Bantam, 1996, 567 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-552-13991-2
It must be a difficult time to be a spy-thriller writer. With the Soviet Union down and out, with the climate of global harmony (more or less) reigning over the civilized countries of the world, what can they write about?
Usually, they fall back on history, invent new enemies or write about something else altogether. Frederick Forsyth does a bit of all of this in his latest novel, Icon.
A note to would-be authors everywhere: This is how a master begins a novel:
“It was the summer when the price of a small loaf of bread topped a million rubles.
It was the summer of the third consecutive year of wheat crop failures and the second of hyper-inflation.
It was the summer when in the back alleys of the far-away provincial towns the first Russians began dying of malnutrition.
It was the summer when the president collapsed in his limousine too far from help to be saved, and an old office cleaner stole a document.
After that nothing would ever be the same.
It was the summer of 1999.”
Frederick Forsyth is not an unknown author. His first book, The Day of the Jackal, was one of the best thrillers -nay, novel- of the seventies. He has been a steady bestseller even since. Icon is his twelfth book, and he has not lost one bit of his talent.
What to expect from a Forsyth novel? A very complex plot. Multidimensional characters. A succession of fascinating details. A solid grasp of politics. Clear, delightful prose. Surprises backed-up by solid facts. Some action. And some of the best suspense you can find in prose.
While ex-journalist Forsyth has made his reputation writing near-past thrillers artfully blending fact and fiction, Icon goes in the other direction and becomes a near-future thriller about a mad politician in Russia just about to become prime minister. It’s also about a master spy name Jason Monk, destroyed by Aldritch Ames, the KGB mole inside CIA in the eighties. It’s about how to stop a madman from taking power. It’s about the dangers of a fallen superpower. But most of all, it’s about a couple of hours of good, solid entertainment.
Unlike some other spy writers (Seymour, LeCarre), Forsyth has never lost his goal of a pleasant read. It’s complex, but the prose isn’t, and this rather convoluted plot thus becomes sufficiently accessible.
Goodness is in the details, and Forsyth once again fills up his novel with a dizzying array of well-researched facts. His chronicle of Aldrich Ames is as fascinating as it is discouraging. It’s impressive that this wealth of minutia never slows down the narrative, or bore the reader. Pure storytelling is among Forsyth’s skills, and he shows off a clear example in Icon by interleaving in the first half of the book the early career of Jason Monk and the main plot of the novel. (By the time Monk joins the main story, his back story is fully introduced; a virtuoso feat of narrative structure.) Icon loses some steam in the second half, and somehow does not fully attain a superior level, but still holds the interest.
Demanding readers are unlikely to be disappointed by Icon. It’s refreshing, in an ironic kind of way, to see that the spy thriller genre isn’t dead yet. Even better, this novel shows that Forsyth is still at the top of his game, after a few average-to-good books that disappointed some. A marvel of summer reading, Icon is big enough to mesmerize during several hours.