Frederick Forsyth

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Frederick Forsyth Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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Frederick Forsyth is a writer of suspense thrillers based on historical events. His novels are a fictional slice of life in a given place at a given time. Truth is blended with fiction in such a way that the reader rarely knows where one ends and the other begins. Forsyth uses his background as a journalist to create in his novels an atmosphere of “being there” for the reader. His general style is also that of the journalist: crisp, factual, and clear paragraphs that efficiently convey information.

Although each work by Forsyth stands individually, there are certain similarities which may be described as his stylistic formula for success: There is always an efficient hero who is at odds with the establishment; a historical backdrop frequently places the hero in contact with known public figures in known historical situations; intricate detail is offered, lending authenticity to the work; and ingenious plots, which resemble large jigsaw puzzles of seemingly disconnected actions or events, are developed. Other writers use one or more parts of the formula, but it is these four facets that, when used collectively, distinguish a Forsyth work.

The heroes of Forsyth’s novels are not unlike Forsyth himself was when he first created them. They are in their thirties, articulate, and bright. They do not suffer fools lightly, especially when the fools are in the organizational hierarchy at a higher level than the hero. Forsyth, however, is not antiestablishment; for each fool there is an individual who helps, trusts, or believes in the hero. The establishment is neither good nor evil, only human. Still, the hero is usually forced to overcome not only the villains but also those on his own side. Fortunately, the hero is a man of action who is not bound by conventions, and he prevails.

The Day of the Jackal

In Forsyth’s first three novels, it is the hero who sets the pace and is the focal point of the action. Deputy Commissaire Claude Lebel, in The Day of the Jackal, is the ultimate professional detective; his antagonist, the Chacal, is the ultimate professional assassin. Only they can appreciate each other’s thoroughness; only a Lebel is able to counter the actions of the Jackal.

The Day of the Jackal provides an example of how Forsyth uses known persons, events, or issues to establish the immediate background for the setting and to authenticate his story. There were several assassination attempts made by the OAS against de Gaulle. Although the reader knows that de Gaulle was never assassinated, the plotline of The Day of the Jackal is so compelling that suspense is maintained until the final lines of the book.

Forsyth also provides detail to add to the authenticity of his novels: Each book is a cornucopia of “how to” material, ranging from how to arrange an assassination to how to prepare a sunburn salve. Although the detail at times seemingly interferes with the pace of the story, it is a necessary aspect of the Forsyth formula, for it substantiates the action and informs and instructs the reader. For The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth interviewed assassins, a gun maker, and passport forgers, among others, to learn the techniques of assassination. His own interviews from the period provided intimate details regarding various participants. In each case, the trust developed by the reader for Forsyth’s message is a by-product of the emphasis on detail.

The Odessa File

Peter Miller, in The Odessa File , is a highly competent crime reporter who, through dogged persistence and despite official opposition, counters the harsh professionalism of ODESSA, a German organization of...

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former SS men seeking to undermine the Jewish state. It is known that there were secret organizations of former SS men in Germany after World War II, and there was a Captain Eduard Roschmann who had commanded a concentration camp at Riga, Latvia. Was there, however, a plot by such a group against Israel?The Odessa File makes a convincing case that it could have happened as described. The novel offers a short course on the Holocaust as well as one on bomb making. Cat Shannon, a mercenary with ideals, apparently works for a giant corporation to overthrow a corrupt African regime; however, he is also working for Africans to improve their future.

The Dogs of War

The Dogs of War was the result of Forsyth’s concern about the fate of Africa under Marxist incompetents. His Biafran experiences and his contempt for the greed of Western businesses that had long exploited Africans provided the plot for the novel. The Dogs of War informs the reader, at length, about international financial machinations, weapons procurement and export, and mortar-shell trajectories. In his first three novels, Forsyth hoped that the reader would ask, “Is this the way that it happened?”

The Devil’s Alternative

After mining his personal experiences for his first three novels, Forsyth turned to the future. The Devil’s Alternative, The Fourth Protocol, and The Afghan (2006) reflect intimate knowledge of subject matter; instead of known historical events, however, Forsyth poses questions regarding the future.

In The Devil’s Alternative and The Fourth Protocol, the heroes are similar to earlier ones, but events and other characters become more significant. Adam Monro and John Preston are as active as earlier heroes, but the plot lines of each novel tend to focus more on world significance than on the abilities of the main character. The Devil’s Alternative has as its background a famine-threatening grain crop failure in the Soviet Union. A faction in the Politburo suggests that the military be used to take the grain that it needs. The hijacking of an oil supertanker by Ukrainian nationalists, Kremlin infighting, and a beautiful Soviet spy provide the backdrop for the hero’s efforts to ensure that the Soviets would get the grain they needed. In this novel, Forsyth wonders how the West can effectively deal with dedicated nationalist terrorist groups and how the Soviet Union can contend with its own myriad problems. He introduces national leaders and national problems of which the reader should be aware and interweaves them into the plot. He describes in detail smuggling in the Soviet Union, flaws in the Soviet system, and giant oil tankers.

The Fourth Protocol

The Fourth Protocol centers on a secret plot by an element within the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB) to detonate a nuclear weapon near an American air base in England. Such an incident would benefit the far-left wing of the Labour Party and would undermine the very foundation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although the hero travels the globe to unravel the plot, the message is as important as is the hero. Through this novel, Forsyth poses chilling questions about British domestic politics, the stability of NATO, and nuclear weapons. He describes how to assemble a nuclear bomb; even more disturbing are Forsyth’s memoranda from Kim Philby regarding the Labour Party in British politics.

The Afghan

An outspoken opponent of the Iraq War and the Tony Blair government, Forsyth withheld his opinions in The Afghan, while portraying people, places, and events that adhere so closely to their real counterparts that the reader is forced to question whether Forsyth had inside information. Again, the style is such that the reader should ask: “Could this actually happen?”

Plots and Resolutions

The most significant element of the Forsyth formula is the plot. Each of his plots might be described as a jigsaw puzzle or as an intricate machine. Before assembly, each appears to be far too complex for anyone to make sense of it. To introduce his plots and subplots, Forsyth uses time reference to show parallel developments that are, at first, seemingly unrelated. In a Forsyth novel, there is always a hidden pattern governing the events, a pattern of which even the participants are unaware, yet Forsyth is able to interweave his persons, places, and events with his plot, at an ever-quickening pace, until the dramatic conclusion is reached. Adding to the drama is Forsyth’s habit of never neatly ending a story. There is always a piece or two left over, which adds an ironic twist to the ending.

As a writer, Forsyth should be remembered for his mastery of the historical thriller. His fiction is certainly popular literature, as sales figures have indicated, but is it great literature? Forsyth himself answers that question in self-deprecating fashion:I’m a writer with the intent of selling lots of copies and making money. I don’t think my work will be regarded as great literature or classics. I’m just a commercial writer and have no illusions about it.

His fiction, however, stands out from the typical products of its genre. Forsyth is greatly concerned about certain issues of the day and is informing readers while tantalizing them with a story. The discerning reader of Forsyth’s novels will learn about history and begin to understand the great issues of the post-World War II world. However, Forsyth is no moralizer, for, to him, there are no absolutes.


Frederick Forsyth Long Fiction Analysis