercise, for what might have been is the greatest of all mysteries. But it is probably accurate to say that if Miller had not had his radio on that night he would not have pulled in to the side of the road for half an hour. He would not have seen the ambulance, nor heard of Salomon Tauber or Eduard Roschmann, and forty months later the republic of Israel would probably have ceased to exist. (p.14)

This paragraph reveals what is at stake in the book – former Nazis are supplying technology to help the Egyptian government build long-range missiles which they intend to pack with radioactive material and bubonic plague bacilli and rain down on Israel, destroying both people and country.

(On a psychological or style level, the first two sentences of this paragraph are interesting in that they are so obviously waffle – you skip through them in order to cut to the chase, to the facts. Pace Forsyth, there is in fact a thriving section of historiography dedicated to ‘counterfactual’ history, an entire intellectual discipline which has shed light on all kinds of historical events. Granted, it barely existed in 1972, but nonetheless those first two sentences are the sound of Forsyth dispensing with abstract thought, with intellectual matters, with the Imagination – in order to focus on his core offering – ruthlessly-honed, thoroughly-researched, relentlessly-focused factual thriller narrative.)

The plot

Freelance journalist Peter Miller is driving along the Autobahn when he hears the news of President Kennedy’s assassination (November 22 1963). He pulls over in shock. Because he is pulled over he sees an ambulance hurtling past. The journalist in him follows out of habit. The ambulance stops at a shabby apartment block. An old man has gassed himself. The police are on the scene and Miller recognises a detective he knows. He meets him a few days later for a drink and the detective hands over the diary of the old man, Saloman Tauber who, it turns out, was a Jewish concentration camp survivor. The journal is, understandably, harrowing stuff, describing what he witnessed in the Riga ghetto in Latvia, and singling out the SS commandant Eduard Roschmann for his cruelty and sadism.

Just as in Jackal, the narrative now divides into several streams which run parallel, but are joined by the same timeline, so you can see various protagonists, and the various strands of this complex international plot, as they interweave and slowly pick up speed. The plotlines are conceived with mathematical precision, fitting together, interlocking with the accuracy of an engineering blueprint.

  • We follow Miller as he explores the world of Nazi hunting in 1960s Germany. He uncovers widespread reluctance to talk about the past in German society at large – even in official organisations like the police or the state Attorney General’s office. Miller meets numerous people before encountering Leon and his Jewish Nazi-hunters – and making an ill-fated attempt to pose as a former SS man to infiltrate the Odessa…
  • We meet the German community in Cairo who are working with the Egyptian authorities to recruit German scientists to come help the Egyptians develop long-range rockets to attack Israel: their aim is to a) carry on Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews b) establish their reputation and begin to build up power again…
  • We meet the heads of the Israeli secret services, particularly Mossad, and are privy to their top secret meetings about how to deal with the Egyptian missiles, how to deter German scientists from joining the project, up to and including assassinating them…
  • We don’t quite meet the Americans but they are important in the larger diplomatic context: for JFK was leaning heavily on the German chancellor to supply Israel with tanks and munitions, which the Israelis desperately need, knowing they face attack from the Arab nations at any point. The Nazis hope that, with JFK dead, his successor Lyndon Johnson will put less pressure on the Germans to supply arms. For their part, the Israeli government must avoid embarrassing the German government for that will give the anti-Israel lobby the argument they need to cut off arms supplies to Israel. And this explains the official line that comes down from the Israeli Prime Minister, to all the security services, and down to the level of Leon and his group in Munich – do not hunt and pursue ex-Nazis, and do not carry out reprisals, as these will damage the high-level negotiations between the two governments and jeopardise the arms sales…
  • And we meet the head of ODESSA, the secret organisation of ex-Nazis in Germany, codename Werwolf, who alone knows that the MD of a popular radio factory is none other than the Eduard Roschmann Miller is looking for (his codename Vulkan) and that his factory is clandestinely developing the radio targeting devices which are all the Egyptians are waiting for to complete their anti-Israel missiles…

So, without knowing it, and simply out a sense that he ought to do something for old man Tauber, Miller sets out to find this commandant Roschmann and finds himself stumbling into a complex web of intrigue, involving a large number of institutions and organisations with competing agendas, and with agents from all sides following him and trying to stop him.

