As 1970 began, a 31-year-old English journalist named Frederick Forsyth, out of a job and broke, set out to write a novel. Camping in a friend’s London flat, Forsyth worked nonstop for 35 days to produce the story of a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. He called it “The Day of the Jackal.”
Selling the novel took longer than writing it. The fact that de Gaulle had served out his term of office and was still alive (he died later that year) led several publishers to reject the book as patently ridiculous. Then Forsyth found an editor who understood that the story’s fascination lay not in de Gaulle’s fate but in the complex chess game between a determined assassin and the French leader’s formidable security team.
The editor surprised Forsyth with the offer of a three-book deal, whereupon the writer quickly dreamed up one novel about a search for fugitive Nazis and another about white mercenaries trying to take over an African nation. After “The Day of the Jackal” became his first bestseller, those two, “The Odessa File”and “The Dogs of War,”were his second and third.
That’s an all but unprecedented story of sudden success, but “The Outsider,”Forsyth’s new memoir, doesn’t dwell on his fiction. Instead, he offers a fast-paced look back at his life, from boyhood in England during World War II to his years as a foreign correspondent, his occasional hush-hush work for British intelligence and his endless adventures as a globe-hopping writer always ready to brave some new danger zone in search of a good story.
Author Frederick Forsyth (Gillian Shaw)
Forsyth’s love of adventure started early. When he was 6 and living near the English Channel in Kent, his father won young Freddie a chance to sit in the cockpit of one of the Spitfire fighters that the beloved Royal Air Force had used to beat back the German Luftwaffe. At that moment, Forsyth says, he vowed someday to fly a Spitfire.
When he was a teenager, his father arranged for him to spend summers in Germany, France and Spain, where he picked up languages that later boosted his journalistic career. At 16 he learned to fly. He also excelled in school but, told that he might aspire to Oxford, shocked his headmaster by saying he intended to join the Royal Air Force when he turned 18, which he did. Forsyth loved his three years as a pilot — although no Spitfires were available to him — but when his enlistment ended, he set out to become a foreign correspondent.
Three years reporting in England led to a job with Reuters, which sent Forsyth to Paris. There he learned that elements of the French army wanted de Gaulle dead because he had granted independence to Algeria. Several assassination attempts had failed because the assassins were known to de Gaulle’s defenders. Forsyth reasoned that only “a complete outsider, a professional hit man with no record or dossier known to Paris” could succeed. That insight, eight years later, inspired “The Day of the Jackal.”
Assigned to East Berlin, he delighted in outsmarting the government agents who shadowed him. He also delighted in interesting women. One night, at the opera, he met and took home beautiful, mysterious Sigrid, who returned often but always insisted on departing by cab. He snooped and discovered she was the mistress of the unforgiving East German defense minister, whereupon the fearless reporter sensibly demanded a transfer back to Paris.
He made his first career mistake when he joined the BBC as a foreign correspondent, only to clash with its leaders when they backed what he saw as the British government’s cruel and senseless support of Nigeria in its mid-1960s war with Biafra, a war Forsyth blames for the starvation of 1 million Biafran children. Forsyth ends his account of this bitter episode by saying of BBC executives and the government, “That is why I believe that this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honor of my country forever, and I will never forgive them.”
Forsyth has spent the rest of his life moving between the solitude of writing and the pursuit of adventure. In middle age he took up parachuting, scuba diving and deep-sea fishing, which almost cost him his life in a typhoon off the Mauritian coast. His friends in British intelligence sent him on a secret mission to South Africa to learn the country’s plans for its atomic weapons when the white government was replaced by a black one. At age 74, he set out for Somalia, one of the most dangerous places in the world, to research a novel, reluctantly taking along a bodyguard to ease his wife’s fears. Last year, at 76, he kept the vow he’d made at the age of 6 to fly a Spitfire.
The man has lived an amazing life. Call it stranger than fiction.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.