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Authentic Immediacy—A Tribute to the Political Fiction of Frederick Forsyth

Kevin Mims
Kevin Mims
12 min read

When the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR collapsed, one might have assumed that Cold War fiction would become irrelevant. That hasn’t turned out to be the case with Frederick Forsyth’s work. Consider, for instance, this passage from his 1979 novel, The Devil’s Alternative:

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics … despite its monolithic appearance from outside, has two Achilles heels. One is the problem of feeding its 250 million people. The other is euphemistically called “the nationalities question.” In the fifteen constituent republics ruled from Moscow … are several score identifiable non-Russian peoples, the most numerous and perhaps the most nationally conscious of whom are the Ukrainians. By 1982, the population of [Russia] numbered only 120 million out of the 250. Second in economic importance and population, with 70 million inhabitants, was the Ukrainian SSR, which is one reason why under Tsars and Politburo the Ukraine had always been singled out for special attention and particularly ruthless russification.

The Soviet Union is gone, but Russia, under the rule of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, remains determined to keep Ukraine from being free and independent. Forsyth’s novel, set in the USSR’s final decade, features a fictional Soviet Premier named Maxim Rudin, and offers a prescient overview of the long conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Forsyth notes that those Ukrainians who live east of the Dnieper River are more russified, having lived under Tsars for centuries. West Ukraine, he explains, “formed a part, successively, of Poland, Austria, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its spiritual and cultural orientation was and remains more Western than the rest of the region. … Ukrainians read and write with Roman letters, not Cyrillic script; they are overwhelmingly Uniate Catholics, not Russian Orthodox Christians. Their language, poetry, arts, and traditions predate the rise of the Rus conquerers who swept down from the north.”

During the Second World War, Ukrainian men of fighting age faced a dilemma. Some believed that fighting for Russia against the Nazis might encourage Stalin to grant them more autonomy after the war. “Others,” writes Forsyth, “mistakenly thought a free Ukraine would come through the defeat of Moscow by Berlin, and joined the Ukrainian Division, which fought in German uniform against the Red Army.” One of the main characters of The Devil’s Alternative is Andriy Drach, born in England after the war to a British mother and a Ukrainian father who had fought in the Ukrainian Division for Germany, was captured by British soldiers, and was eventually allowed to stay in England after the war. Drach will eventually Anglicize his name to Andrew Drake, but he will retain his father’s hatred of the Russians. Drake will encounter others of Ukrainian descent at university in London:

These were the late sixties, and the brief renaissance of Ukrainian literature and poetry back in the Ukraine had come and gone, its leading lights mostly by then doing slave labor in the camps of Gulag. So he absorbed these events with hindsight and knowledge of what had befallen the writers. He read everything he could get his hands on as the first years of the seventh decade dawned: the classics of Taras Shevchenko and those who wrote in the brief flowering under Lenin, suppressed and liquidated under Stalin. But mostly he read the work of those called “the Sixtiers” because they flourished for a brief few years until Brezhnev struck yet again to stamp out the national pride they called for. He read and grieved … his heart broke for a land he had never even seen.

Drake will spend the rest of the book trying to strike a mighty blow against Moscow in order to punish it for its domination of Ukraine.

It might seem odd to recommend a thriller by a British author as a source of information about the ancient enmity between Russia and the Ukraine, but Frederick Forsyth is no ordinary novelist and his books are not ordinary novels. Forsyth is so knowledgeable about so many things that his name appears all over Wikipedia, not just on pages dedicated to his works. For instance, if you look up the Novocherkassk Massacre you will learn that a 1962 strike by factory workers in that Russian town was ruthlessly put down by Soviet troops and KGB operatives, resulting in the deaths of dozens of workers, the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of others, and the execution, after a show trial, of seven more. The event was never reported by the Soviet press and was not officially acknowledged until several years after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In October 1962, Time magazine published a short article noting that rumors were circulating about a massacre in Novocherkassk, but the report was light on specifics. Wikipedia notes that the massacre has figured in only four works of fiction. Three of these are films, which were released in 2010, 2012, and 2020, respectively. The fourth work is The Devil’s Alternative, published in 1979. Forsyth’s description of events is fairly detailed, which is impressive considering that no official written account was made public until 13 years later. Forsyth is also mentioned in the Wikipedia entries for Simon Wiesenthal, the Nigerian Civil War, Charles de Gaulle, the French paramilitary group the OAS, and countless others. The Wikipedia entry for Forsyth’s 1974 novel The Dogs of War notes that, “In Ken Connor’s book How To Stage A Military Coup, the author praises The Dogs of War as a textbook for mercenaries.”

