New Tricks by an Old Dog of War

September 4th, 2006 | Posted in General

I don’t get much time to read, and when I do it’s a luxury I am grateful for. I do listen to a lot of audiobooks in the studio, at least at certain phases of a job, but the actual cracking of a book is mainly reserved for vacations, long flights and the occasional (and highly rare) downtime. I while ago I wrote about Stephen King, and how he is one of the authors I most enjoy reading and listening to his work on audiobook. Another author who falls into that category for me is Fredrick Forsyth.

Forsyth is considered one of (if not THE) masters of the international espionage genre. Authors like Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Clive Cussler are cut from his cloth. I was introduced to Forsyth’s work in a very odd manner… through the Franklin Mint! When I married my wife, Anna, her fabulous credit rating wasn’t the only bonus. She also had belonged to the Franklin Mint Book Club, and had a terrific collection of leather bound hardcovers of classic novels. I was perusing them one day to find something to read and came across a book called “The Day of the Jackal” by Forsyth. The story was a fictional (obviously) account of an assassin’s attempt to kill French president Charles de Gaulle. The book was spellbinding, taking the reader on a journey across Europe following in meticulous detail the intricate arrangements of the assassin and the French investigator hot on his heels. Forsyth’s skills in investigative journalism served him well in crafting this tale, which builds and maintains high tension because of rather than despite delving into minute detail on steps like the obtaining of a fake passport, the securing of the assassination weapon and other micro-details that might read like a boring and dry textbook in the hands of another author. Forsyth uses these accurate minutiae to involve the reader deep into the process while his exacting descriptions of Europe transports them into the shadowy world of the assassin. Despite the intense detail, surprises abound until the assassination scene when the reader finally discovers how the assassin intends to kill de Gaulle and get away clean.

Forsyth himself has led a fascinating life. An Englishman born in Kent in 1938, Forsyth was educated at Tonbridge and Granda University in Spain. As a young man he was, among other things, an apprentice bullfighter and at 19 one of the youngest fighter pilots in the history of the British Royal Air Force. He began a career in journalism in 1958 for a small paper in Norfolk, where he worked as a reporter until leaving for Reuters in 1961 for whom he worked as a correspondent in Paris, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. Returning to England in 1965 he became a radio and TV reporter for the BBC. He was a diplomatic correspondent for the BBC for a time, until he went to Africa to cover the Biafra-Nigerian war in 1967. There he became familiar with the world of international politics, warfare and mercenary soldiers… subjects that would become integral parts of future books. He left the BBC in 1968 amid allegations he falsified parts of his reports in favor of the Biafran cause. He returned as a freelance reporter and later used his experiences for his first book “The Biafra Story”. “The Day of the Jackal” was actually his second book, published in 1973. He has written 18 books in total, including two collections of short stories (three if you count “The Deceiver”).

I have not read all his books, but I intend to. The ones I have read have been terrific, and as far as I am concerned Forsyth is head and shoulders above others in the espionage-thriller genre. I also enjoy Robert Ludlum’s work (author of many books including the “Bourne” novels). I think Ludlum comes very close to Forsyth’s ability to transport the reader to another place with his rich descriptions of foreign locations and cities. He cannot match Forsyth’s attention to detail, however, nor his crisp narrative. Tom Clancy’s books I’ve never been able to get into. They read like techno babble to me, and this slavish attention to technological elements derail his promising stories. No, Forsyth’s work is unequalled in my opinion.

Why am I writing about Forsyth? For two reasons. First, I just listened to the audiobook of “The Dogs of War”, his 1974 novel about a British mining company that hires a group of mercenary soldiers to pull of a coup in a small African country and insert a compliant new president in order to cheaply secure the mining rights to a rich source of platinum in said country. I’d read the book before (I can only listen to audiobooks I have already read when working in the studio), but I had forgotten how riveting this book is. Taken from Forsyth’s experiences with mercenaries in Biafra, it paints a detailed picture of their world and lifestyle. Similar to “The Day of the Jackal”, “The Dogs of War” describes each of the steps of both the mining company and the mercenaries as they negotiate through a 100 day countdown to their strike in Africa. As in all Forsyth books the characters are interesting and the dialogue engaging. Unfortunately there are few unabridged Forsyth novels on audiobook. I only have “Avenger” and “The Dogs of War”. I understand “The Odessa File” and “No Comebacks” are also unabridged. I’ll have to get them.

The second reason is that Forsyth has a new book out just a week or so ago. “The Afghan” is described as combining the Forsyth mastery of espionage, international intrigue, and suspense with today’s headlines. The story has to do with infiltrating Al Qaeda by an undercover operative in order to stop a major operation U.S. and British intelligence have gotten wind of. Sounds promising. I have no idea when I’ll get a chance to read it, but I’m looking forward to it. At 68, it’s great that Forsyth is still writing, and that his subject matter has evolved to be relevant to the times. I heartily recommend his work to anyone. Start with “The Day of the Jackal”… and enjoy.


  1. Bob Byrne says:

    Jackal sucked me in when I was 19 and I have read most of his work since, I’m sure by now you have read The Afghan. I couldn’t believe how crap it was, there was no twist and a few pointless set ups in it. I think he phoned that one in. I was really disappointed as I had it reserved for vacation reading

    Let’s not talk about some of the film adaptations…..


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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