Simon & Schuster, 1980, 478 pages, C$15.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-24316-0
Regular readers of these reviews know that I’m a big fan of techno-thrillers. I usually associate this fondness to the same impulses that push me toward hard-Science Fiction and nonfiction books; a craving to understand the world, and to play with rigorous “what-if” scenarios.
Techno-thrillers were formally defined as a genre by the mega-success of Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, which not only told an engrossing yarn of intrigue and action, but did so with a quasi-documentary style that took delight in pointing out fascinating facts to the reader even as the story went along. It wasn’t the first techno-thriller, nor even the first bestselling techno-thriller, but it became something of a publishing watershed.
Historians of the genre, even casual ones like myself, can take delight in unearthing earlier works in the same genre. Michael Crichton’s first thrillers (The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, most famously) certainly fit the mold, as do other popular novels of the Seventies.
While, technically speaking, The Fifth Horseman misses the Seventies by only a few months, there’s no doubt that it’s a strong contender as a primary source of influence for the genre. It’s got everything that latter techno-thriller would use; a dastardly terrorist plot concocted by an enemy leader; military hardware; international scope; police procedural work; a whole stable of characters at all levels of society; ever-decreasing odds; nick-of-time escapes; limpid writing; and, perhaps most distinctly, a love and flair for details. Israeli airplanes don’t simply depart to bomb an enemy country: We follow the whole process, from political decision-making to locked vaults with activation codes to pilot scramble to the actual flying. Improperly handled, if makes for lethargic writing, but properly used -like here- it brings extra levels of suspense and verisimilitude to the story.
This extends to using real characters as cameos or antagonists. While most current writers would be content with using a faceless dictator from some unnamed country, Lapierrre and Collins don’t shy away from naming Qaddafi as the bad guy, even providing substantial dialogue, psychological profiling and internal monologue!
Oh, the book isn’t a complete success: The characters aren’t equally interesting (for each dynamic mayor Abe Stern or street-smart policeman Angelo Rocchia, there’s a useless Whalid Dajani or weaselly Patrick Cornedeau.) and not every subplot is equally interesting. (The French subplots, for instance, were probably more useful to Dominique Lapierre than to readers of the past twenty years.) The readership of 1980 being relatively unfamiliar with techno-thriller conventions, there is maybe a tad too much explaining. And when you compare The Fifth Horseman‘s relatively simple find-the-bomb plot with the sophistication of some of the latter techno-thrillers, it’s hard to be impressed.
But keep in mind that the book already has a fifth of a century, and that it remarkably hasn’t aged a lot since. The decision to focus on a terrorist threat rather than a Cold War intrigue helps a lot, as is the nature of the threat; somehow, even though the equipment currently used by NEST is probably far more sophisticated, I don’t think that finding a nuclear bomb in New York today would be any easier today…
All in all, The Fifth Horseman still works well, and not only as a historical curio. It was a good thriller and remains so today. Students and fans of the genre will get an extra value out of reading it, but casual reader shouldn’t feel cheated either.