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Definition: Forsyth, Frederick from Chambers Biographical Dictionary


♦ English writer

Born in Ashford, Kent, he was educated at Tonbridge School, Kent. He served in the RAF and later became a journalist. His reputation rests on three taut suspense thrillers, The Day of the Jackal (1971, filmed 1973), The Odessa File (1972, filmed 1974) and The Dogs of War (1974, filmed 1980), meticulously researched and precisely plotted. Others include The Fourth Protocol (1984, filmed 1987), The Fist of God (1993), Icon (1996), The Phantom of Manhattan (1999), Avenger (2003) and The Afghan (2006). He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Summary Article: Forsyth, Frederick
From Continuum Encyclopedia of British Literature

One of the foremost writers of the political thriller, Frederick established his reputation in the 1970s with three novels, The Day of the Jackal (1971), The Odessa File (1972), and The Dogs of War (1974). He had written a work of nonfiction, The Biafra Story (1969), and has written six works (including a collection of short stories) since but none of them quite match up to the early “classics.” Like all thrillers that are popular and sell (more than thirty million copies have been sold), Frederick’s books follow a well-conceived and constructed formula. The central character is a loner working against a system or government. Of course, there are variations within this bald framework. The Jackal plans to assassinate Charles de Gaulle in keeping with right-wing colonist (Algerian) politics, and therefore represents a threat to the status quo. Peter Miller in The Odessa File uncovers and tracks down a former SS concentration camp commandant and in the process comes up against the ruthless Odessa who protect former Nazis. Cat Shannon is a mercenary who works for a corporation that wishes to engineer a coup in an African state. The protagonist is well organized, has an excellent knowledge of varied fields, and is a thorough professional. This specialized expertise is often reflected in technical narrative that is steeped in detail such as the construction of a special rifle or gunrunning. Detail, whether technical, political, or organizational, creates the illusion of verisimilitude, an authentication of often bizarre plots and contrived endings. Frederick’s emphasis on detail is reminiscent of Ian FLEMING’s similar obsession with the “solidity of specification.” It is a characteristic common to the thriller and Frederick’s phenomenal success is testimony to his ability to write a riveting tale.

The Day of the Jackal encapsulates the best of Frederick’s writing: meticulously plotted and building up to a thrilling climax as Commissioner Claude Lebel thwarts the Jackal’s plan. There is an air of truth apparent about the whole narrative and this is heightened by the contrast between the professional and the amateur. Frederick contrasts the professional assassin with an OAS terrorist, the professional detective with political appointees. This dichotomy is common to the narrative and ideological construction of the thriller and has numerous parallels in Fleming. Thus, only Lebel, a professional, can catch a fellow professional and re-validate the power of the state by saving de Gaulle. The Day of the Jackal is Frederick’s best-known book and was made into a successful film in 1973 with Edward Fox as the Jackal.

The Dogs of War is Forsythian in its attention to detail and careful plotting. The fictional state of Zangaro with its huge platinum deposits becomes the focus of corporate desire. Sir James Manson, a corporate tycoon, hires Cat Shannon, a mercenary, to engineer a coup and place a pliable ruler amenable to the exploitation of Zangaro’s resources. At one level, the book is a representation and critique of multinational corporations and their vast greed. Sir James declares “Knocking off a bank or an armored truck is merely crude. Knocking off an entire republic has, I feel, a certain style.” Shannon, the narrative indicates, is not the only mercenary for Sir James, and his henchmen Simon Endean and Martin Thorpe are equally men without moral scruples. Simultaneously, the book elides certain problems regarding mercenaries and tends to make them heroes. This could be related to Frederick’s experiences as a journalist in Biafra and his support for a coup in Equatorial Guinea in the 1970s. What is more disturbing is the representation of Africa and its inhabitants. Africa is like an addiction:

“For Africa bites like a tsetse fly, and once the drug is in the blood it can never be wholly exorcised.” In many ways, Cat prefers the harsh simplicity of Africa to the urbane hypocrisies of Europe (but like a good Westerner he is at home in both worlds). Yet Cat’s observations on arrival in Zangaro are stereotypical and racialized: “Long ago in the Congo he had seen the same attitude, the blank eyed sense of menace conveyed by an African of almost primeval cultural level, armed with a weapon, in a state of power, wholly unpredictable, with reactions to a situation that were utterly illogical, ticking away like a moving time bomb.” Prior to this scene, we are told that the Consul is illiterate and corrupt. The Africans in this book (such as they are) have no voice and the subtext of the representation is that although the country is mesmerizing it has not progressed much beyond an original state of barbarism.

The amateur-professional divide is present here in a specifically gendered context. Sir James’s daughter, Julie, sleeps with and falls in love with Shannon. As in the earlier novels, Frederick presents women in subordinate and sexualized roles. The specifically male orientation of the mercenary and the narrative is evident: “There would be, Shannon knew, no other woman in his arms. Just a gun, the cool comforting caress of the blue steel against his chest in the night.” Shannon is at least gentler than the Jackal who kills the woman he has sex with before he sets out to kill de Gaulle. Frederick’s subsequent novels, The Shepherd (1975), The Devil’s Alternative (1979), The Fourth Protocol (1984), The Negotiator (1989), and Icon (1996), all display trademark plotting, the seamless combination of fact and fiction, conflict between an individual and an organization, the amateur-professional divide, and ability to tell a good tale. These qualities are also evident in No Comebacks (1982), a collection of ten short stories. The collection offers sharp, delightful stories with occasional glitches. “There Are No Snakes in Ireland” has an Indian medical student in Ireland as its protagonist and displays an uncharacteristic lack of research on Frederick’s part. He exoticizes India (in keeping with a long tradition of British fiction) and basic factual errors are overlooked. This is surprising for an author who prides himself on the accuracy of his “factions.” Icon is testimony to Frederick’s prolific output and ability to update himself. The plot centers on the theft of the Black Manifesto, a neo-Nazi document written by Igor Komarov, the president-in-waiting in chaotic, mafia-ridden Russia. While Komarov plots and kills to regain the Manifesto, Western powers set about thwarting him. Jason Monk, ex-CIA operative, returns to Russia to fight Komarov with the aid of Nigel Irvine (ex-master British spy runner) and a Chechen ganglord whose life he had saved years ago in Aden. Icon is comparable to John Le CARRÉ’s Russia House although it lacks the complex insights of the latter. The end of history rhetoric and triumphalism are particularly jarring but do not overly impinge on the sheer pleasure of reading a well-crafted, well-paced thriller. In the final analysis, Frederick is the master craftsman of political thrillers and his phenomenal sales and longevity are testimony to his continuing popularity.

Bibliography Macdonald, A. F., “F. F.,” in Benstock, B., ed., British Mystery and Thriller Writers since 1940, First Series, DLB 87 (1989): 125–35

Subarno Chattarji

© 2006 The Continuum International Publishing Group, Ltd