Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Frederick Forsyth, Modern Master

Nobody, and I mean nobody, weaves a plot like Frederick Forsyth. He's one of the reasons I think British thriller writers are better than American, and not because of his extreme, almost zealous, attention to details, but because he layers plot points like no other author I can think of, and, unlike his American counterparts, doesn't have to spice his narrative with shoot outs, car chases, or exposed girl parts, to keep a reader interested. He's plot and story, meat and potatoes, and if you want something on the side, you need to look elsewhere.

I'm late to the Forsyth party. I understand he's far past his heyday of the '70s and '80s, but he still turns out good work, and his classics are still very readable. In this example, I am talking about The Fourth Protocol, which was written in 1984. It was the first Forsyth book I read, around 1988, I think, when I was in 6th grade and had just discovered Ian Fleming. Since Forsyth seemed like the modern equivalent, I gave him a try, but my comprehension levels at that age were not what they are today, and I could barely keep up. I thought the movie was better, because it eschewed most of the intricate plotting in favor of car chases, shoot outs, and exposed girl parts. Today, it is the opposite. From Icon to Avenger to Protocol (those are the books I've read so far), Forsyth delivers the goods.

The plot of Protocol features a renegade KGB operation to detonate a small nuke in the UK in order to influence a coming election. That alone sounds like a nice 60,000 word paperback potboiler or 90-minute B-movie, but try doubling that length to get the scope of the story. Forsyth provides great details on the workings of MI5 and MI6, who are tasked with tracking down the KGB agent assigned to the mission. You get the feeling that if something like this actually happened, this is how the British would solve the problem. We get tangents that don't seem to have anything to do with the main plot, but are actually critical to the outcome, and I wish I could describe how Forsyth weaves it all together. With some of those tangents, their relation to the rest of the book isn't revealed until the very last page. And then it hits you like a sledgehammer--you never see the twist coming. It's like looking at a master's painting. You can see what was done, but you have no idea how to duplicate it or even explain to a bystander why it's as amazing as it is. Those of us who know, though, and recognize a true craftsman, can appreciate the end result and be envious of how the master created the piece. And, maybe, someday, we'll be that good too. He is worth not only reading for entertainment, but for how to get better as a writer.

Not that he doesn't have flaws. Most of Forsyth's characters are ciphers. We know very little about them, they have very little, even minor, characterization, yet somehow, despite that, he hooks you. The characters really don't matter, they could be anybody, but he gives them names so we can tell them somewhat apart. It's the story that grabs you, and how Forsyth connects all the dots, and the details of how spies work, that makes these books rise above. If he were writing straight potboilers, the effect would not be the same.

I don't think Forsyth could sell today, at least to the Big 5. There are 100 reasons his books shouldn't work, but they do work, and work well indeed. We can be glad he started when he did, and thankful that his long-established fan base keeps him in print and in business.

Anyway I'm enjoying his books a lot, and he's still alive and kicking, so maybe we'll get a few more. Up next is The Day of The Jackal, his first, and I'm sure it will deliver the goods too.


  1. What a writer and what a library of work. Thanks Brian!

  2. I got two more of his books for my birthday so I can't wait to read more!