Frederick Forsyth’s ‘novel’ career in international intrigue (Column: Bookends LX)

By Vikas Datta (10:00) 

If you want to know how to attempt the assassination of a statesman, track a Nazi war criminal, organise a coup in Africa (or avert one in Russia), get a false passport, blow up a safe or assemble a bomb (conventional or nuclear), then this author will be to your taste. But Frederick Forsyth isn’t the writer of a terrorist training manual but of thrillers whose suspense-laden plots seem ripped from the headlines but had an uncanny resonance in the real world.

Forsyth’s intricate and detailed plots, meticulously researched background and taut writing – ensured all his 13 novels were best-sellers – and always in print. His first three (and fifth) also became successful films (with the plots intact) – a record only bettered by Ian Fleming (though the James Bond films hardly reflect the books) or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

Forsyth (1938-) had a colourful life. The youngest Royal Air Force pilot at 19, he then switched to journalism – working for newswire Reuters in Paris and then with the BBC. Sent to report on the Nigerian civil war (the Biafra conflict) in 1967, he protested the decision to pull him out after a few months, quit and went back to cover it freelance.

A book followed but didn’t do well. He then wrote his first fiction work – using experiences of his Paris stint – in a little over a month in early 1970. “The Day of the Jackal”, however, did not interest publishers who contended that a plot based on assassinating De Gaulle did not possess any suspense as he was still alive. Only after the French leader’s death – of natural causes – in November 1970 did a publisher take it. Coming out in mid-1971, it was a runaway hit and went on to be translated into over 30 languages including Hebrew, Chinese and Thai.

Taking off from the 1962 assassination attempt, the battle of wits (and more) between the assassin and the security apparatus – with a twist at the end (or even earlier in subsequent works) became Forsyth’s style.

The book achieved a strange notoriety – devoted admirers included two assassins (that of Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and the one unsuccessful in targeting US President George Bush and his Georgian counterpart Mikheil Sakaashvilli in 2005), as well as giving a nickname to the world’s most notorious terrorist before Osama bin Laden – Carlos the Jackal, based on an erroneous report that he had a copy of it.

Familiar for those who have used a Holocaust survivor’s anguished last testament in school elocution competitions, “The Odessa File” (1972) again used a real-life incident – President Kennedy’s assassination – to start the tale of international intrigue and retribution, meshing the Holocaust, elusive Nazi war criminals (and growing disinterest in their pursuit), and an arms race in the Middle East. A consequence was focus on the book’s real-life villain, SS officer Eduard Roschmann, then living in Argentina, making him flee to remote Paraguay following extradition requests.

On a tycoon’s attempt to suborn an African nation (Equatorial Guinea in all but name) where a valuable mineral is found (a plot still relevant in our time), “The Dogs of War” (1974) drew from Forsyth’s own experiences of mercenaries in Biafra. Coincidentally, in 1973, Spanish authorities had arrested several people allegedly planning a coup in Guinea, while one actually occurred there in 1979 and another attempt – the preparations mirroring Forsyth’s – in 2004.

“The Devil’s Alternative” (1979) deals with moral choices before the world’s most powerful leaders in a crisis (and the subplot of Ukrainian patriots’ antipathy to Russians seems unusually familiar in this era), while “The Fourth Protocol” (1984) features one of the earliest instances of state-backed nuclear terrorism (though by a renegade faction).

“The Negotiator” (1989) was based on a conspiracy to sabotage an arms treaty between the superpowers (and has Mikhail Gorbachov in an impressive role), while “The Deceiver” (1991), about attempts to push out an unconventional intelligence operative, is an epitaph to the Cold War.

Then came “The Fist of God” (1994) on Saddam Hussein’s weapon programme, “Icon” (1996) set in Russia of 1999, “The Avenger” (2003), where a private manhunt for Serb war criminal upsets a mission to capture Bin Laden as the story ends September 10, 2001, “The Afghan” (2006) and “The Kill List” (2013) on terror plots against the West, and “The Cobra” (2010) on drug-running. But these six – for me at least – pale before the first seven, possibly due to a gloomier tone, or the issues suffering over-exposure.

But Forsyth is not done yet – expected this October is his autobiography “The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue”. Trust the master storyteller to save the best for the last!

(05.04.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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