Frederick Forsyth, as he would be first to admit, is not a writer of great literary merit: he is not Steinbeck, he is not Updike, he is not Hemmingway. He is not Gore Vidal, with whom he shares the dissection of
a top-ten best seller in 1984. But for his publisher Viking, he might as well be any of these: to date, Forsyth has had eight best-selling novels and has some 20 million books currently in print.
Indeed, Forsyth is credited ? along with The Little Drummer Girl author John LeCarré ?with creating and defining the modern spy-thriller genre as tense, fact-intensive (for instance, describing safe-cracking, bomb-assembly, and how Cold War intelli
gence organizations operate in explicit detail,) and, especially in Forsyth's case, heavily reliant upon real-life historical events and personages.
The Fourth Protocol describes the adventure of a British Mi5 agent as he attempts to foil a Communist plot to assist the Labour Party to win the upcoming Parliamentary elections. The means to this is the detonation of a small nuclear device outside a U.S
. military installation in Britain ? forcing out the Tory Party, whose longtime stance supporting nuclear weapons and NATO will become widely unpopular. Once the Labour Party sweeps the elections, Moscow will have nearly limitless control over the politi
cal affairs of Great Britain.
Frederick Forsyth first made a name for himself with two best-selling thrillers that each played subtly on the contemporary population's fears at the time of their publication. The Day of the Jackal
, which described a plot by French extremists to
assassinate Charles de Gaulle, preyed on the popular imagination's fears of terrorism and political extremism and appeared in 1971. Viking published The Odessa File
in 1972, which, although it focused on WWII and Middle East conflicts, drew upon A
merican and British worries about the threat of global war ? at the time, of course, the U.S. was ensconced in the Vietnam war.
The continued success of Forsyth's name and the relevance of subject matter was proven by The Fourth Protocol
's success ? which occurred in the years following Pol Pot's massacres and the establishment of President Reagan's anti-ballistic missile S
tar Wars defense program: Cold War years. Although much of the success of Protocol
is due largely to the author's name-power, Forsyth's keen sense of capitalizing on public fears contributed greatly to his works' success: works between Jackal
, while some were bestsellers, did not enjoy the success of Protocol
, simply because
In addition to the use of contemporary popular anxiety, each of the novels contained other features that combined to render the works extremely attractive to readers. Jackal
each rely on gritty, precise, unflowery
language ? appropriate for the grim and professional demeanors of his novels' central characters, often people employed in espionage or counterespionage. This language is exciting and compelling for most readers, opening a world of passionless, professi
onal killers, high crimes and lengthy, intriguing technical description.
The second key selling point of Forsyth's novels is just this: his use of exhaustive detail surrounding every facet of the espionage business. For pages in Protocol
he describes the method in which a nuclear explosive is to built, for instance, d
etailing each part of the bomb, its construction, and how it is to be smuggled into Britain. Audiences thrill to this in much the same way that audiences of the 1980's began enjoying the "techno-thrillers" of Tom Clancy ? such description fulfills a pred
ominantly male need to know everything possible about a given subject, even when such detail dwarfs real action in the novel ? as it does in a few instances in Protocol
"There is an American trait of admiring efficiency," Forsyth said of his lengthy descriptions in a Washington Post
. interview. "The point [in a spy-thriller is] not whodunit, but how
"Forsyth's forte, with the added bonus of precise technical description, worth of a science writer," agreed Gale Contemporary Authors
critic Andrew MacDonald, ". . . [is] how things work, ranging from the construction of a special rifle [in J
] and improvised car bombs [in Odessa
]... to the assembly of miniature nuclear bombs" in Protocol
A third reason for his popular success is Forsyth's tendency to work historical or contemporary newsmakers into his narratives. Protocol
, for instance, includes actual figures like the infamous British traitor Philby and Soviet leaders among its "
Forsyth's works enjoyed success then for four chief reasons: his ability to make use of popular fears, his language, his jargon- and detail-heavy descriptive style and his portrayal of actual persons and events.
These four elements of Forsyth's style of writing earned him success with Jackal
, but Protocol
benefited not only from a well-known and well-established formula, but from the author's name-recognition: reviewers from the <
I>New York Times Book Review to the Los Angeles Times
called Forsyth "the Master" of the new subgenre at the time of Odessa
's publication. His latest works carry that moniker still.
Forsyth's fame and success has not come without heavy criticism by professional writers and academics, however.