Forsyth is not shy about taking us into the innermost thoughts of the highest figures in the land – the head of Mossad, the Israeli Prime Minister, the head of Odessa. Maybe it is his journalistic background (Reuters, BBC) which makes him so confident at handling and describing in a straightforward, virile style the conversations, thoughts and actions of such a wide array of real, historical characters.

Also, it is impossible to tell from the text where real events and characters end and the fiction begins. Wikipedia tells me that Roschmann was a real-life figure and that his life on the run – assuming new identities, fleeing then returning to Germany – which Miller slowly pieces together from various sources, is completely true. Similarly, I knew that Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, was a real character. Presumably the heads of Mossad and so on are real, named characters, certainly the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, is.

The completeness with which historical events and characters are woven into the narrative gives the entire text an exciting sense of factual accuracy completely unlike any of the other thriller writers I’ve been reading. For long stretches it barely feels like a fiction, more like something you’d see in one of the double-page Sunday Times Insight investigative pieces – a dramatised version of completely authentic events.

Peter Miller’s story

Miller meets a succession of people in order to track down Roschmann – the Hamburg policeman, the Hamburg DA, the Z-Commission of Nazi hunters, the Jewish Archive, the Press officer in the British Embassy in Bonn, the long-standing British official Cadbury who kept personal files of the war crimes trials. This pilgrimage then takes him to London to meet Lord Russell, former legal advisor to the British Military Government, who remembers dealing with the Roschmann case after the latter was caught by Allied soldiers in December 1947. Russell advises him to seek Simon Wiesenthal, the noted Nazi-hunter. (How on earth did Wiesenthal feel about being cast into a novel, about having dialogue invented for him?)

The Wiesenthal sections consist of pure information, big slabs of backstory, as Wiesenthal fills the naive young reporter in on how tens of thousands of SS men prepared their escape from Germany well before the end of the war, were spirited south to Italy, helped by the German cardinal in Rome and often housed in Catholic monasteries, before being shipped on to South America using blank passports issued by the friendly authorities in Argentina. (Hence the arrest of Adolf Eichmann, one of the main architects of the Holocaust, in Buenos Aires in 1960.)

Wiesenthal advises Miller to try the Jewish Centre in Munich and here his request to the receptionist for information about returnees from the Riga ghetto is overheard by a survivor who introduces Miller to his organisation, a secret group of camp survivors dedicated to tracking down and killing former SS officers. Miller is blindfolded and taken to a safe house where the leader of the group, Leon, asks him if he is prepared to adopt a false identity and pass himself off as a former SS man in order to penetrate and expose the Odessa. When Miller agrees he is transported to the house of a repentant and reformed SS officer in Bayreuth where he undergoes intensive training. The false passport, the new identity, the haircut and new appearance, the training and preparation – are all reminiscent of the Jackal’s meticulous preparations before the assassination.

In this case, however, things go almost immediately wrong. Leon and his group forge letters of recommendation for Miller – now renamed Kolb after a recently deceased SS member whose identity they steal – to the local SS bigwig. What none of them know is that this man is also the Werwolf, the leader of the Odessa in Germany, who has been given the priority task by the Nazi leadership in South America with keeping Roschmann, in his guise as head of the radio factory, completely secure so he can finish the radio guidance system for the Egyptians.

