In his early novels Forsyth achieved a well- deserved renown by introducing fierce documentary detail into the unreal world of the thriller. The Day of the Jackal slid a meticulous assassin through the keyhole of French history, and followed his pursuit of De Gaulle with impressive sang-froid (so much so that we were disappointed when reality intruded at the end, when he missed - just because normal history had to be resumed). Along the way, readers could pick up interesting tips on how to fabricate a bogus passport, how to stash a gun in an exhaust pipe and so on. We had to invent a new accolade: from now on the best thing to be was frighteningly plausible.
The Odessa File performed a similar trick: a sharp journalist infiltrated the secret Nazi organisation to track down a war criminal. And even The Devil's Alternative felt like a report on the arms race by someone who was actually at the match. Blockbuster followed blockbuster on Forsyth's multiple plot- launcher; all of them wildly implausible yet close to an oddly pure ideal of fiction: these were books that told whopping lies and pretended they were true.
No one could blame Forsyth for ploughing so promising a furrow again, but this time his blade has stuck in the mud. His overfondness for virile factual data puts a heavy load on an ordinary plot. Perhaps because he adores the glamour of tough soldiers lugging enormous packs across the desert, he shoulders too much. The novel wants to yomp, but the weight of technical detail keeps bringing it to its knees. At least half the book feels like a straightforward account of the war, and we end, astonishingly, with a brief, embarrassing leading article about the hazards of war and the 'full panoply of Western technical wizardry'.
This ought not to matter; Forsyth writes fiction for people who prefer non-fiction: they are part of that cult of authenticity which prefers the real world, however made up, to an imaginary one, however truthful. James Bond had Q to give him fancy gadgets (Oh do pay attention, double-oh-seven), but Forsyth prefers to quote the manual. Characters communicate over satellites held in geosynchronous positions; in the desert they use - what else? - a hand- held SATNAV positioner.
The typical paragraph goes: 'Backing up the AWACS was another Boeing 707 conversion, the E8-A, known as J-STARS, which did for movements on the ground what AWACS did for movements in the air. With its big Norden radar scanning downwards and sideways, so it could cover Iraq without ever entering Iraqi airspace, the J-STAR could pick up almost any piece of metal that began to move.'
Leaving aside the foolish thought that the J- STAR sounds like a superior sort of airborne Hoover, perfect for picking up Iraqi drawing pins stuck behind the sofa, we have to marvel at this uncompromising way with proper nouns. The book hums with acronyms which whine like distant engines: CIA, HARP, DCI, JP-233, NSC, KH-11, KH-12, ENPIC, SAM missile, HARM missile, SOAS, NRO, SAS, GCHQ, TAC, F-15, F-18, T-37, T-38, AMAM, F-117A, KA-6D, LGBs, TARPS, JARIC, EMIS and TIALD - that's the Thermal Imaging and Laser Designator, you fool.
Characters tool around in USAF E-3 Sentry AWACS, Tomcats, Hornets, F-14 Tomcats, Intruders, Prowlers, Avengers, Hawkeyes and fire off Sidewinders, Sparrows, Sams or Patriots. Nearly everything seems to be powered by Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220 turbojets.
It is not, perhaps, one for the ladies. There is a lingering seduction, pursued for espionage reasons by a handsome Israeli agent, but the deceived woman hangs herself as soon as she learns the truth - there's women for you. Oh, and there's a Mata Hari-style whore who is movingly raped and murdered by the Baghdad top brass. Otherwise, the book parades the accoutrements of masculine warrior life: men who sleep rough, rise at dawn to wash and shave, and eat and drink nothing except a few olives and cheese and a sip of water; they have a flawless command of languages and move through pages finely flavoured with senior wines and expensive hotels. It's like a high-octane American Express advertisement. You almost expect to hear Terence Conran pop up to explain that the SAS card is accepted in over a thousand destinations, and that you're always assured of a hot welcome. SAS? That'll do nicely.
The fact remains, however, that Forsyth pushes his characters to the verge of non-fiction in an interesting way. For one thing, it is hard to see the joins; there are some obviously made-up characters (such as the mad Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein, or the legendary warrior-queen Mrs Thatcher) sharing the limelight with real-life heroes such as Mike Martin, SAS commando extraordinaire. But too often the documentary aspects feel tacked- on. Characters give each other potted lectures or ask dim questions, or deliver swift summaries to jog things along. Now let me get this straight, they say, you mean that the isotope 235 is already in the separation centrifuges . . . but that means they'll have a wafer of bomb- grade uranium by Christmas? Holy Fist of God]
Perhaps the truly unsettling thing is that the adventure - a secret mission, a lone hero at large in Iraq - is hardly more implausible than the war itself, than all those missiles and navigational devices and uranium centrifuges, than all those fighter pilots blazing over the Gulf. Still, the good news is we don't have to crash out and read it immediately. For a while, at least, we can give sanctions time to bite.Reuse content