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Forsyth, Frederick (1938—)

Forsyth, Frederick (1938—)

Frederick Forsyth shot to fame in America in 1971 as a top thriller writer with the publication of The Day of the Jackal, which dealt with the attempt by a hired killer, "the Jackal," to murder French president Charles de Gaulle. In it, Forsyth meticulously and precisely described how things worked, ranging from the construction of a special rifle to the last detail of the "procedure" the Jackal used to acquire his new passport, a style which was to be the hallmark of his books, a meticulous attention to realistic detail. In researching the book, Forsyth consulted a professional assassin, a passport forger, and an underground armourer. In later best-sellers he improvised car bombs (The Odessa File, 1972), gunrunning (The Dogs of War, 1974), the innards of oil tankers (The Devil's Alternative, 1979), and the assembly of miniature nuclear bombs (The Fourth Protocol, 1984). Icon (1996), a spine-chilling action thriller which deals with an ex-CIA agent returning to Moscow on the brink of anarchy, has been another in his long list of best-sellers. His popular appeal has been fueled by the blockbuster films made of his books. He has won the Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America twice.

Forsyth's books have been criticized for containing recipes for forged passports and explosive bullets. And some actual crimes have seemed to be copycats of crimes described in Forsyth's books. Some examples include: After Yigal Amir was arrested for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Israeli police searching his apartment found a copy of The Day of the Jackal among his Orthodox Jewish literature; John Stonehouse, former British labour minister, faked his death in Florida and began a new life in Australia with a new partner; when geophysicist Karen Reid was shot dead in May 1994, mercury bullets were found near the scene.

Forsyth's interests lay in the relationship of an individual to the organization. In his suspense thrillers, a man of action, a consummate professional, is pitted against an establishment, bureaucracy, or organization. The hero, a maverick who succeeds by cutting through standard procedure, often has difficulty in fitting into society. Forsyth suggests that it is the lone professionals, whether opposed to the organization or part of it, who truly create history, but a history which is only barely represented on the front pages of newspapers. His technique suggests a hidden pattern governing a great event, a pattern not always obvious even to the participants, much less to newspaper readers or devotees of CNN. It is a style very similar to a docudrama which was very popular in the American sixties with such books as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's experiments with fact and the novel form.

Forsyth was born in Ashford, Kent, in 1938 and educated at Tonbridge School where he studied French and German. He ended his formal education at the age of seventeen. His background as pilot, journalist, world traveller, and speaker of several languages has served him well in his writing career, where he employs a terse journalistic style using real people, places, and events. From 1958 to 1961 he was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press, first in Norwich and later in King's Lynn, Norfolk. In 1961, he was a Reuters correspondent travelling between Paris, London, and East Berlin, serving as bureau chief in the East German capital because of his knowledge of languages. Next he acted as a BBC radio reporter in London between 1965 and 1967, and as an assistant diplomatic correspondent for BBC television in 1967 and 1968, when he was recalled after his pro-Biafran coverage offended Sir David Hunt, British High Commissioner in Lagos.

Forsyth enjoys fishing in the streams on his leafy country estate in Hertfordshire where he lives with his second wife, Sandy, and two sons, Frederick and Shane. A serious angler who also enjoys the calm of fishing in the Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Andaman Sea, he says the plots of some of his best-sellers gel in his mind during hours of staring into space. He also says that the weirdest and loneliest job in the world is being a writer. An actor has a cast, a pilot has a crew, a doctor a patient, but a writer has only himself. His own life is reflected in the characters depicted in his nine thrillers and anthology of short stories, No Comebacks (1982). The effect he achieves is less that of fiction than a projection into real lives.

—Joan Gajadhar

—Jim Sinclair

Further Reading:

Atkins, John. The British Spy Novel: Studies in Treachery. London, Calder, 1984.

McCormick, Donald. Who's Who in Spy Fiction. New York, Taplinger, 1977.

Merry, Bruce. Anatomy of the Spy Thriller. Dublin, Gill & MacMillan, 1977.

Panek, LeRoy L. The Special Branch: The British Spy Novel, 1890-1980. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981.

Pate. The Book of Spies and Secret Agents. London, Gallery Press, 1978.

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