Werwolf interrogates Miller – who has been well-briefed and passes scrutiny – then gives him a letter of recommendation to one Bayer who can provide safe accommodation in Stuttgart while they get the Odessa’s forger to provide Miller/Kolb with a new identity. But – in one of those accidental details which are so crucial in detective/thriller fiction – Miller can’t be bothered waiting for the delayed train to Stuttgart and so drives to Stuttgart in his distinctive black jaguar with a yellow stripe. Big mistake. He parks the car some distance from Bayer’s house but is seen by his wife out attending a charity do. Later Werwolf phones Bayer to check Kolb/Miller got there alright, and the wife answers the phone and says, ‘Yes, I saw him getting out of his car, a lovely English one, a jaguar.’ Yikes.

Parallel storylines

At a stroke Werwolf realises Kolb is a fake and is overcome with chagrin. For, in a parallel strand of the book, he has been receiving reports from around Germany that a nosy reporter is asking questions about Roschmann, and so he has activated the Odessa’s assassin, Mackensen, to find this troublesome reporter and liquidate him. And to think he had the man Miller in his front room for three hours masquerading as one of the Kameraden!

Werwolf rings Mackensen and tells him Miller is in Stuttgart, downtown with Bayer, a jolly fellow who has taken Miller into town to dinner and is getting drunk with him. Mackensen tracks the pair to Miller’s room in a seedy hotel but is not expecting what transpires – which is that Miller suddenly pushes the drunk Bayer into a chair, ties him down and begins to threaten him, demanding he tell where the forger lives. Miller is really very violent, beating Bayer and eventually snapping his little finger, at which point Bayer tells him the forger is named Winzer and lives in Osnabrück. Miller stuffs a gag in Bayer’s mouth, secures his bonds and disappears out the fire escape, walking to his car and setting off for Osnabrück.

It takes Bayer several hours to shuffle over to a bedside lamp, knock it to the floor and use a shard of broken glass from the broken bulb to cut his bonds. Finally he stands up, goes to the window and throws it open – only to be killed with one shot by the Odessa assassin who has been waiting all night at a window opposite for Miller to show himself. But even as he packs up his rifle, Mackensen knows he’s made a bad mistake. He reluctantly phones Werwolf who is enraged at his incompetence and orders him to follow Miller. Werwolf immediately phones Winzer in Osnabrück and tells him a nosy journalist with violent tendencies is on his way to interview him, and orders him to disappear into the Alps for a week’s ‘holiday’.

It is typical of Forsyth’s approach that, when the Odessa forger Winzer is introduced, we are given about ten pages detailing his entire biography from birth, paying special attention to the series of events which led him to become such a proficient forger, and a detailed account of  his work for the SS during and after the war. The forward momentum of the novel completely stalls while we read this, but it is presented so crisply and with such complete authority that it doesn’t damage the novel, on the contrary, like all the similar sections about how the SS escaped or how Israeli intelligence is structured, or how the Nazi cell in Cairo functions, it adds tremendously to the sense of documentary accuracy which characterises Forsyth’s books.

In another, parallel strand of the plot, when Leon, head of the Jewish group in Munich, contacted his controllers in Israeli intelligence and told them about the whole Kolb/Miller plot, the Israelis demanded a) that Miller not only find Roschmann, but go beyond that to get the names and contacts of all the senior figures in Odessa b) that they put their own man, identified simply as Josef, a trained agent, onto trailing Miller. Again, we get a potted biography of Josef, Mossad’s agent, as he packs and flies to Germany, land of the people he hates.

So as Miller drives to Osnabrück to find the Odessa’s secret forger, his steps are being dogged not only by an SS assassin, but also by an Israeli agent.

Miller goes to Winzer’s house and his flirtatious housemaid makes it plain that Winzer has been tipped off about his arrival and left, only 20 minutes earlier. Where? The Alps, which is too vague a location for Miller to pursue or track him down.

The gathering speed of Miller’s manhunt comes, temporarily, to a halt until, after some food and a rest, he returns and re-questions the housemaid who mentions Winzer’s aunt, lying dying of cancer in a sanatorium. Miller bluffs his way past the doctors, pretending to be the aunt’s nephew and questions her, eliciting the unexpected news that Winzer keeps a ‘file’ as insurance against being caught. Miller phones a burglar he knows, one of his many contacts in the Hamburg underworld, and persuades him to catch the train to Osnabrück to do a little job for him.