Last year, I contemplated writing an appreciation of Forsyth’s debut novel, The Day of the Jackal, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its publication in August 1971 by Viking Press (Hutchinson & Co. had published it a few months earlier in the UK). A fictional account of an attempt to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle, The Day of the Jackal is one of the most influential crime novels of all time. It was the fourth bestselling novel in America for both 1971 and 1972. I abandoned my essay—foolishly, as it turns out—because I figured there would be dozens of tributes to this classic piece of fiction in the New York Times and other legacy media publications, no doubt accompanied by interviews with and profiles of its ageing author. Curiously, this didn’t happen. Blame COVID-19, blame the busy news cycle, blame the fact that most contemporary book-review pages are probably edited by people too young to have been around in 1971, blame Forsyth’s conservative politics or his enthusiastic support of Brexit, blame the publicists at Penguin Random House... In any event, the book’s anniversary passed largely unnoticed.

The Day of the Jackal’s influence could be detected everywhere in the 1970s, and in just about every subsequent decade as well. Contemporary readers may assume that Forsyth’s protagonist was named after the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal (real name: Illich Ramirez Sanchez). In fact, it was the other way around. Sanchez, a Venezuelan, used only the code name Carlos. The media dubbed him the Jackal when a copy of Forsyth’s novel was found near his belongings. Even the era’s most wanted assassin seems to have looked to Forsyth’s book for pointers on his trade. Prior to the appearance of Forsyth’s novel, most crime writers didn’t bother to make themselves experts on guns. The weapons their fictional killers used were generally just described as pistols or revolvers or rifles or Derringers or Smith & Wessons and so on. But Forsyth’s assassin required a particular weapon—a rifle that would be accurate at long range but which could be broken down into small parts and shipped in a nondescript suitcase. The Day of the Jackal goes into great detail about how the gun is designed and bored and assembled and stabilized. This kind of almost fetishistic detail subsequently became more commonplace in the novels of great crime writers like Stephen Hunter and Lee Child, and in countless movies, such as The American, in which George Clooney portrays a Jackal-like assassin.

Other details from Forsyth’s novel were borrowed in countless books, TV shows, and films of the 1970s. The use of a dead person’s birth certificate to assume a fake identity came to be known as the “Day of the Jackal fraud,” because it was copied by so many other novelists and used (with various degrees of success) by numerous real-life fraudsters. Modern technology has rendered this ruse all but obsolete, but at the time that The Day of the Jackal was published, it was an ingenious and brilliantly effective scam. Likewise, after the novel’s publication, books about assassination attempts on famous historical figures like Hitler and Roosevelt and Stalin proliferated. Of course, novels about political assassination predated Forsyth’s book, and the killing of President John F. Kennedy renewed interest in this sub-genre of crime fiction. But the success of Forsyth’s novel (which is set in 1963, the year of Kennedy’s assassination) produced a new glut of memorable novels about political murder, including James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, Richard Condon’s Winter Kills, and Loren Singer’s The Parallax View, all of which were published in 1974.

