Frederick Forsyth’s return after a fiction hiatus of five years sees his thriller The Fox published before it’s really ready. It seems rushed, for reasons I’ll go into soon, and is sadly unsatisfactory, and I believe the blame can be shared equally between Mr Forsyth and the publisher.
The publisher should do better. The list of books by Forsyth is impressive, with The Outsider following on from The Kill List, below which are two Non-fiction books listed, The Biafra Story and Emeka. Don’t Bantam Press know that The Outsider is non-fiction, being his autobiography?
The story is about a young British man, Luke Jennings, with Asperger’s Syndrome who has hacked into the US security system. Together with his family (mother, father, brother) he is arrested and they're sequestered in a safe place in England. Rather than prosecute him, both the Americans and the British decide to make use of his considerable gifts to tilt the balance of power – to interfere with Russian, North Korean and Chinese computer-linked weapons systems.
Forsyth’s page-turning ability is apparent as he peppers the story with facts and details about the clandestine and political world, even including most recent events, such as the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury and the summit meetings with North Korea. As usual, Forsyth employs his omniscient third person narrative, creating that immediacy of a reporter viewing events unfolding. Unfortunately, that technique here leaves little room for emotion. In truth, I felt that the book reads more like a film treatment than a novel; it was all tell, tell, tell and not much show.
It’s a quirk of mine, but I find it annoying when a character is referred to in two different ways. The putative hero is Sir Adrian Weston. Most of the time, we get Adrian or Sir Adrian. But then he drops in Weston. Bond was always Bond; end of.
The utilisation of Luke is serious wishful thinking, breaking down foreign firewalls virtually at the drop of a hat. Luke’s technical shepherd who directs the lad’s hacking activities is Jeremy Hendricks, who (to tick a box) ‘was gay but made no mention of it, choosing a quiet life of celibacy’ (p13).
Hendricks is an example of poor characterisation. We don’t really get to know Sue Jennings, Luke’s mother, or even Luke, ‘The Fox’ for that matter. We learn a little about Sir Adrian, even delving beneath his skin. But that’s all. The majority of characters – and there are over 30 listed (with organizations too) beginning on p303 – are ciphers. There is no emotional content, so as a reader I didn’t experience any tension when threats were described to silence Luke. Really, Luke is the main character, the reason for the story, Hitchcock’s McGuffin, yet he does not come alive, so then the threat of his death falls flat: it should create concern at least.
Since reading the book, I’ve looked at the reviews. They fall into two categories: excellent thriller, couldn’t put it down and the obverse, highly disappointing with a cop-out ending. I regret to concur with the naysayers.
I was fascinated to read about a sleeper agent: ‘The agent … masqueraded as a shopkeeper in the West End of London whose British name was Burke. His real name was Dmitri Volkov.’ (p73)
In my Tana Standish psychic spy novel Mission: Tehran (originally published 2009, re-published 2017) states:
Yuri – cover-name Neil Tomlinson – had hired the light cargo aircraft for the day and filed all the flight-plan papers at the nearby airport. He landed in a field a couple of miles away from Fenner House and picked up ‘agent Burke’.
Lieutenant Aksakov had already concealed the Escort behind a hedge and a cluster of trees and thrown the blonde wig and business clothes into the boot.
She was wearing the more familiar hard-wearing green cotton tunic and trousers. For this mission she’d left behind in the car’s boot her water flask, the folding stock version of the Kalashnikov automatic AKM, three hundred 7.62mm rounds and the P351-M radio set with scrambling and high-speed transmission apparatus. The vehicle was detonated to explode should she be unable to retrieve it. Instead, she carried her spring-loaded knife, spare blades, a Makarov pistol and thirty-two rounds. Six grenades and plastic explosive completed her weapons load. (p184)
Glossary: Burke - Code-name chosen because Aksakov specialised in throttling people without leaving a trace and this transitive verb stems from a nineteenth century murderer’s name. (p275)
There are a few instances where an editor should have intervened; here are just two of them.
1) ‘Though he was more than ten years older than the man at Yasenevo, he had noted the rising star of the SVR when he had been deputy chief of MI6.’ (p90) Of course the rising star of the SVR wasn’t in MI6, though that is the implication here. It should have read ‘Though he was more than ten years older than the man at Yasenevo, when he had been deputy chief of MI6 he had noted the rising star of the SVR.’
2) ‘Under the Shah, Israel had little to fear from Iran…’ (p170) Of course the Shah was never the head of state of Israel. Perhaps it should have read: ‘Under the Shah, Iran posed little threat to Israel…’