Together they break into Winzer’s house and crack the safe: the burglar keeps all the money, Miller takes Winzer’s file, the Odessa File, a list of all the SS men Winzer has forged passports for. Leafing through it Miller recognises Roschmann’s file, complete with all details about his new name and identity. Miller phones his girlfriend in Hamburg and asks her to drive to meet him and to bring with her the gun he keeps in his flat. When she arrives some hours later they have sex, almost as an aside he proposes marriage to her – then he drives off to confront Roschmann at the hilltop mansion of the now-rich industrialist.

At which point the narrative gets very tense and very complicated, and you’ll need to read it yourself to find out what happens in the final Grand Confrontation scene, and why Miller’s quest turns out to be not at all what it seemed…


Hardware

Cars, planes, guns, ships, tanks. The detail and precision of naming and branding of boy’s toys is like an edition of Top Gear or a special Nazi supplement of Jane’s Defence Weekly.

On those winter manoeuvres in the woods around Bad Tolz, Top Sergeant Ulrich Frank commanded his first tank, an American-built M-48 Patton. It was his last manouevre with the Patton. Waiting for the troop back at camp was a row of shining brand-new French AMX-13s with which the unit was being re-equipped. Faster, more heavily armed than the Patton, the AMX would become his in another week. (p.149)

These tanks have a dual significance: they happen to be on manoeuvres and so hold up Miller in one of his various car journeys; but, although Top Sergeant Frank doesn’t know it, they are almost certainly among the soon-to-be-decommissioned weapons which are the subject of the diplomatic wrangles between Bonn and Tel Aviv. And, as it turns out, this tank is to be the subject of the final paragraph in the book, at the end of the epilogue which lists what became of all the characters in the book: this tank is traded to Israel and plays its part in the 1967 War, ending the novel with the image of it ‘caked with dust and oil, scored by bullets, its tracks worn to wafers by the rocks of Sinai’, rolling to a halt on the east bank of the Suez Canal.

Thus, even small details and episodes in the novel are drawn into the complex web of 20th century geopolitics which underpins the narrative at almost every step.

For a different kind of focus on technique, pages 251 to 253 give an unadorned, factual account of what you need to buy from which kind of store to make a home-made car bomb. Mackensen buys the ingredients and lovingly prepares one to blow up Miller’s car, with maybe predictably unintended consequences…

It is characteristic of Miller, and of this very male text, that the journalist is in love with his Jaguar which, initially, is deployed to give us a sense of his success and his young man’s enjoyment of shiny toys. Later it is used ironically by Forsyth, for it is Miller’s decision to use his car rather than the slow train which gives Miller away to Bayer’s wife and thus blows his cover before he’s even begun to infiltrate the Odessa. And it is in Miller’s car that Mackensen plants his home-made bomb, with explosive consequences… The car is a Jaguar SK 150S.

At a touch of the button the 3.8 litre engine beneath the long sloping bonnet of the Jaguar SK 150 S thundered once and settled down to its habitual and comforting rumble like an angry animal trying to get out of a cage. (p.14)

The movie

After the success of the Jackal novel (1971) and movie (1973), it’s no surprise that Odessa was snapped up and made into a movie, released in 1974, directed by Ronald Neame and starring Jon Voight.


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 Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

This is a spectacularly brilliant book. It is utterly gripping and absorbing. If I had to give someone who’d never read a thriller an example to show them what the genre can do, it would be this one.

Compared to books by Desmond Bagley, Alistair MacLean, Eric Ambler or Hammond Innes which generally weigh in at around 220 pages, The Day of The Jackal is nearly double the length (at 382 pages in the Corgi paperback version) and twice as gripping.

