It is a muggy, disorganized sort of afternoon in the wealthy St. John’s Wood section of London. The brick wall surrounding novelist Frederick Forsyth’s home drips with tangles of ivy; the small swimming pool in his front garden is empty except for debris—there are cracks in it that must be repaired. Forsyth’s two sons—Stuart, 7, and Shane, 5—try loudly and unsuccessfully to lasso a toy cheetah. Yet amid all this disorder, when the 46-year-old Forsyth reaches for a metaphor to describe his writing, he comes up with a vision of cold, interlocking precision not unlike that of the intricate schemings and superweapons in his best-selling sagas. “My plots are complex and convoluted,” he says, “but there’s a reason for everything. If you take the whole thing apart, it should go back together—like a piece of machinery.”
If Forsyth’s novels are machines, they are as common as household appliances. His four thrillers to date—1971’s The Day of the Jackal, 1972’s The Odessa File, 1974’s The Dogs of War and 1980’s The Devil’s Alternative—each grace over a million bookshelves and night tables. Now a fifth, The Fourth Protocol, is out, and although some critics find it a bit clunky, and the British Left has reason to regard it as infernal, it is selling like clockwork.
Protocol’s controversial premise is that in the year 1987 Marxists have taken over Britain’s Labor Party. The Soviet Union, sensing opportunity, plans a fake American nuclear accident in England that will cause Britons to vote for the pacifist Laborites and thus annex themselves to the Soviet Bloc. Needless to say, only one man, Forsyth’s hero, can stop them.
Many critics are less than thrilled with the esthetics of Protocol, calling it “predictable” and “tendentious guff.” London Sunday Times political correspondent Michael Jones is even more disapproving of its speculative politics. “Docudrama,” he snipes, “has its limits. This is docudreamland.” But Forsyth, a staunch Tory, gives better than he gets. He claims that his fear of Laborite leftists is real and built on his interviews with “people within the Labor Party who dare not speak up publicly.”
Forsyth is no stranger to conflict, as participant or observer. The son of a furrier and a dress-shop owner, he joined the RAF at age 17 and two years later became Britain’s youngest fighter pilot. Subsequently, he went on to an eight-year career covering war and diplomatic tensions for the British media. In 1967 the BBC pulled him out of Nigeria because his sympathetic reports on the Biafran rebels embarrassed the British government. In 1978 a rumor floated (and quickly sank) that he based The Dogs of War on a failed coup he organized in Equatorial Guinea to provide a new Biafran homeland. To those who criticize his docuthrillers, he replies coolly, “I don’t change modern history. I just add my layer of story on the events.”
For a while it looked as if there might be no more layers. Forsyth, living as a tax exile in Spain and Ireland, wrote no novel for six years and was reported to have lost interest in the form. But in 1980 he published The Devil’s Alternative, and returned to London. (Under Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher, his tax bracket on earned income has fallen from 85 percent to 60 percent.) Now he produces almost as fast as his books sell. Settling himself every morning at 9 a.m. in a rented flat before his Japanese Silver Reed portable, Forsyth consults his outline, then writes—yes, writes—at up to 50 words a minute, completing about half a chapter a day before knocking off at 1:30 p.m. At this rate, Protocol took him 42 days—seven more than Jackal but six fewer than Dogs.
In the 10-plus months a year when he doesn’t write novels, Forsyth churns out articles, short stories and film scripts, and meticulously researches his next opus. His wife of 11 years, Carrie, 41, has a business of her own, a video rental store bought with the proceeds from the world rights of two of his books. (“I thought there was more style to giving a book than a check,” her husband says.) The two seem to understand each other well—in part, as she explains, because they married late. “We were set in our ways, knew what we wanted and got it.”
Night has fallen in London and Forsyth is reading a bedtime story to Shane. Once both boys are tucked in bed, Forsyth will join Carrie for dinner—not in a chandeliered dining room but on trays in front of the telly. The reporter in Forsyth, after all, still hates to miss the nightly news. Not to mention a possible idea for his next blockbuster.