Critical reactions to Forsyth's work echo academic-literary responses to the spy-thriller genre in general: that is isn't, strictly speaking, good literature. More specifically, Forsyth is criticized for flat, stereotypical characters, a dearth of emoti
onal depth, and reliance on formulaic plots.
As has been the case with many of his books, Forsyth's Protocol
suffered from critical reviews that found fault with his lack of character development, that questioned his political motives and, in general, that criticized his book for an inability
to foster in its readers any feeling other than anxiety or tension.
Peter Gorner, for one, argues in the Chicago Tribune Book World
that Forsyth's "characters are paper-thin, the pages are studded with clichés, and the plot is greased by coincidence." Although Gorner was writing about The Devil's Alternative
>, a 1979 bestseller by Forsyth, the criticism had been leveled against previous works Jackal
and would continue to be said of later works, including Protocol
Forsyth himself defends his writing, claiming on several occasions that he writes purely for public entertainment and focuses on creating a tension-filled plotline rather than describing a character's emotions or documenting how s/he changes during the co
urse of a novel.
"My books are eighty percent plot and structure," he said in a Los Angeles Times
interview. "The remaining twenty percent is for characters and descriptions. I try to keep emotions out. ...The plot's the thing. This is how it works best
Many fans and critics ? representing a minority view ? have spoke in Forsyth's defense, claiming that his characters are so stereotypical simply because they are engaged in conforming or molding occupations attractive to people of a very specific personal
ity type: the soldier, the spy, etc.
Forsyth's writing is also devoid of extraneous description, a fact that underscores its grim, clandestine subject matter but opens it to criticism as being, in effect, poorly written. His characters, too, undergo no significant changes as a result of the
ir adventures (other than death.) Readers get no sense of a character's inner motivations, his emotional state, or, really, what makes him or her tick. Instead, Forsyth focuses on action
: who does what to whom and not, in any non-professional se
Many critics point out that Forsyth's political agenda sometimes compromises the plausibility of his plot. Such is the case, they indicate, in Protocol
. Many critics write that the author's own ultra-conservatism makes his portrayal of the Labour
party ? as Communist pawns and stooges ? laughable. Indeed, the prospect of a Labour victory in Britain ? the ultimate goal of the novel's antagonists ? is truly frightening only to him, it appears.
Critics of Forsyth, however, are forced to admit that his writing, however flawed, does sell: Gorner says that despite poor character description "...things move along so briskly you haven't much time to notice." Los Angeles Times
agrees that "Forsyth's banal writing, his endless thesaurus of clichés, his Hollywood characters do not interfere with page-turning."
Although Forsyth does indeed rely on staid character types and may, at times, fall subject to his own political leanings, he nevertheless produces intriguing plots and realistic, believable situations ? a fact realized by the general readership and respon
sible for his work's heady success.
Forsyth's end, as he has many times himself stated, is not to wow audience with skillfully-wrought prose, nor is it to produce a moving, emotional opus of real literary or social merit: it is to entertain, and to entertain believable and compellingly abo
ut thrilling subjects. This he accomplishes dutifully in Protocol
, without flair and without regret, and, as with his other works, has profited exceptionally as a result.
His characters are indeed formulaic and stock, but ? as some critics have noted ? his plotlines are original and his scenarios highly inventive, with the historical events or persons he intermixes throughout his works serving to heighten the feeling of te
nsion he achieves.
Forsyth's method of writing won him fame in 1971 and 1972, with the publication of Jackal
, which won popular acclaim in large part because the genre (and Forsyth's style) was so new. Protocol
, published more than a decade
after these works, capitalized in large part on the fame of the author's name ? earned with his first two and subsequent novels.
The novel's big-budget film tie-in appeared soon after publication in 1987 (featuring Michael Caine and Pierce Bronsan) and further added to the novel's success ? at the time being published by Bantam in a special movie-version paperback edition.
Criticisms notwithstanding, Forsyth's Protocol
remains one of the most popular spy thrillers to date, and despite repeated criticism about his style, the same mixture of succinct, grim, plot-heavy pseudo-historical writing continues to earn him su
ccess in the market: he published four spy novels following Protocol
, each, critics noted, achieving success by relying on the same basic formula.
As testament to his success, a whole host of up-and-coming thriller writers have and continue to emulate Forsyth's particular style ? if not conscientiously to duplicate "the Master," simply because they write in a style that sells
. Among these ar
e Clancy, Gerald Seymour (The Journeyman Tailor
, 1992), Robert Ludlum (The Rhineman Exchange
, 1974), Patrick Robinson (Nimitz Class
, 1997), and Martin Cruz Smith (Gorky Park