While enjoying an afternoon tea and crumpets at his home in Hertfordshire, his eyes would fall upon a news item that sounded intriguing. The ex-RAF fighter pilot and BBC correspondent in him would immediately smell a novel in it. The awesome imagination would set to work. Extensive research would follow, with him traveling to the corners of the earth and making contact with actual people on the ground, that were involved in the real events. Six months to a year later, a best seller would be on every international bestseller list.
His first novel, The day of the jackal, was based loosely on fact. It was on one of the many real attempts to assassinate the French President, Charles de Gaulle, by the OAS, a clutch of renegade French military men who resented his giving independence to Algeria. The attempt on which the book is based was the only one that came literally within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. To get under the skin of the characters, he hung out with members of the OAS, during which time, he was transported blindfolded to their safe houses and almost got himself killed on suspicion of being an undercover agent of the then French national intelligence agency, the DST. The result was a bestseller to beat bestsellers.
By the time Frederick Forsyth’s third novel, the blockbuster The dogs of war came out, folk had stopped saying “What was that, Day of the what? By Fred who?” Dogs of war was also based loosely on fact, about the European guns-for-hire who fought coups or propped up regimes in corrupt, resource rich African states, on behalf of powerful European business interests. Forsyth actually visited war-torn Congo and made contact with Belgian mercenaries there.
His classic, The Odessa file, is about an ambulance-chasing journalist’s search for a Nazi war criminal who was about to be ex-filtrated out of 1960s Germany to Argentina by the Odessa, a murky band of ex-Nazis who had been helping war criminals escape to South American safe haven countries right through the 50s and the 60s. In order to get the lowdown on the workings of the Odessa, Forsyth took the help of the Israel’s Mossad and the Simon Wiesenthal Center to get in among the foot soldiers in the Odessa.
What stood out in all his work was his painstaking research on the subject around which he based his stories, making them read like investigative journalism. He went to lengths that others would hesitate to venture to. He hobnobbed with members of the Corsican underworld in Marseilles, got on first name terms with the best passport forgers in Brussels and developed close contacts at virtually every western law enforcement and intelligence agency. Not to mention the subtle twist that he introduced at the end of his novels that brought the reader up short. Like the real reason why Peter Miller, the journalist, went in search of Eduard Roschmann, the Nazi war criminal in Odessa File. A reviewer never reveals the end and so I won’t.
Frederick Forsyth hasn’t been very prolific as a writer (just 16 novels, in 50 years) but his draw has been so great that if you saw a new Forsyth on the shelves, you would buy it, without waiting to read the reviews. Like going to a David Lean or Steven Spielberg movie or, if you were in 1960s-70s’ India, a Satyajit Ray or Hrishikesh Mukherjee flick. You’d see it even if others told you they weren’t impressed.
Forsyth’s draw? A mythical story-telling power aided by the fact that there is a conspiracy theorist in us all and we love reading about villainy, Machiavellian power-plays and behind-the scenes skulduggery, to perk up the dreary thor bori kara of our day-to-day existence.
You’ll note that I keep using the past tense when I write about Frederick Forsyth’s skill as a writer. That’s because he seems to have lost it, which is understandable, given that he is 75 now and really should think of recycling his typewriter and settling down in an armchair at Pratt’s with a peerage and The Times.
If you read his latest novel Cobra, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The story begins with an American President, unnamed, who has a Kenyan father (which narrows the field a bit) whose maid’s nephew dies of a cocaine overdose. The Pres declares war on the Colombian cartels. In Tom Clancy’s ‘Clear and present danger’, the President’s close pal is slaughtered by the same drug barons and the Pres declares war on them.
Both books lack emotion and character depth and can be read or watched with only one side of your brain functioning. The difference is that Tom Clancy unapologetically lacks any emotions or devotion toward developing his characters and has never aspired to be anything more than what looks like a propaganda platform for the US Defense Department, the same way that the Readers Digest used to be, for the US State Department, during the Cold War.
Forsyth on the other hand was known to be a master at plot design and pathos. I have shed tears reading the contents of the diary left behind by the concentration camp survivor, Solomon Tauber, where he recounts the horrific events during his incarceration in the Riga concentration camp, in Odessa File.
Not any longer. Freddie seems to have lost it. Cobra is just straightforward bang bang stuff. Forsyth does not devote the same care to his characters anymore. They are easily identified as the good guys and the bad guys. Which is not to say that Cobra is utter crap. Its subject matter, the global drug trade, makes it quite compelling and Forsyth’s skills at researching and organizing his material are still legendary. He still remains a master of logistics….maritime commercial transportation, how shipping companies and harbors function and how the system is subverted by the bad guys, etc. The plot however, looks like a fantasy that just spun out of control.
Still, a Forsyth is a Forsyth and Cobra is readable. Once only.