The length is an indicator of its key strength, its lavish attention to detail, the depth and meticulousness of its research. Rarely can a thriller have been written with such verisimilitude.

Political background

France invaded Algeria in 1830. Very quickly it became not a colony, as in the British model of Empire, but an actual administrative department of France, fully integrated into the patrie. After World War Two there were growing calls for independence and low-level violence escalated into a full-blown war of independence which started in 1954, led by the main independence movement, the National Liberation Front or FLN.

By the late 1950s their campaign of violence – with retaliatory attacks by the French Army and paramilitary groups – had spilled over into mainland France and it had become the dominant political issue: should France cling on to Algeria at the cost of ever-increasing repression and violence, or grant the country independence? Communist, socialist and liberal deputies and opinion formers argued for independence, but the Army, the right wing and most of the colonists, or pieds noirs, were violently opposed, considering Algeria not a colony but a part of the sacred soil of France.

By 1961 it became clear that only one man could heal the massive rifts in French politics and Charles de Gaulle, the embodiment of the nation, the voice of freedom during the dark days of the Nazi occupation, was recalled from retirement and made President. Both sides expected a miracle, that he could somehow square the circle, but inevitably one side had to lose and it was the colonists – de Gaulle called two referendums in which the nation as a whole voted to withdraw from Algeria. The Army and colonists felt betrayed and opposed the plan with every means at their disposal including violence, attacking police and political sympathisers. The Organisation de l’armée secrète or OAS was founded in January 1961, in response to the first referendum, and one of its central aims was to murder the traitor, de Gaulle. No fewer than six attempts were made on the President’s life.

Plot

The novel opens with a detailed account of one of these plots, the assassination attempt mounted by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry in the Paris suburb of Le Petit-Clamart on 22 August 1962. The plot failed, Thiry and his co-conspirators were caught, and Thiry was executed by firing squad on 11 March 1963.

So far the book has been a completely factual account of actual historic events. This is part of what gives it such depth and conviction, not just that it is based on historical fact, but that those events are described with such a debonaire and confident combination of factual accuracy and drama.

The fiction is seamlessly woven into fact, as the radio announcement of Thiry’s execution is heard by the OAS’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Rodin. (He has taken over control since the head, Antoine Argoud (real historical figure) was abducted from Germany by French security forces.)

Rodin convenes a meeting of two senior directors of OAS and presents them with a novel plan in his highly-guarded rooms in a Rome hotel. They will hire a foreigner, someone with no connection with France let alone the OAS. It will be done in complete secrecy by this special committee of three, telling no-one else in the organisatoin in order to ensure total security.

They draw up a shortlist of international assassins and their search brings an Englishman to their Rome hotel. He demands half a million dollars to carry out this once-in-a-lifetime hit. The three agree.

To pay for it, they order the OAS to carry out a wave of violent crime across France to raise the money, leading to a spate of robberies, thefts, burglaries, along with the response of the authorities. Meanwhile, the Jackal returns to London and starts to make his elaborate and detailed plans.

Forsyth describes in detail the clever scam whereby French security kidnap one of the bodyguards from the Rome hotel, and then the gruesome torture techniques they apply (electric clips to the nipples and penis, huge electric shocks). He reveals that a foreigner came to visit Rodin and his codename, le chacal. French security deduce a foreign assassin has been hired and convey this to their masters.

Forsyth reveals an incredibly detailed and thoroughly researched grasp of the structure of the various French security services, how they interlock and overlap with civil servants and ministers of the relevant ministries. Roger Frey, the French Minister of the Interior, convenes a meeting of the heads of all the services to discuss what to do.

