Frederick Forsyth Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Ashford, Kent, in 1938. Education: Tonbridge School, Kent. Military Service: Served in the Royal Air Force 1956-58. Career: Journalist, Eastern Daily Press, Norwich, and in King's Lynn, Norfolk, 1958-61; reporter for Reuters, London, Paris, and East Berlin, 1961-65; reporter, BBC Radio and Television, London, 1965-67; assistant diplomatic correspondent, BBC, 1967-68; freelance journalist in Nigeria, 1968-70; television presenter, Soldiers series, 1985, and Frederick Forsyth Presents series, 1989-90. Lives in London. Awards: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, 1971, 1983.
The Day of the Jackal. London, Hutchinson, and New York, VikingPress, 1971.
The Odessa File. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Viking Press, 1972.
The Dogs of War. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Viking Press, 1974.
The Shepherd. London, Hutchinson, 1975; New York, Viking Press, 1976.
The Devil's Alternative. London, Hutchinson, 1979; New York, Viking Press, 1980.
The Fourth Protocol. London, Hutchinson, and New York, VikingPress, 1984.
The Negotiator. London and New York, Bantam, 1989.
The Deceiver. London, Corgi, and New York, Bantam, 1991.
The Fist of God. London and New York, Bantam, 1994.
Icon. New York, Bantam Books, 1996.
The Phantom of Manhattan. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.
No Comebacks: Collected Short Stories. London, Hutchinson, andNew York, Viking Press, 1982.
The Fourth Protocol, 1987.
The Biafra Story. London, Penguin, 1969; as The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story, 1977.
Emeka (biography of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu). Ibadan, Spectrum, 1982.
Editor, Great Flying Stories. Rockland, Massachusetts, WheelerPublishing, 1996.
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Although he is known exclusively as the author of political thrillers, Frederick Forsyth announced in 1999 that he was forsaking that genre and turning to other forms of fiction. In the twenty-five years between The Day of the Jackal and Icon, Forsyth published a series of novels following the same basic formula: start with a plausible international crisis; keep a number of narrative threads moving at all times; scatter violent and/or erotic incidents liberally through the story; explain in minute detail the techniques employed by criminals, terrorists, undercover agents, police; build toward an explosive climax; end with an unexpected but satisfying twist of plot. The formula has produced nine bestsellers, all a notch above standard popular fare, most made, or likely to be made, into popular films.
The Day of the Jackal, the first in the series and still widely regarded as the best, established the pattern Forsyth was to follow. A group of disgruntled veterans of the Algerian war hire a professional assassin from England, code-named the Jackal, to kill President De Gaulle for betraying the French cause in North Africa. Forsyth adds an abundance of peripheral plots and characters, many based on actual events of the time. We are jolted back and forth between two centers of intrigue: the solitary assassin meticulously planning each step of the murder and the special police unit trying to track him down. Forsyth's fascination with detail draws us into the story. We learn how to acquire false passports, how to obtain a custom-made rifle, how to travel around Europe under a variety of identities, and how, conversely, police forces of different nations coordinate efforts to prevent the assassination. Facing a complex plot and an overabundance of characters, we follow events without understanding the human motives behind them. But though we never get inside the main figure, the Jackal, we are willing to ascribe it to the nature of the character: a professional assassin keeping his own counsel, revealing nothing of himself to anyone. Thus a fundamental shortcoming in Forsyth's work, an unwillingness or inability to create convincing characters, works to his advantage in The Day of the Jackal.
The same flaw is more apparent, but less defensible, in the novels that followed. The Odessa File concerns a young German journalist's attempt to infiltrate an organization of influential former SS officers and to locate one war criminal in particular. The theme of hunter and hunted is repeated from the earlier book, but the absence of full characters seems glaring here. So too with The Dogs of War, a novel about mercenaries overthrowing an African dictator, and The Devil's Alternative, about a series of international events that brings the world to the brink of nuclear war. In The Fourth Protocol, however, as in The Day of the Jackal, the more shadowy the people, the more real they seem. The novel describes an ingeniously complex Soviet plot to undermine the British government, with intelligence experts from each side anticipating and thwarting each other's moves.
The Negotiator follows the Forsyth formula to a point, with the kidnapping and murder of a liberal American president's son serving as the entree into a more complicated story of right-wing conspiracies in both the Soviet Union and the United States to undermine stability in the Middle East. Atypically, Forsyth tries, without much success, to humanize his title character by creating a love interest for the otherwise solitary hero. Another solitary hero is Sam McCready, the unifying figure in The Deceiver, which contains four stories of counterespionage. McCready, a veteran agent of British Intelligence, personally outwits such enemies of freedom as the Soviets, Libyans, IRA, Castro, and Colombian drug lords. A recurring theme is the careerism or ineptitude of MIA and CIA bureaucrats whose rules McCready must violate to defeat an enemy who knows no rules.
Forsyth's plots have the short-term advantages and the long-term problems of dealing with topical world affairs. The Fist of God, set during the 1991 Gulf War, includes, in addition to its fictional characters, inside glimpses of the major players in that conflict: George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Saddam Hussein. Here Forsyth finds material to fit his strengths: international intrigue, behind-the-scenes manipulation of events, and weapons derived from high technology. The novel works well because the Gulf War event lends itself to the Forsyth formula.
The latest and, unless he changes his mind, last of Forsyth's thrillers, Icon, describes a right-wing plot to take over the Russian government. Published in 1996 but set in 1999, it describes the chaotic political and economic condition of post-Soviet Russia. The plot is thwarted by an American intelligence agent working with Chechneyans and the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church. Especially interesting is Forsyth's use of the Aldrich Ames case, which is woven into the story, and which provides factual details of the real-life CIA counterintelligence officer who betrayed agents to the KGB. It is interesting to note that Forsyth cites the dissolution of the USSR—the major opposing force in world affairs—as one of the reasons he decided to turn away from the genre that he had mastered.
All Forsyth thrillers include a wealth of detail on matters well beyond the experience of their readers, yet they convey a compelling atmosphere of verisimilitude. We learn how experts make and plant bombs, smuggle weapons, infiltrate secret agencies; we learn how terrorists operate, how world leaders confer and conspire, how spies attend to their daily chores, how politicians manipulate events and their reporting. But all of this detail does not produce convincing human beings. The events seem real, at least plausible, but not the people.
Forsyth's first effort in a different genre, The Phantom of Manhattan, has received neither the critical nor popular success of his earlier books. Conceived as a sequel to Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera (1911) and inspired by Forsyth's friendship with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, it deals with the Phantom's exile to America, where he emerges as a business tycoon and builds a new opera house. Not unexpectedly, his protégé, Christine de Chagny, arrives with their twelve-year-old son to sing at the premiere. In deliberate contrast to his typical work, this one is considerably shorter (less than a fourth the length of his earlier novels) and is told not by a disinterested narrative voice but by its various characters (most of whom sound alike). The story, despite its potential for plot detail, seems summarized rather than narrated, as if it were an outline for a longer book or a sketch for a new musical. The length and style imitate Leroux's novel, keeping the many flaws of the source but losing its originality.
Forsyth's sense that he had exhausted the potential of his earlier genre is understandable, but his first failed attempt to move in a new direction underscores a point made in all of his political thrillers—that mastering a skill, whether for crime or its detection—requires a lifetime of careful preparation and attention to detail.
—Robert E. Lynch
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