A while back I wrote this post about one of my favorite authors, Frederick Forsyth. As I said in that post, I greatly enjoy his books and consider him the father and master of the modern spy thriller. This fall Forsyth published his fourteenth novel, The Afghan, and I snapped up a copy eagerly. I saved it specifically for the vacation I took last week. Unfortunately it proved to be not entirely worth the wait.
Forsyth’s novels are based on real world issues and concerns. From the constant wars in Africa in The Dogs of War to the impact of the impending oil crisis in The Negotiator to political assassination in the classic The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth has always mixed the real with a little fictional “what if this happened?” to create plausible situations and consequences. In The Afghan, Forsyth takes on the very relevant issue of terrorism and islamic extremism. True to his past books, Forsyth has obviously spent some time researching his topic. He paints a very disturbing but somewhat clinical picture of the manipulation of the Islamic faith by those with their own agenda to create the kind of hatred we seem to witness daily on the news. He takes pains to point out that true Islam does not advocate the killing of innocent people, among other teachings that are being conveniently ignored by terrorists who preach total intolerance of anything not within their ‘faith’. It also briefly examines the past 9/11 world of intelligence gathering, and how that horrific event changed how nations work together in an effort to not allow it to be repeated. A very compelling and relevant world in which to stage his story. Sadly he does not dig too deeply into the roots of terrorism and it’s twisting of Islam, but merely glances at it to establish the base of his tale.
Forsyth’s books are somewhat of an acquired taste. Some people have a hard time getting past the highly detailed descriptions of geography, social and political situations, historical references and all those foreign names. I find these fascinating and have no problem with these attributes in his novels. In fact the meticulous research of relevant topics and sweeping descriptions of far away places bring a gritty reality to his stories. His roots in war journalism have always been on display in his writings, and The Afghan is no different.
In The Afghan, British and American intelligence hear whispers about a major operation by the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, but can discover no details other than there is something in the works, it’s big and it’s on the horizon. Forsyth’s “What If?” scenario is this: “What if we could plant a spy in the midst of Al Qaeda?” By a unique set of circumstances, British army colonel Mike Martin is capable of looking, speaking and passing as an Afghanistan native and is planted to take the place of a trusted former Taliban commander who has been a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay for five years. Arrangements are made for this man’s trial, and extradition to Afghanistan. Before which Matrin replaces him and his “escape’ is orchestrated once in Afghanistan, allowing Martin to enter the middle east in his new identity and seek to discover details of the secret terrorist plan. A promising premise that does not live up to it’s potential for one big, unforgivable reason.
I have few rules about books. Most deal with giving me either characters I care about or a story plot that keeps me interested (preferably both) so I want to turn the page and see what happens next. Beyond that I can forgive a lot. There is, however, one rule I absolutely have for any book that expects me to believe it takes place in the real world… there can only be one total suspension of disbelief. In other words, one situation arising that is implausible or improbable is acceptable, but not two or more. Not if the author intends me to regard the book as a real world possibility as opposed to pure fantasy. Forsyth soundly breaks this rule at least twice, and more if you count the fallout from the second incident. The fact that, unbeknownst to his employers, Mike Martin knows the man he is to replace from an encounter earlier in his life, and that encounter proves pivotal to his passing as the man later is so astronomically against the odds as to be almost impossible. That’s the one I can forgive. However the circumstances of the replaced man’s escape from an extreme remote CIA hideaway and the outrageous events that extend his freedom are so improbable as to be totally unbelievable. Winning the lottery is more likely that what we are presented with at his point in the book. Without revealing any further spoilers, this unfortunate part of the plot had me literally rolling my eyes. It smacks of the author wanting to find a way to set the prisoner free to add tension to the story and taking a lazy, easy and convenient path for that to happen with no regard for it’s believability. In a book of this genre, it’s a flaw that sticks out like a sore thumb, and is hard to get past. When this event took place, it distracted me from the rest of the story, and I never recovered. That was a shame,for although the story is a very quick read it is full of the Forsyth touches and methods that make his writing so enjoyable… interwoven storylines that act like fuses, all burning towards the same disaster if allowed to continue.
This is the first Forsyth book that disappointed me. Perhaps he has just set the bar so high it’s impossible to live up to, but with all the other elements in place this large plot improbability took it’s toll on my enjoyment of the book. It’s still worth the read for the glimpses into terrorism and the world’s sane countries efforts to keep it at bay, but only after Forsyth’s other thirteen books have been thoroughly enjoyed.
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