Frederick Forsyth has arguably been on the wane since his 1970s bestsellers such as The Day of the Jackal, The Dogs of War and The Odessa File – or maybe it's just that his rigorous, reportage-like style of thriller writing has lost some of its novelty. However, old masters don't relinquish their gifts so easily; his latest, The Afghan, though not a return to top form, is as gripping as anything currently available on bestseller lists.
Forsyth is adept at taking real-life events and spinning fiction out of them, with often-prescient results. The Afghan draws some of its back-story from the July 2005 terror blasts in London but its central events take place in the period September 2006-April 2007, as Islamist terrorists prepare the ground for an attack that will dwarf even 9/11. The book spends a lot of time on background detail – on explaining the internal functioning of various intelligence groups and their constant attempts to stay two steps ahead of terrorism – but soon we arrive at the meat of the story: following a raid in Peshawar, British and American intelligence get hold of an Al-Qaeda laptop that makes oblique references to a major operation known as Al-Isra (the Koranic name for a divine journey undertaken by the Prophet Mohammed). With time running out and no way of knowing what the operation might be, an unheard-of gambit is agreed upon – passing off a Westerner, the dark-skinned Colonel Mike Martin, as a former senior commander of the Taliban.
At the end of a long training process and a number of painstakingly executed deceptions, Martin, now going by the name Izmat Khan, finds himself on a suicide mission in the heart of darkness in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, it helps that he briefly knew the real Izmat Khan several years earlier in Afghanistan, when they were both fighting on the same side during the Cold War. The doppelganger theme is used quite effectively, both here and in the little parallels repeatedly drawn between the terrorists and their nemeses in the US and UK intelligence - even to the extent of invoking an extremist Muslim leader's words ("We are all sentenced to die, but only a warrior blessed of Allah is allowed to choose how") to fit a passage where an intelligence agent sacrifices his life to thwart terrorist plans.
Forsyth worked several years as a diplomatic correspondent before becoming a novelist and his writing, which combines imagination with meticulous research, is marked by a good journalist's obsession with detail. One resultant problem is that his books are sometimes almost too low-key. In the 1970s this approach might have been a stimulating change from the thrill-a-minute pulp novels that then cluttered the genre, but today, when a number of authors are writing the way only he once did, it's possible to yearn for some unselfconscious excitement. But Forsyth is so instructive, so bent on feeding us a constant stream of information, that even the climactic scene – where two men face up to each other with the possible future of the world at stake – feels clinical rather than spontaneously thrilling.
This notwithstanding, The Afghan is a taut, extremely well plotted book, and it's always interesting to see the little ways in which this author inverts our normal expectations of the genre. One example: many books of this type provide an emotional anchor by encouraging the reader to identify with someone (perhaps a relatively peripheral character) who has an enormous personal stake in the proceedings. Forsyth seems to be going down that path early on here with a character named Terry Martin, a man who "had only ever loved four people and had lost three of them in the past 10 months". The fourth, still-living, person is Terry's elder brother Mike, who is about to be thrust into this dangerous mission, and it seems inevitable that this will provide the book's emotional frisson. But no such thing happens: Terry simply vanishes from the canvas and we never meet him again.
This could, of course, just be lazy editing, but it’s more likely a case of the author toying with the reader's expectations, discarding what he doesn’t feel is absolutely imperative to his plot. Or maybe Forsyth decided to throw up the emotional stuff (his writing style usually precludes the exploration of psychological depth in characters) and go back to doing what he does best. On balance, he succeeds. At its best The Afghan is a very involving story about the levels of personal dedication needed both in carrying out terrorism and in countering it.