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

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

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

The challenge of autobiography

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

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

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

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

So much for official denials. (p.245)

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

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

Biographical sketch

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

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

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

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

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

Tonbridge school and travelling abroad

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

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

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

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

Learning to fly then becoming a journalist

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

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

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

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

Reuters, in Paris and Berlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad time at the BBC

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

Biafra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accidental novelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A little showbiz gossip

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

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

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

Jobs for ‘the Firm’

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

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

He loses his money and has to start again

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

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

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

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

Barely any family

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

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

A dream come true

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

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

Comment

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

The 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.

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