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Tuesday 21 March 2017

Book review - The Veteran

Frederick Forsyth’s collection of five stories, The Veteran (2001) is definitely worth reading. [Beware that there is a single story with this title on offer too, and some readers have been caught out by this.]

If you haven’t read his breakout novel The Day of the Jackal (1971) or any of his other works, you might not appreciate his writing style. He’s an ex-journalist, so his tales – long and short – are mostly ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ from a writing perspective. That doesn’t matter, however, as he’s an engrossing storyteller (that is, not a storyshower!)

Whatever profession he writes about – the law, espionage, customs and excise, piloting an airbus etc. – he provides a wealth of insider information that puts you there. It’s as if we’re reading a slightly intimate documentary.
‘The Veteran’ is about an old soldier who is mugged on the street in London. The police are fortunate: they have an eye-witness and soon arrest the alleged culprits, who are to be defended by the lawyer Slade at the expense of the tax-payers. It looks like an open-and-shut case; they’ll get banged up for some years, at least. And then a high-flying barrister gets wind of the case and offers his services pro bono. Although the subject matter is grim, we’re given plenty of amusing authorial asides, too: ‘… two local men who were “helping the police with their inquiries.” This is one of those much-used phrases comparable with hospital bulletins that describe people in absolute agony as being “comfortable”. It means the opposite and everyone knows it.’ (p34) Forsyth’s writing, despite being omniscient, generates anger at the thugs who attack the old man and evokes frustration at the slipperiness of practitioners of law. This is an excellent twist-ending story.

‘The Art of the Matter’ was previously published as a single Original story (2000), the title playing on words. We soon get to the heart of the matter when we realise that the impecunious bit-part actor Mr Gore and the knowledgeable art assistant Benny Evans are taken for a ride by the duplicitous Peregrine Slade at the auction firm of House of Darcy. Here, too, we have an artwork blurb being broken down into layman’s terms: ‘… would include phrases like “charming”, meaning “if you like that sort of thing”, or “unusual”, meaning “he must have done this after a very heavy lunch”.’ (p95) There must have been a fixation on the surname ‘Slade’ since this also features that moniker. A superb twist-ending con artist scam story.

‘The Miracle’ takes place in Siena in 1975 during the famous horse race. (The Stewart Grainger 1962 film The Swordsman of Siena depicts this well, in colour!) Two American tourists are accosted by a stranger who relates a compelling and poignant tale of the siege of the city at the close of the Second World War, and the miracle that occurred in the courtyard where they find themselves. This is virtually all narrative from the stranger, interspersed with journalistic descriptive observation of the horse race that has no bearing on the tale. I found this moving yet ultimately unsatisfactory; the ending left me feeling cheated, as one might feel when a tyro writer ends with ‘and then I woke up, it was all a dream’. A magical story, spoiled by a cynical manipulative ending. (It would have worked with a double-twist ending, I reckon…)

‘The Citizen’ gives us an insight into the life of an airbus pilot and a Customs officer. The twist ending didn’t quite work, I felt, as the author had blatantly misdirected the reader with one character. Interesting, nevertheless.

The fifth story is a novella, ‘Whispering Wind’ and this too was published separately as an Original single (2000). Forsyth tells us about frontier scout Ben Craig, 24, who survived the massacre of the Little Bighorn on 25 June, 1876. Intriguing. It begins realistically enough, with in-depth reportage of the events leading up to Custer’s defeat, introducing Ben, who witnesses the indiscriminate slaughter of an undefended Indian village. Ben is instrumental in saving the life of a squaw, Wind That Talks Softly. Forsyth’s realisation of the situation, his description of the cavalry and the characters is, as you’d expect, well researched. It would be unfair to relate more, save that though history tells us that there were no survivors at the battle, Ben survived to live another day – and that phrase is significant, as the tale has fantasy elements. This is a bitter-sweet love story, handled with aplomb, and is suspenseful right up to the end. Worth the purchase price of the book on its own.

If you like short stories, these fit the bill. If you prefer longer pieces, then ‘Whispering Wind’ will serve very well.

Since this release Forsyth has published four more novels and an autobiography.

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