Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Icon of Suspense Writers

Before Tom Clancy, before Ken Follett, before any of the other suspense writers you may have heard of, there was the one and only Frederick Forsyth.

Forsyth, a former journalist, started writing suspense novels in the late sixties. In Wellesean fashion, his first major publication, The Day of the Jackal is considered to be his best novel. Many, in fact, consider it to be the quintessential suspense thriller. TDOTJ follows two men, the first an assassin hired to murder the then French President Charles De Gaulle, the other a detective charged with tracking the Jackal down. It's easily one of the best books I've ever read and manages to succeed as a thriller despite the fact that the outcome of the story is never in doubt: in real life, De Gaulle was never assassinated.

It still amazes me that Forsyth was able to create so much tension in a story that could end only one way. If I ever figure out how he did it, I'll be in danger of becoming a very rich man.

Over the years, Forsyth has treated us with many other great suspense novels, and he is lauded primarily for his realism and meticulous attention to detail. To Forsyth's credit (?), there existed for several years a scheme for acquiring a false identity and UK passport called the "Day of the Jackal fraud" because of a loophole in British security that Forsyth identified and exploited for use in his novel.

One of my other favorite books of his is The Fourth Protocol, published in 1984 and later made into a decent movie starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan. I still remember the experience of reading TFP, more so than most other books. I was no more than thirteen years old, and over the course of three or four days, I literally took it with me everywhere I went. I even remember reading it at the dinner table.

If you want to learn how to plot, I'd recommend picking up one of Forsyth's books. Be forewarned, though. He is such a master that you'll need to read it twice to be able to dissect it properly for study. During the first reading, you'll be too swept up in the plot to step back objectively and analyze it.


seanag said...

Brian, I haven't read him, but I did see the movie made of DOTJ--and you're right--the suspense is both a mystery and a marvel.

I'll look into reading some. As you say, for the purpose of analyzing plotting alone it sounds like it would be worth it.

Brian O'Rourke said...


The film is great too. I've been meaning to ask, how is Finnegan's Wake going?

seanag said...

Well, as to Finnegans Wake, it's going great, though we've only had two meetings. But we added a member instead of losing any, so that's a good sign. It is actually fun and surprisingly painless. The key to perservering will probably come down to scheduling regular enough meetings to keep some coherence. What's good about a group read is that everyone catches something that the others didn't. But we have a commentary or two too to help us through the harder patches.

I think the thing that helps is that it's quite clear that Joyce is not willfully or meanly obscure. The book is just multi-layered, and he draws on a lot of different sources. Frankly, I think we are all finding it exhilerating at this point. Time will tell, though.