Forsyth’s second novel, The Odessa File, was just as successful as his first (it opens on November 22nd, 1963, apparently a seminal date for Forsyth)—it became the third bestselling novel in America in 1972 and the fourth bestselling novel in 1973. It, too, provided a moniker for a real-life criminal at-large, an ex-Nazi named Eduardo Roschmann. Roschmann was responsible for the murders of tens of thousands of Jews (and others) in Latvia’s Riga Ghetto during World War Two. Forsyth uses Roschmann’s real name in the novel, but also dubs him “The Butcher of Riga,” a nickname that stuck. Forsyth consulted numerous experts on the subject of Germany’s Schutzstaffel (better known as the SS), including many former Nazis. He also consulted famed Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who wanted to force Roschmann (by then living in South American under an alias) out into the open. So, he helped Forsyth craft a description of Roschmann’s crimes in order to do so. They manufactured a few of Roschmann’s crimes out of whole cloth (for instance, the murder of a Wehrmacht officer at a Latvian shipyard) in the hope that his remaining friends would turn against him, or that Roschmann would register a written complaint about the libel to some newspaper or magazine, giving Wiesenthal a clue to his possible whereabouts. The ploy worked, sort of. Forsyth’s novel was turned into a 1974 film starring Jon Voight and (as Roschmann) Maximilian Schell, and Roschmann was eventually identified by someone who had seen the film. Alas, he managed to avoid capture again, but Forsyth’s novel at least helped to make his final years as a fugitive a hellish nightmare.

Thrillers about Nazis had already become a staple of English-language pop-fiction before World War II was even over. They proliferated like crazy after the war. Most of these were either straightforward adventure stories set during the 1930s and ’40s, or historical novels—like John Hersey’s The Wall and Leon Uris’s Mila 18—which dealt in a realistic fashion with the suffering brought about by the Nazi occupations of Poland, Denmark, The Netherlands, etc. The Odessa File was something else; something a little more disturbing to pop-fiction readers of the 1970s. It told a story about those Nazis who still dwelt among us. Forsyth made it clear that there were high-ranking Nazis living in exile under assumed names everywhere—South America, North America, Egypt, even in Spain and France and other European countries. What’s more he employed the so-called “false document” technique, giving his novel an extra layer of believability by embedding realistic looking documents—an Israeli intelligence officer’s report, an elderly Jew’s diary of his years in a Nazi concentration camp—into his book. He may not have invented these techniques but his book was so successful that it triggered a wave of variations on the same theme.

The years after the publication of The Odessa File brought us William Goldman’s 1974 thriller Marathon Man, Ira Levin’s 1976 novel The Boys From Brazil (with a dust jacket clearly intended to evoke the dust jacket of The Odessa File), Robert Ludlum’s 1978 book The Holcroft Covenant (until he invented Jason Bourne in 1980, Ludlum was largely a second-string Frederick Forsyth, turning out international thrillers that seemed to have been inspired by Jackal and Odessa), and many others. Even Stephen King’s novella Apt Pupil (collected in his 1982 book Different Seasons but written shortly after he completed The Shining in 1976), about a Los Angeles teenager who discovers that an old man of his acquaintance is a wanted Nazi war criminal, seems to have been inspired by Forsyth. Brian Moore’s 1995 novel The Statement, about a French collaborator who helped the Nazis exterminate Jews during the war, seems also to be a variation on The Odessa File. Jack Higgins’s novel The Eagle Has Landed (the sixth bestselling novel of 1975) appears to be a mash-up of both Jackal and Odessa. (I’m not sure how Forsyth felt about this homage, but he later named one of his villains Higgins, which suggests he may not have cared for it.)

Many of those later novels were quite good, but none of them achieved the authentic immediacy of Forsyth’s work. Most of today’s top thriller writers—Lee Child, Harlen Coben, John Grisham—produce pure escapism. Their books are fun, in part, because they are so preposterous. But Forsyth had a background in journalism. Before turning to fiction writing, he had been a reporter for Reuters and the BBC. In 1963, he covered an attempted assassination of Charles de Gaulle, which inspired his first novel. And in 1967, he covered the civil war between Nigeria and Biafra, an experience that informed his third novel, The Dogs of War (the sixth bestselling novel of 1974). His 1975 novella, The Shepherd, was informed by the years (1956–58) he served as a pilot in the RAF. He also claims to have worked with MI6 for 20 years, an experience that seems to have informed much of his work.

