The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 7, 2001

Where is the veteran, Frederic Forsyth
Review by Kuldip Dhiman

The Veteran
by Frederic Forsyth. Corgi Books, London. Rs 210.

THE war between the Sultan of Omanís forces and the communist guerrillas who were infiltrating into Oman from neighbouring Yemen in the early seventies has generally been forgotten. It was a test by fire for the Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who had then just deposed his father and come to power.

The VeteranThe action in Frederick Forsythís "The Veteran", a collection of five short stories, however, does not begin in Oman but in the mean streets of London "where a stranger is unwise to roam". And it is exactly there where a limping man, a war veteran from Oman, becomes a victim of mugging. Not a match enough for the two young thugs, the man nevertheless strikes back before being beaten unconscious. The attackers take what they can from the unconscious man and take to their heels.

Unfortunately, for the attackers, there is one witness, who saw it all, and he is prepared to cooperate with the police. Veejay Patel, owner of a convenience store, is a migrant of Indian origin, whose parents had to leave Idi Aminís Uganda in the seventies.


Detective Inspector Jack Burns then appears on the scene. With the help of Veejay Patel, he tracks down the attackers. Piece by piece, strand by strand, the old-fashioned investigator builds a seemingly watertight case against them. He is sure to get a conviction, but there is one thing he does not anticipate: the appearance on the scene of a shrewd and unscrupulous barrister. Will Veejay Patel be able to hold his own against the barristerís sharp cross-examination?

In "The Art of the Matter" we are introduced to Trumpington Gore, a film extra who has worked with almost all the greats of Hollywood, but who is himself languishing in the shadows and is now out of work. Neglected, forgotten, and stone-broke, he is perhaps the only man in the city of London who does not have a phone.

As he broods over his wretched existence, he remembers he has an old painting in his closet, a painting that might fetch him a few score pounds. What follows is his encounter with the ruthless world of art dealers. He takes his prized possession to the mighty House of Darcy for valuation. But can he trust anyone at all? What if the painting he owns is a work of some famed Renaissance master? Will he get a fair deal?

The "Art of the Matter" begins rather well, but just as we begin to like Trumpington Gore, Forsyth soon messes up things with a range of characters so much so that Gore fades into insignificance. A potentially great story ruined by unnecessary detail and twists and turns.

The only other story that might interest the reader is "The Miracle", a tale set in the medieval cobbled alleys of Siena, Tuscany. An American touristís wife sprains her leg as she makes her way through the narrow streets of the ancient city. Help comes in the form of a German who then tells her the story of Caterina of Mercy, a ghostly nun and a miracle that happened during World War II. Again, this story could have been a masterpiece but for its unsatisfactory ending.

Whether Forsyth likes it or not, all his later work has been and will be measured up against his first two books: "The Day of the Jackal" and "The Odessa File". In the past three decades or so, he has been trying to give us great novels like "The Fourth Protocol", "The Devilís Alternative", and "The Negotiator", but he never quite managed to regain his former touch. His "Icon" and "The Phantom of Manhattan" were quite bad indeed.

One reason why Forsythís later work is not as impressive is that, after writing his first few books, Forsyth acquired the habit of packing his novels with a horde of characters and layer after layer of subplots so much so that he had at times to print a list of dramatis personae in the beginning of his novels. He began to dwell on even minor characters, as a result the reader often got totally overwhelmed. This book also suffers from the same problem. Forsyth often forgets that what he is presenting here are short stories and not his usual 450-page thriller.

Of late, Forsyth has also been unable to resist the temptation of using all the research that was done for his earlier books. For instance, he describes the procedures paramedics employ in an emergency, although it has nothing to do with the story. In the "Day of the Jackal", he describes in detail how the Jackal manages to get a new identity and a forged passport for himself, but there it worked because it was essential to the plot. When your research begins to show, the story suffers. Not every reader is interested in the instruments that are in the cockpit of a fighter plane, or the mechanics of an anti-ballistic missile.

Another habit that most thriller writers such as Forsythís rival Jeffery Archer find hard to overcome is the twist in the tail popularised by O. Henry. This technique is wonderful, but it does not work always, and in the hands of a lesser writer it just falls flat. At worst, it leaves the reader unsatisfied and cheated. Forsyth, in the past, has managed the sting in the tail quite well in stories such as "No Comebacks", but in this book he does not succeed as well. He also fails to give us memorable characters such as Peter Miller and Eduard Roschmann of "The Odessa File", John Preston of "The Fourth Protocol", and of course the unforgettable, nameless, faceless Jackal.

Following the tremendous success of Stephen Kingís recent e-novella "Riding the Bullet", "The Veteran" was also released as a five- part e-book short story series through Internet publisher Online Originals. Forsyth told reporters that he believed the advent of e-books was one of the most exciting developments in his experience as a professional writer as it offered the author a whole range of new opportunities and freedom.

Coming back to the book itself, the lovers of the thriller genre and Frederick Forsyth might still find "The Veteran" compelling. But as you turn the pages of this book, you will find everything, complicated plots, intrigue, action, suspense, not the veteran himself.