Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Phantom of Manhattan

The Forsyth Saga

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Aside from Thomas Harris, whose career I’ve already discussed at possibly excessive length, the suspense novelist who has had the most influence on my own work is Frederick Forsyth. Unlike Harris, I discovered Forsyth fairly late in life, after my interests and style as a writer were mostly set, so my debt to Forsyth is wholly conscious. I read The Day of the Jackal years ago, and was suitably impressed, but it wasn’t until I started writing suspense on my own that I realized the extent of Forsyth’s achievement, and began to study his example more carefully. He’s rarely had any literary pretensions, so he has been critically undervalued in comparison to someone like le Carré, but he’s an exceptionally good writer, the ultimate pro. To my eyes, he’s the ideal suspense novelist, at least when it comes to promising and delivering everything that an intelligent reader wants. He may not linger in the imagination in the way Harris does, but paragraph by paragraph, he’s the best I’ve found.

The heart of his achievement remains his debut, The Day of the Jackal, which is still the great international thriller, and a model for nearly every novel of its kind published since. Forsyth, who had worked previously as a journalist in Europe and Africa, wrote it relatively quickly, after years of research, and somehow hit upon the most effective suspense formula that has yet been devised: the violent chase, counting down toward a deadly assignment, with a constantly accelerating pace, so that each section of the book becomes increasingly compressed in both space and time. It’s such a good formula, in fact, that Forsyth acknowledges that he began writing his second book, The Odessa File, by going back over his first novel, seeing what he had unconsciously done, and trying to reverse engineer it—as many other writers have tried since, and for good reason. The great virtues of his work emerge fully formed in Jackal: the pacing, the seamless mix of fact and fiction, the mastery of lean convincing detail, and best of all, the luxuriant disclosure of arcane information, so that an account of the assembly and testing of an assassin’s rifle becomes as erotic as any love scene.

Forsyth has his flaws, of course. Foremost is the startling lack of women, or even the slightest interest in women, in most of his novels. His books are exclusively about men, either solitary or deeply immersed in wholly masculine worlds—those of spies, assassins, soldiers. All the same, whenever he tries to insert a woman in the story, as in the unfortunate The Negotiator, the results are so poor that one welcomes their absence elsewhere. (I haven’t even tried to read The Phantom of Manhattan, Forsyth’s attempt to write about “the human heart,” and one of the more inexplicable books in any great author’s bibliography.) Women are clearly extraneous to Forsyth’s vision, which seems so expansive at first glance—the locations, the knowledge of politics and espionage, the wealth of detail—but is, in fact, savagely focused. Indeed, Forsyth’s great strength, at least in his best books, is his refusal to be drawn away from his wheelhouse. At several points in his career, he has evidently grown tired of this singlemindedness, but the fact remains that none of his successors are nearly as good at this sort of thing as he is.

Once I realized that Forsyth was the best living practitioner of the kind of novel that I’d found myself writing, I set out to systematically read everything he’d written, something I’ve done with only a handful of other contemporary novelists, like Ian McEwan. In the past few years alone, I’ve gone through Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Devil’s Alternative, The Fourth Protocol, The Negotiator, the short story collection No Comebacks, and Icon, which I’ve just finished this week. (The Fist of God and The Deceiver are waiting in the wings.) Aside from The Negotiator, which represents one of Forsyth’s rare lapses in the suspense form, they’ve all been great reads, even as the details begin to blur. That’s the thing about Forsyth: he’s so good in the moment, but constructs his books so tightly that there isn’t much room left for the reader’s imagination, and hence, except for Jackal, less of an afterlife in the memory. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation, and perhaps a warning. Forsyth is our great constructor of clockwork thrillers, and in his career, we can see not just the potential of the suspense form, but also its limits.

Written by nevalalee

January 12, 2012 at 10:00 am

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