A Novel by Frederick Forsyth
Review by Jeff Salter
Premise of the novel:
“A British mining executive hires a group of mercenaries to overthrow the government of an African country so that he can install a puppet regime that will allow him cheap access to a colossal platinum-ore reserve.”
Reviews – especially of fiction – are extremely subjective… so I don’t necessarily expect everybody else to agree. But here are a few of my generalizations:
* Forsyth is a terrific researcher… but – in this book and others – practically drowns the reader in ALL that detail.
* Forsyth wrote a small handful of really good books… but a larger handful of books that are quite unspectacular. [By my count he has 22 titles and I can only be truly enthusiastic about one so far.]
Having been enthralled by his novel The Day of the Jackal – and the film based upon it – I decided over four decades ago that I would be a new fan of Frederick Forsyth. Much as I was a fan of Jack Higgins, Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum (his early work), and others who wrote in that genre. Alas, my second visit (also decades ago) to the work of Forsyth – The Odessa File – was far less engaging (and the movie was pretty lackluster, too). My third foray – reading Avenger (a couple of years ago) – was even less satisfactory and I began to wonder if I’d hitched my fan wagon to the wrong author.
So it was with high hopes – but also realistic expectations – that I tackled the 404 pages of The Dogs of War in hardcover (the paperback has 436 pages).
[An aside: I was certain I had seen a portion of the film based on this story, and believed it to have featured Richard Burton in the leading role. So I read this entire novel picturing Burton as the character, Shannon. Come to find out, the Burton film was “The Wild Geese” (1978) and I’d never seen even a single frame of the 1980 movie based on “The Dogs of War”. Oh, well.]
Forsyth certainly seemed to know his topic – international mercenaries – and how they’ve been employed in coups (among other actions) across the globe. His own background is quite colorful, including military service, and he spent a couple of years in Africa covering various conflicts therein.
But this novel – marketed as a “thriller” – has hardly any “action”… until Part Three (beginning on page 363). So the preceding 362 pages have been just the detail-oriented set-up to the actual operation.
In Parts One and Two, we have intricate detail – a veritable textbook – of how to plan an illegal overseas operation: the timetable, the funding… as well as where and how to get the weapons / ammo / gear / supplies without arousing suspicion. Plus: how to foil customs, who to bribe (and how much), getting transportation (trucks, then a ship), finagling permits to use ports… and buying loyalty and silence. Throughout we see the life of a mercenary – when hired by someone (as opposed to being without a job or income) – as full of deception, extortion, and ruthlessness.
Once the action finally is about to get underway (in Part Three), the pace picks up nicely and Forsyth handles the brief battle quite well. He even gives us a nice twist at the end.
Many of the characters were well-drawn, and the basic plot was nicely done. I guess I just bristled at having to wade through 362 pages before the operation even “launched” (as it were).
Most glaring (among the improbable elements) was the entire sub-plot between Shannon and the self-absorbed daughter of the insanely wealthy, unscrupulous financier who had anonymously hired Shannon to begin with. Confused? You see, Shannon HAD to know who’d hired him to run this operation… so he did some discrete (and very clever) detective work, learned the man’s name, found out about his daughter, finagled an introduction… and they almost immediately became lovers. Not just physical lovers, but this young girl actually “falls in love” with Shannon – old enough to be her father – whereas Shannon is only using her for leverage, information, revenge, and (of course) sex.
This whole sub-plot (with the daughter) seems – as I’ve detected in his novel Avenger (with a different sub-plot) – included solely with a future movie script in mind. The novel itself would have been far more believable without it.
Mr. Forsyth, if you ever get around to reading this review, please excuse my critical eye. You did a terrific job on The Day of the Jackal… which I read twice! [years apart]. But after you zoomed to the top of the best-seller lists and got those Hollywood movie rights sold, I think you stopped listening to your editors [they would have told you to cut out the daughter, pare down some of the detail, and get to the action more quickly.]
To me, a good thriller should have the reader’s pulse racing and his/her fingers flipping the pages as quickly as possible. With many expanses of this novel, however, it was more like reading a procedures manual — interesting in the sense that these details were new to me, but bogged down nevertheless. In current times, if I turned in a manuscript with 300+ pages of set-up and context, an editor would scream, “information dump!”
Final note: I have one more Forsyth novel on hand — The Devil’s Alternative. To give this author an even chance, I decided to read the first chapter and see if I was engaged. I have to say it’s a very interesting premise… and if Forsyth doesn’t bury me in details, I can see THIS novel being a winner.
[JLS # 549]