The Minister stood at the head of the table. To his immediate right sat his chef de cabinet, and to his left the Prefect of Police, the political head of France’s police forces. From Sanguinetti’s right hand down the length of the oblong table sat General Gibaud, head of the SDECE, Colonel Rolland, chief of the Action Service and the author of the report of which a copy lay in front of each man. Beyond Rolland were Commissaire Ducret of the Corps de Sécurité Presidentielle, and Colonel Saint-Clair de Villaubin, an air force colonel of the Elysée staff… To the left of M.Maurice Papon, the Prefect of Police, were M.Maurice Grimaud, the Director-General of the Sûreté Nationale, and in a row the five heads of the departments that make up the Sûreté. (p.181)

At this meeting the Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire says the first thing is to establish the Jackal’s identity, a job for a detective. When asked who is the best detective in France he replies (not, alas, Inspector Clouseau who, coincidentally, made his debut film appearance in 1963) but his own deputy commissioner, Claude Lebel.

From this point onwards the novel becomes a cat and mouse narrative, split into two streams, one detailing the immensely thorough precautions and plans of the Jackal; the other describing in just as much detail the actions of the French policeman.

Several things contribute to the novel’s phenomenal power:

Timeline

The forward momentum and pace of the novel never let up, from the moment Thiry is executed in March 1963, as it follows day by day the activities of the Jackal, of the OAS and then of Lebel right up until the fateful 25 August when the plot and the novel come to their explosive climax. Almost every chapter begins or ends with a phrase like ‘as they were talking the clock passed midnight and it was Monday 15 August’. The pressure of the timeline is always present in the narrative.

Verisimilitude

The novel is mind-bogglingly well-researched. Forsyth the narrator comes across as immensely knowledgable and thoroughly in command of his material. He displays a totally convincing understanding of the intricate and complicated roles and responsibilities of all of France’s police and security agencies and then, when the hunt moves to England, a similar grasp of the overlapping responsibilities of the police, Scotland Yard, Special Branch and MI6, or ‘the Service’.

Not only are the stakes of the novel high – life and death of the leader of a major western nation, the future of France – but Forsyth’s grasp of the implications of the plot, at all levels, from the most senior geopolitical issues, through the mazes of security and police bureaucracy, down to the tiniest details of the Jackal’s preparations for the assassination, is complete. It is a masterful text, an astonishing achievement.

Sex and death

Sex, death, guns, sports cars, forged papers, security services, kidnapping, torture, international banking transactions – all are described in the same efficient, factual and powerfully credible style. Forsyth exudes confidence. He is at home with all of this stuff. One of the striking features of this and his other novels is how relaxed and matter of fact he is about sex. In the thrillers I’ve read up to the mid-1970s by Eric Ambler, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and John le Carré, sex has been conspicuous by its absence. The anonymous narrator of Len Deighton’s Ipcress novels alludes to having sex with his girlfriend, but only in the most oblique ways (she asks for her ear ring back). Compare and contrast with Forsyth’s frank, unashamed description of sex between the Jackal and the lonely Baroness he picks up because she has a conveniently isolated chateau where he can hide out.

The door opened and the Baroness came in. Her hair had been let down around her shoulders and she wore a pegnoir held together at the throat but open down the front. As she moved it swayed briefly open. She was quite naked beneath it, but had kept on the stockings she had worn at dinner and the high-heeled court shoes. The Jackal propped himself up on one elbow as she closed the door and walked over to the bed.

She looked down at him in silence. He reached up and slipped loose the bow of ribbon that held the nightdress closed at the throat. It swung open to reveal the breasts, and as he craned forward his hand slid the lace-edged material off her shoulders. It slid down to the floor without a sound. (1975 Corgi paperback edition, p.316)

At which point she grasps his wrists, pushes him flat onto the bed, straddling his chest, dangling her breasts in his face, then tells him to ‘perform’ as she moves her loins up over his mouth. Cunnilingus. I’ve read nothing like this in the English thriller tradition up to this point. It’s not so much that it’s rude and arousing, as that Forsyth reports it with the same confident, unembarrassed savoir faire he applies to every other aspect of his story.

