‘All-Round Intrigue’: Frederick Forsyth’s Life And Thrillers

Frederick Forsyth

Frederick Forsyth, however, did not write training manuals for terrorists or security forces, but suspense-laden stories, with intricate plots, meticulously researched background, and taut writing, seemed ripped from the headlines of the day.

His nearly two dozen works, which included 15 novels, two collections of short stories – as well as an autobiography, were always best-sellers, and enhanced the appeal of thrillers, deemed an escapist form of literature and fit only to while away time in long air or rail journeys. His first three novels- “The Day of the Jackal” (1971), “The Odessa File” (1972), and “The Dogs of War” (1974) and the fifth (“The Fourth Protocol”, 1984) also became successful films – with largely the same plots. The fourth (“The Devil’s Alternative”, 1979) was also under consideration but did not make it to the screen, while some later works were also adapted into films or TV serials.

Born on August 25, 1938, Forsyth had a life as colourful as his stories. He lied about his age to join the Royal Air Force in 1956, and became its youngest pilot at 19. After his military stint, he turned to journalism – working for Reuters in Paris and then, the BBC. Sent to report on the Nigerian civil war in 1967, he protested the decision to pull him out soon, quit the job, and went back to cover it freelance.

This resulted in his first book “The Biafra Story” (1969) but it didn’t do well. He then wrote his first fiction work – using experiences of his Paris stint which included covering an attempted assassination of French President Charles De Gaulle in 1962 – in a little over a month in 1970.

“The Day of the Jackal”, however, did not interest publishers, on grounds that a plot based on assassinating De Gaulle did not possess any suspense as he was still alive. Only after his 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.

The book achieved a strange notoriety – its admirers included two assassins (that of Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and the one unsuccessful in targeting then US President George Bush and his Georgian counterpart Mikhail 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 with him.

“The Odessa File” (1972), again uses a real-life incident – President John F. Kennedy’s assassination – to launch a tale of international intrigue and retribution, bringing together the Holocaust, Nazi war criminals (and growing disinterest in their pursuit), and an arms race in the Middle East. A major consequence is that the book’s real-life villain, SS officer Eduard Roschmann, then living in Argentina, had to flee from Argentina 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 discovered (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 the same nation while a coup actually occurred there in 1979 and another attempt – the preparations mirroring Forsyth’s – came in 2004.

“The Devil’s Alternative” (1979) deals with moral choices before the world’s most powerful leaders in a crisis – and the one of the earliest on how Ukrainian actions can cause global chaos, while “The Fourth Protocol” (1984) is an elegantly layered tale, starring from a burglary to a barely-averted nuclear blast.

“The Negotiator” (1989) features a conspiracy to sabotage an arms treaty between the superpowers – featuring a remarkable cameo from Mikhail Gorbachev, while “The Deceiver” (1991) is an epitaph to the Cold War, its clandestine practitioners across battlegrounds such as East Germany, and the Middle East, and its costs.

Forsyth continued with “The Fist of God” (1994) on Saddam Hussain’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 Osama bin Laden as the story ends on September 10, 2001, “The Afghan” (2006) and “The Kill List” (2013) on terror plots against the West, “The Cobra” (2010) on drug cartels, and “The Fox” about the new global battlefield of cyberspace.

But his later works pale before the first seven, possibly due to a gloomier tone, or the issues suffering over-exposure, even as they admirably show the grim reality that those engaged in high politics, espionage, and the military cannot afford idealism.

But Forsyth’s most magnificent tale is of his own life, during which he tells us how he nearly launched World War III while a correspondent in East Berlin.

In “The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue” (2015), he also recounts how he barely escaped the wrath of an arms dealer in Germany, was strafed by a MiG during the Nigerian civil war, arrested by (then East Germany’s) Stasi, came to the IRA’s unwelcome attention, and what he and a certain attractive Czech secret police agent once got up to.

What makes it stand out is his account of the lethal faultlines colonialism left in a number of African ‘countries’ the West created, with the potential for havoc – and plentiful suffering – later, and then, committed more mistakes in dealing with subsequent situations.

And why “Outsider”? Because “in a world that increasingly obsesses over the gods of money, power and fame, a journalist and a writer must remain detached, like a bird on a rail, watching, noting, probing, commenting but never joining. In short, an outsider”.