I am not the only reader and reviewer who has had good reason in recent years to bemoan the thrillers that are published each year to tempt us.
Every summer there is a fresh crop of novels which attempt to extract some thin vein of material from wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, which inevitably focus on the theme of religiously inclined terrorists and fanatical Muslims; or work on the principle of stretching the credulity of any moderately intelligent reader by proposing Roman Catholic, Jesuitical plots full of unbelievable characters and story lines. The inventors of the “Prieure de Sion” in the 1950s have much to answer to.
If there were such a plot, my own feelings would be that, after two thousand years of planning, such a plot would have failed on any logical measure of achievement.
Which is why I have grown increasingly disaffected with the genre that used to be easily my favourite. And why I took up Frederick Forsyth’s latest with a feeling of trepidation.
Forsyth is one of the giants of writing. When I was young, his were the books that were grabbed from the shelves on publication day. DAY OF THE JACKAL resonates still, with every suggested terrorist or assassin being given the label; THE ODESSA FILE is still, for my money, one of the best thrillers written about the end of the Nazis; DOGS OF WAR should need no introduction; THE FOURTH PROTOCOL was ingenious, imaginative and fabulously fast-paced. Forsyth was the acknowledged king of thrillers.
Of course, success brings detractors. Some have said his recent works have not been so strong. Truth to tell, I’ve been one of them.
But this is. It’s his best book for a while.
The story begins with yet another death due to a drug overdose. A compassionate American President hears from the boy’s grandmother, one of his servants at the White House, and he ponders whether it is possible to cut off the flow of drugs to the US. After all the billions wasted in trying to catch dealers, to disrupt farming in Colombia, to impede smuggling, the US has had little success to show for it. Could something else, something new, be tried? To evaluate the possible alternatives, he asks for a report on drugs. A retired CIA operative, Devereux, is commissioned to consider whether there are means available which would succeed where the law enforcement agencies have so signally failed.
His answer is yes – if the President is prepared to accept the consequences.
Thus begins one of those thrillers at which Forsyth excels.
It is astonishing in the breadth of his knowledge – it’s often been said that his contact list is a source of jealousy to other thriller writers, and I can only imagine he has made full use of it here – and the detail is so fine it is almost impossible to see where his researches have been elaborated. On weaponry, on shipping, on ports and customs, on the drug gangs and the means they use to move their products, he writes with the compelling assurance of an investigative reporter rather than a novelist.
Does the story work? You bet. It is as action-packed as DOGS OF WAR, and I think the two bear close comparison. Both are convincing because of the believable facts presented in the narrative, and because of the exhaustive attention to the finer points of planning that give their plots their momentum. In DOGS the key action scene was brief, a section at the end of the book in which a country was captured by mercenaries; in COBRA, the action is more evenly spread throughout the story, but the planning and implementation is as superbly presented as in DOGS.
Usually a thriller to review leaves me moderately cold. They tend to stay on my shelves until I can devote a morning or two to them. COBRA was devoured in a day, and has set me back hours in my own writing as a result. Gripping, enthralling, entirely credible and plausible, this is a book written by the master of thriller-writing, and deserves to become another classic.