St. Martin’s Press, 2003, 370 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-31951-7
In the grand arc of Frederick Forsyth’s multi-decade career, Avenger was a return to form: Between 1996’s Icon and 2003’s Avenger, Forsyth published a gothic romance follow-up to The Phantom of the Opera (The Phantom of Manhattan, 1999) and a book of short stories (The Veteran, 2001). Avenger not only returned to the long-form thriller, but had the added advantage of being the first Forsyth novel written after 9/11.
It’s a bit of a surprise, then, to find out that despite the frequent reminders that the bulk of the story takes place during the summer of 2001, Avenger is more concerned about a Serbian mass-murderer than a middle-eastern terrorist. It’s not a complicated story: Our protagonist is an ex Vietnam-era “Tunnel Rat” named Calvin Dexter, and his specialty is tracking down criminals that have somehow eluded traditional justice. He extracts them from their hiding places and delivers them to the proper authorities. Avenger tells the story of one such extraction, Dexter taking on the task of bringing back a Serbian involved in the murder of a young man with very rich relatives.
The rest, frankly, is just detail. Fortunately, details are what Forsyth does best. Avenger lies somewhere between Icon and The Afghan (2006) in exposition delivery and structure. As in Icon, Forsyth interleaves vignettes describing Dexter’s life in-between installments of his Serbian adventure. If the detail with which he describes the story is heavier than in previous novel, it’s still not up to the quasi-ridiculous voice-of-God level of The Afghan. There’s quite a bit of dialogue, and the political outlook of the story doesn’t fall as deep in right-wing blood-lust territory as his follow-up novel.
It’s also meant to take place in the real world, and isn’t set “five minutes in the future” like many of his other novels are meant to. The historical focus alludes to the waste of intelligence resources and shady deals that led to the events of 9/11 without necessarily beating readers over the head with them (or, worse, using the event as an escape hatch like Nelson DeMille did in Night Fall.) Elements of the epilogue seem familiar (Forsyth has used the “character having deeply-buried personal connections to another character” twist before), but then again the whole novel feels like another solid bag of Forsyth’s tricks.
The real fun and interest of the novel doesn’t come as often from the sequence of events than in the flashbacks, extraneous details and technical knowledge that Forsyth weaves into his fiction. It’s instantly credible even in trying to justify something as trite as a white girl being led to prostitution by non-Caucasian criminals. When Forsyth spends the first half of the novel hopping around Dexter’s chronology, it’s not a holding action as much as an excuse to present a few showpieces (such as an excellent description of the “Tunnel Rats”’s activity in Vietnam) and slowly build up the character we will follow for the rest of a novel. It’s an effective trick, especially given that this is at least the second time Forsyth has tried it.
At face value, the novel certain needs the help –if you disengage even slightly, the protagonist’s improbable accumulation of skill and talents seems wildly over-the-top. It’s a testament to Forsyth’s skill that he can not only pull it off, but make it seem all normal.
While Avenger isn’t Grand Forsyth, it’s markedly more palatable than The Afghan, and far closer to the author’s core strengths than some of his previous books. As a bridge between Icon and The Afghan, is a nearly perfect fit. Fans will be pleased, beach readers will get a decent read and everyone will have a good time. Even Forsyth’s average novels are worth a read, after all.