Magazine article The Spectator

Old Tricks from the Old Dog

Magazine article The Spectator

Old Tricks from the Old Dog

Article excerpt

THE VETERAN by Frederick Forsyth Bantam, L16.99, pp. 367 ISBN 059304892X

There comes a time in the career of many a male thriller writer when stylisation - that ominous thickening of the creative arteries - can no longer be kept at bay. With Frederick Forsyth it came at about the time of The Negotiator, his novel about the kidnapping of a US president's son, and its symptom was a determination to make whatever happened in his books entirely subordinate to the way in which it happened. Juggernauts of plot rolled forward, character diminished into the blandest stereotypes, and what remained without turning too highbrow over some tip-top examples of mass entertainment was a series of exercises in pure form: the chap's action novel stripped down to a few essential components and betraying its procedural secrets with an almost shameless zest.

How does Mr Forsyth get away with it? How does he continue to sell millions of copies of books whose characters are as flat as pancakes, whose situations could be exploded by two minutes' thought and not a sentence of whose dialogue convinces for more than a few seconds? The answer lies in his ability - a rare talent that most Booker winners would give their eye teeth for - to convey the illusion of expertise. Nothing in a novel succeeds like nous. The Day of the Jackal, a preposterous but endlessly rereadable book, told you, among other things, how to forge a passport and fashion a new identity. No one who read it could doubt that Forsyth had the protocols of presidential assassination absolutely at his fingertips and that, given a sniper's rifle and the appropriate funding, could have brought the job off himself.

All that was 30 years ago. Presidential assassinations, Nazi-hunting (The Odessa File) and African mercenary operations (The Dogs of War) have given way to the present quintet of 'tall stories': brisk little conceits or incidents that in lesser hands would dry up in a dozen pages or so but which Forsyth's narrative guile has no trouble in fleshing out to, in some cases, novella length. Wildly distant in time and locale (contemporary north London backstreets, long-haul flight, Custer-era Wild West), each fairly bristles with insider intelligence and the thought of long hours in the library.

Curiously, the title story, in which an upmarket barrister grandly subverts a murder trial to exact his own private revenge on the suspects, is the least characteristic: police procedural, after all, is police procedural, although Forsyth shows his usual trademark touch in the matter of surgical techniques. …

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