I first read this now-classic thriller thirty-odd years ago and I was interested to see how it has aged. Indeed, how I have aged. I’m inclined to say that Fredrick Forsyth’s page-turner has probably fared better than me, but I can see why it set my young mind and heart racing all those years ago.
It has a pulsing, living subject matter which was bang on the money not only for the time it was written but is still headline ready. Nazis and Nazi hunters sell books like nothing else but what was fascinating on reading this thriller again was how nuanced and contextually located the issue is in this well-researched book. Hunting Nazis down to the ends of the earth was not axiomatic in 1960s West Germany. In fact, it was unpopular and resisted by state structures which in part were infiltrated by former members and sympathisers of the infamous SS. If this sounds preposterous, consider how only recently the Special Forces section of the now united German Army was effectively closed down due to infiltration by neo-Nazis. To borrow a phrase from my native land, they haven’t gone away you know.
It is, of course, a novel of its time, and women tend to serve as sexy window dressing, remain emotionally driven and pacified with a good shagging and promises of marriage and babies. Arabs are portrayed as less sharp than Israelis and everyone else and the dialogue is written in an English idiom (sometimes lapsing into Oliver Twist stage cockney to denote class differences in West Germany), and the less said about that the better. The writing feels journalistic and expository in many parts and there’s a few sections (literally an idiot’s guide on how to build a pressure-activated bomb from odds and sods) which would surely never pass editorial now and makes me wonder how it managed to do so then.
But nevermind, wave it through, all of it. If such angular artefacts from political thrillers traumatise you, then don’t read it, I’d say Forsyth and his fans will get over it. But I strongly suggest you do, especially if you’re out to understand how to build an effective, thrilling page ripping thriller of your own. Forget about writing clubs and classes and Masters and PhDs, this is how you learn how to do it better. By reading and seeing it done by one of the best. Forsyth’s plotting is stitch perfect, from threading in vital details very early on to hiding his twist, to resolving every obstacle and problem he sets in Miller’s, his protagonist’s, way. One or two of the directional turns are achieved in a less than graceful way, but those without sin should cast the first stone and needs must. Thrillers are not real life, that’s why they are so brilliant. And when you read one as seminal and well put together as this it will make you want to write one yourself, or find the next instalment and get lost in another book. Either way, enjoy.