And so, when he realises the Baroness has (very foolishly) used the extension in her bedroom to overhear the Jackal’s brief phone call to his OAS minder, he kills her just as coldly and efficiently, and Forsyth deploys the same unembarrassed, uncoy, uneuphemistic, accurate, factual style to describe it.

She made a rush for the door. He caught her easily and hurled her back across the room on to the bed, coming after her in three fast paces. As she bounced on the rumpled sheets her mouth opened to scream. The back-handed blow across the side of the neck into the carotid artery choked off the scream at source, then his left hand was tangled in her hair, dragging her face downwards over the edge of the bed. She caught a last glimpse of the pattern of the carpet when the forehanded chop with the edge of the palm came down on the back of the neck. (p.326)

Psychology

One reason for reading novels, and a key element in ‘literature’, is interest in the depth and fullness of ‘character’, and to observe how characters interact and change and develop through the incidents of the plot.

In Forsyth the characters are robots: the OAS characters are bent on revenge; the security characters pursue logically all administrative precautions to prevent the assassination; the Jackal is a killing machine – if ‘competence’ is a mark of the thriller protagonist, the level of professionalism he brings to every aspect of his life is off the scale – and, for his part, detective Lebel is a man given a task by his superiors who carries it out to the best of his ability.

There are a few moments or areas where a shadow of psychology creeps in:

  • In the daily briefings which Lebel is ordered to give to the entire assembled security chiefs, one of them, Saint-Clair, is consistently harsh in his criticism of the failure to arrest the Jackal – we know, and Lebel eventually proves, that this man has been going home and telling everything he’s learned to his young mistress, while she sexually pleasures him in various explicitly described ways, before she sneaks off and phones her OAS control, who then tips off the Jackal – for the is an OAS plant. The growing antagonism between Saint-Clair and Lebel almost amounts to a bit of character development, though the simplicity with which he is revealed as the leak, and accepts his humiliation is surprisingly straightforward.
  • More simply, the Baroness is given a backstory wherein her husband has abandoned her to gallivant with starlets in Paris; she is given a scene where she admires her naked body in the mirror and makes the conscious decision that, alright, she too is going to enjoy herself – and it is this decision which leads her to accede to the Jackal’s advances, and ultimately leads to her death.
  • Most tellingly, there is one long paragraph which purports to give an insight into the Jackal’s motivation.

He looked out at the jewelled sea and the lithe brown girls walking along the beach, the hissing Cadillacs and the snarling Jaguars that crept along the Croisette, their bronzed young drivers keeping half an eye on the road and the other flicking across the pavements for a likely pick-up. This was what he had wanted for a long time, from the days when he had pressed his nose to the travel agent’s windows and gazed at the posters showig another life, another world, far from the drudgery of the commuter train and the forms in triplicate, the paper clips and tepid tea. Over the past three years he had almost made it; a glimpse here, a touch there. He had got used to good clothes, expensive meals, a smart flat, a sports car, elegant women. To go back meant to give it all up. (p.277)

It is not enough. It doesn’t justify the Jackal’s superhuman precision and efficiency. In fact, it is a bit of a letdown. The Jackal isn’t a man, he is a phenomenon, an embodiment of ‘a certain type of masculinity’, raised to almost mythical status, he is Achilles, he is Beowulf. From about half way through the novel the authorities think they’ve identified him as an Englishman, Charles Calthrop, involved in previous mercenary work. Only at the very end do we learn that even this identity was a fake, that he appears to have no identifiable past.

He is, in fact, a man with no name and, like the Clint Eastwood character (who debuted in the 1964 movie A Fistful of Dollars), the very absence of backstory, or psychology, or any attempt at explanation, is crucial to his conception. He is a sort of force of nature.

The movie

The novel was a famous success, bestseller of 1971 and launched Forsyth’s long career. Inevitably it was imediately snapped up by a producer and turned into the classic thriller movie directed by Fred Zinneman and starring the impossibly plummy Edward Fox.


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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