The Fox – Frederick Forsyth

17-4-19

Dear Partners in thought,

While Brexit reaches another climax I thought we might as well stay away from it and take refuge in the world of fiction…  

I would like to tell you about “The Fox” the latest spy-flavoured action novel by Frederick Forsyth, whom to my age group was with Jack Higgins what was John Le Carré may have been for the slightly older ones, that is a great entertainer and plotter with a limpid style of great stories that took you to exotic places in the midst of real life current affairs backgrounds. Those who like FF will remember the “Day of the Jackal” and the de Gaulle assassination plot (with another Fox on screen), the “Odessa file”, “the Dogs of War”, “The Fourth Protocol”, all made into a movie and a succession of other novels which somewhat peaked with Russian-flavoured “Icon” already years ago. Over recent years and since “The Veteran” in 2001 (time flies!), FF slowed down his production which nevertheless looks bigger than his 18 books, never going back to his heydays. FF was different as he was as much a novelist as he was an historian and one of war, making me remember the good times I spent listening to him in the late eighties when his military history show was on PBS and I was starting my professional career in New York City. He had the distinguished air of an Oxford Don combined with that of the operator of things displayed in his books and knew through his grave voice how to captivate an audience in the way he did so well in print. It is hard to believe that FF is now 80 and that his wife is very strict about his not traveling to hot world spots for inspiration. I can also remember when he played dead for a couple of years having been defrauded by personal friend turned con-man Roger Levitt  in the mid-1990s in London, something I always found hard to believe. The only sad part about his life, at least for me, was his passion for total British sovereignty and hatred of the EC/EU project and management which drove him to be an early supporter of UKIP when Jimmy Goldsmith founded it, before the Nigel Farage times and when it was deemed to be lunacy (well, again like today it seems bit let’s stay focused).

Like with younger David Ignatius (he is 68), FF jumps into the new era of intelligence and its electronic forms, not going into quantum computing but sticking to cyber warfare, which is advanced enough to the veteran spy writer (and I). He takes us into a massive cyber hack perpetrated against Fort Meade’s NSA though nothing was “stolen” prompting a rapid and equally massive hunt assisted with the British GCHQ (Government Communications HQ) and a joint-Navy Seal-SAS contingent in the English countryside where the target is finally identified and secured. Then they all find a family of four with a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome who simply had to penetrate the impregnable defences at the heart of the NSA just to show them he could and indirectly pointing their flaws. I will not go into the plot but as you would imagine the boy may not be extradited to face American judicial retribution and will stay in London working for “Cheltenham” and sharing his findings with the very target of his earlier and unique achievements.

FF is especially interesting to read as he is very well “connected” (read he has friends in British and likely US intelligence), knowing locations and operational ways as if he had like John Le Carré once worked in those shadowy spheres. His stories are peppered with real names of leaders and their top servants (like Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the SIS or MI6) whose deputy (likely a fictional character) works closely with PM Marjory Graham, who happened to have been Home Secretary before David Cameron resigned in June 2016 (no mention of the fateful Referendum). One wonders why FF does not call her Theresa as her US counterpart is clearly the one with the blond coiffe who seems acting reasonably if not rationally (I suspect FF likes Donald but does not stress it, preferring depicting him as the leader we all would want). The story looks always real with the hideouts coming back from the Cold War where East Block agents were sheltered and interrogated and the London clubs serve as useful locations for low key meetings. FF has a very insightful take on the post 9-11 era and the unleashing of dangerous changes in the Middle East taking the opportunity to lambast Tony Blair and his “Dodgy Dossier” about weapons of mass destruction used to back and follow the US in their new crusade and democracy export. He has a great take on new Russia, the Putin regime and its power plays, the quality of which would be on a par with the most leading Kremlinologists of the day illustrated by his focus on the use of newfound nationalistic pride and orthodox religion as key drivers. Even the driving around DC looks as if we would be there which is natural for such an old Western Alliance chap.

The story takes place after the Salisbury Skrypal affair when and where a former Russian intelligence agent turned British MI6 enabler and his daughter came close to dying from the Novichock nerve agent “assumed” to have been engineered by the Russian services. The Brits take advantage of their cyber genius “catch” to launch an humiliating response against the old foe which will trigger an immediate counter-response at the height of Russian power. Interestingly FF offers some thoughts as to the Salisbury attack that may have been out of control and resulted in a massive Cold War-like diplomatic row with dozens of Russian diplomats (all SVR-linked we are told) being sent back in a loss-loss scenario for Russia. This side comment implies that Russia may not be as well organised or led as one would believe, something that may ring true when reading about the arrest in mid-February of a prominent Western financier and 25 year veteran of investing in Russia (well accepted by the power and business circles) on “strange” grounds closer to partners’ rivalry than anything else, prompting Putin to reassure foreign investors that investing in Russia is sound and that some of the people running those kinds of cases may not be all competent (in itself an amazing admission). Without going into details and letting you discover the full story, FF manages a rather entertaining succession of events that have nothing to do with the usual spies exchanging bons mots at cocktail parties while looking for Kompromat. We see the unavoidable SAS again in action (FF is always a fan) and the Russian Night Wolves bikers (far more dangerous than the Hell’s Angels we are told) going head to head, some to terminate and the others to protect in what is more akin to hot than cold war exchanges in the nights of the English countryside. If anything one senses that FF wants to points out throughout the novel that Russia has gradually become more daring in its goals and aggressive in its means in the conduct of its active intelligence operations, new and old style – something that Salisbury would seem to confirm if we accept the last explanation standing.  FF develop the story with a succession of hacks and reprisals lining up successfully Iran, Israel and in a multiple set of scenarios, the Hermit Kingdom going as far as giving us a final development that is not yet certain but could well happen one day – and I shall keep under the requisite wraps. As for dealings with Russia, the descriptions of the other protagonists is very solid giving the novel a strong reality flavour and underlining FF’s mastery at creating one of the best “fictional non-fiction” spy action novels around.

You will enjoy “The Fox” that reads fast like an enjoyable James Patterson crime novel with the real stuff on top.  

Warmest regards,

Serge                           

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