The authors who wrote the 10 bestselling novels of 1971 are all dead now, except for Forsyth. Most of them (Harold Robbins, James Michener, Arthur Hailey, etc.) have been gone for decades. In fact, with the deaths in recent years of John le Carré and Herman Wouk, no writer remains alive from any previous Publishers Weekly year-end list of America’s 10 bestselling novels. Richard Bach is two years older than Forsyth and still alive, but he didn’t make a Publishers Weekly list until 1972. Thus, Forsyth is now the grand old man of the PW year-end bestseller list.

And not only is he still alive, he is still writing. His most recent book, The Fox, was published in 2018 and deals with an unknown enemy who has managed to hack into the computers of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA. It has generated roughly 3,500 reader reviews at Amazon.com, the vast majority of them positive. Forsyth is one of only three bestselling authors who debuted on the PW list in the 1970s and is still active today. The other two—Ken Follett and Stephen King—were born in the 1940s. Forsyth was born in 1938. His body of work is impressive. By sheer numbers, he can’t compare with bestselling authors like James Patterson or Dean Koontz. He may have published “only” 24 books to date, but most of them are deeply researched and required years of development. He travels to locales important to his fiction and interviews people knowledgeable of the subjects he writes about.

His story collection The Veteran was published in September of 2001, which was unfortunate because, after 9/11, most Americans temporarily lost their appetite for fiction and spent their free time reading journalism instead. Prior to September 11th, few Americans had heard of the Taliban but, prophetically, the group is actually mentioned by name in a story (“The Citizen”) which appears in The Veteran. The group was so little mentioned in the West at that time that publishers hadn’t even settled on definitive spelling for it, but Forsyth was already well aware of them:

Far below lay the rugged land between Kabul and Kandahar. Away to the north in the mountains of the Panshir, the fanatical Taleban waged their war against Shah Masood, the last warlord to hold out against them. The passengers in the howling cocoon high above Afghanistan were shuttered against the blackness, the lethal cold, the engine noise, the cruel landscape and the war.

Forsyth’s oeuvre is more varied than most people probably realize. The Phantom of Manhattan (1999) was conceived as a sequel to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera (the two men have been friends ever since Webber scored Ronald Neame’s 1974 film adaptation of The Odessa File). The Deceiver (1991) was marketed as a novel, but it is actually a collection of four long espionage tales which first debuted as installments on Frederick Forsyth Presents, a series of British made-for-television films. The Shepherd is a supernatural Christmas fable. His story “The Miracle” incorporates a plague that hit Siena in 1540, the Second World War, and a horserace that takes place on July 2nd, 1975.

My favorite Forsyth tale is Whispering Wind, a 140-page novella that appears in The Veteran. This story goes through more permutations than any other Forsyth tale I have read. It starts out as a western novel and pretty much remains one until the end. But it also manages to satisfy the requirements of many other pop-fiction genres—the fantasy tale, the romance, the time-travel tale, the revenge tale, the chase story, etc. It is also a pretty good example of The Hero’s Journey, as defined by Joseph Campbell. Along the way, Whispering Wind also manages to evoke many popular American intellectual properties such as Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel Little Big Man, the 1977 Burt Reynolds action blockbuster Smokey and the Bandit, the 1979 film The Electric Horseman (starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda), the 1999 film Runaway Bride (with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere), and Craig Johnson’s series of Longmire mysteries. The tale is so cinematic—moving and thrilling in equal parts—that I can’t imagine why Hollywood hasn’t yet snatched it up.

Nowadays, serious literary authors seem to be writing mostly for their own academic colleagues, their novels set primarily in their own privileged slice of the socioeconomic pie. Meanwhile, authors of popular fiction seem to be writing ever-more fantastic tales which, even if they are ostensibly “realistic,” are populated by impossibly gifted FBI profilers and legal eagles and amateur crime fighters. The international scene and the world of realpolitik are as complex—and dangerous—as ever. We could use a dozen more Frederick Forsyths to help us make sense of it all. Whatever might be about to happen in Ukraine, Jack Reacher isn’t likely to be much use in explaining it to us.

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Kevin Mims is a freelance writer living in Sacramento, CA. His work has appeared in the New York Times, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Salon, and others.