Tag Archives: Frederick Forsyth

Avenger, Frederick Forsyth

<em class="BookTitle">Avenger</em>, Frederick Forsyth

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.

The Afghan, Frederick Forsyth

<em class="BookTitle">The Afghan</em>, Frederick Forsyth

Putnam, 2006, 343 pages, C$35.50 hc, ISBN 0-399-15394-2

In an industry when a decade-long career is enough to earn writers the “veteran” qualifier, it’s sobering to realize that Frederick Forsyth has been a best-selling author for longer than many of his readers (including this one) have been alive. Since 1971’s The Day of the Jackal (which was adapted as a movie twice), Forsyth has been a reliable thriller writer, churning out complex but intensely readable novels every few years. While his best-selling glory days of the seventies and early eighties have evaporated, Forsyth has remained an elder statesmen of genre fiction, with a sideline in cranky conservative commentary for a variety of outlets.

As such, he’s entitled to a bit of slack in discussing The Afghan. It’s the latest Forsyth, for goodness’ sake. So what if it turns out to be a paranoid tract that spends more time describing how things happen than dramatizing the action? It’s still a fascinating book, one that hints at the indulgences that professional authors with a long track record can enjoy if it suits their fancy.

A laconic plot summary doesn’t do justice to the book. Evil Al-Quaeda plot; heroic British operative; desperate infiltration mission. You can probably guess where it goes from there, and you wouldn’t be wrong: there’s been scores of lone-wolf-against-terrorists stories in the past decades, and The Afghan is certainly one of them.

But as most reviewers understand, it’s all in the execution.

For instance, one thing that Forsyth does extremely well is to write a thriller according to the right-wing understanding of the world: Al-Quaeda is a real force, they actively plot against Western interests, and they’ve got both ruthlessness and a ton of money. Against them, government operatives with steely gazes and absolute moral authority are justified in using every mean necessary to protect the ignorant sheep against the gathering threat. Sacrifice, honor and shooting terrorists in the head: those are the values that Forsyth hold self-evident. Surprisingly, it works pretty well even for readers who don’t share the same world-view: Once he established the deeply paranoid world in which his characters live, the rest takes care of itself.

But where Forsyth really distinguishes himself with this novel is the intentionally didactic tone he chooses to use. I’m not talking about Tom-Clancyesque exposition in the middle of the action (although, to be fair, Forsyth was expositioning at length a dozen years before Clancy), but almost constant technical explanations, uninterrupted by the niceties of dialogue, for pages on end. The impact is more profound than you may think: Not only does the steady flow of specialized information lend an almost-unimpeachable credibility to the tale (the staggering amount of research this novel must have required…), it also gives it a Voice-of-God quality that distracts from the novel’s most egregious shortcomings.

Problems such as simple plotting (Hero is trained and sent somewhere, where he stops the attack. The End.), thin characters and unforgivable coincidences —from a bin Laden cameo to a preposterously unlucky plane crash. More fundamentally, the ultra-omniscient narration also paints itself in corners when comes the time to withhold information from the reader in order to create suspense. While Forsyth still manages a few outstanding scenes, such as the finale or the very cool “He’s in Canada, sir. / Take the shot, Sergeant.” exchange [P.295], they’re still held at arm’s length from the reader thanks to the dispassionate, matter-of-fact narration.

But Forsyth’s greatest trick may be to make this narration the centerpiece of the book, the unusual quirk that comes to attract all attention notwithstanding the problems with the rest of the book. Now that’s what an old wizened veteran can do when he”s indulging himself.

Icon, Frederick Forsyth

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.