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From The Jackal to The Fox: Frederick Forsyth on remastering the spy game

At 80, Frederick Forsyth’s new novel has a young protagonist, a cyber war across continents, and a timeless tale of cat-and-mouse

books Updated: Oct 01, 2018 17:05 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Spy thriller,Bestseller,Espionage
Author Frederick Forsyth, now 80, is out with a new novel, about the world of cyber espionage and its real-world repercussions.(Gill Shaw)

The world was a different place when Frederick Forsyth wrote his first novel. The year was 1967. Forsyth, broke from being a news correspondent in West Africa, thought it might help to write a novel. It wasn’t the brightest idea. “People said ‘Rob a bank if you like; don’t write a book’,” he recalls. But he did anyway.

He based his first story on his time as a 23-year-old rookie in France, covering the chaotic aftermath of the attempted assassination of President Charles de Gaulle in 1962. The Day of the Jackal, didn’t just change Forsyth’s fortunes; it altered the template of the espionage thriller. The book focused on spy-craft, intelligence and counter-intelligence, and had a mystery that lasted until the end. A hit film followed, as did 20 more books and a style that influenced writers for decades. “It was all luck, luck, luck for me,” he says.

Fifty-six years on, The Fox follows a young hacker the British use to spy on enemy nations. But The Fox is a novel in disguise — an old-fashioned spy tale underneath the barest references to technology. Agents place coded ads in the papers when it’s time to meet. Readers get explanations for Trojans and firewalls…

The Fox is a clever book. An old-fashioned spy novel disguised as a tech thriller. What made you think of writing about hacking?

I’d read that somewhere in Britain, a young man [activist Lauri Love] had been charged by the American government with breaking into one of their most secret databases. But he also had a fragile mind – he had Asperger Syndrome, which makes it hard to get along with other people, but was at home in cyberspace.

I didn’t know such a brain existed. Everything I’ve ever written about has depended upon two half-answered questions: ‘What would happen if…?’ and ‘Would it be possible to…?’ I wondered what it would be like to take this young man with a strange talent, put him on the payroll, and have him peek into our enemies’ secret archives.

Parts of the book are almost eerily familiar, especially the bits about Russia sending assassins to kill spies in England.

I didn’t even need to look at the papers. The poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury in March had nothing to do with computers, like in my book. But it was an indication that the man in Kremlin was prepared to murder people in foreign countries if he was upset enough. By the time I wrote the book, he’d already done it. I didn’t even need to hack into a database to figure out what he was thinking.

I didn’t name Putin, but it’s obvious it’s him. I didn’t name Trump either, but it’s obvious it’s him. That’s my little joke.

Your first book, The Day of the Jackal, is so meticulous: post-boxes are watched, paper trails examined. There’s almost no tech. Do you think we rely on the digital world too much now?

I’d say yes; because I don’t. I don’t go online, I’m not on Twitter or Instagram, or Facebook, where you believe you have 400 friends but can’t tell if they may want to kill you. People hurl horrible insults online. I choose not to engage. We were told the computer would be our servant, but it is now our master.

In the film version of The Day of The Jackal, everything is meticulous. Even assassins do test runs and make measured adjustments to their process. ( Universal Pictures )

And yet, as your books show, you can still bring down governments and orchestrate assassinations without tech. How has spying changed between …Jackal and The Fox?

Back in the ’40s and ’50s, almost all espionage was about people. Then technology crept in. Americans got satellites to look down on us. But radio signals, email and mobiles could be intercepted, and so the old person-to-person methods are coming back. We’re realising that all espionage is about people.

Or rather all espionage is about men? There are hardly any women in The Fox.

That’s because in that world there aren’t many women. It’s not sexism. The worlds I write about are still predominantly male; they shouldn’t be, but they are. And 70% of my readers are male.

What else has stayed the same?

Mankind’s fascination with espionage. It goes back to the Christian and Jewish Bibles. The British have a long tradition of espionage. We’ve been doing it since Queen Elizabeth I appointed Francis Walsingham as her ‘spymaster’. But the time the CIA was formed in 1947, we’d been doing it for more than 300 years.

I’d agree. You were a spy for MI6 in West Africa in the ’60s and ’70s and only revealed it to the world in 2015...

We are a secretive people. It’s a bit of a British specialty still, as you’ll see in how ‘The Fox’ plays out.

First Published: Sep 29, 2018 17:21 IST