Book review: The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue

WHERE do you get your ideas? — is a question most writers come to dread, and may well be one of the reasons why Frederick Forsyth has finally published his autobiography. 

Frederick Forsyth

Bantam Press, €29.50

The author of best-selling thrillers such as The Day of the Jackal (1971), The Fourth Protocol (1984), The Kill List (2013) and many more, Forsyth has lived a storied life, and one that has, as the subtitle ‘My Life in Intrigue’ suggests, directly impacted on his fiction.

Born in 1938, the young Forsyth grew up a child of the Cold War. 

A flair for languages and travel ensured that he was fluent in French, Spanish, German and Russian before he left school, although his true passion was flying. 

He was also, it seems, something of a lightning conductor for trouble. In 1958, for example, aged just 19 and with a month to kill at the end of this RAF fighter pilot training, Forsyth decided to use the time to travel to the Middle East, via Malta, Cyprus and Lebanon.

“I had been away three weeks,” he writes as he concludes his eventful holiday, “experiencing one mid-air near disaster, one civil war and two uprisings.” 

Such was not untypical of Forsyth’s life. 

“We all make mistakes,” he begins this book, “but starting the Third World War would have been a rather large one.” 

That particular snafu occurred when Forsyth was living in East Berlin as a Reuters correspondent in the early 1960s, where he would on occasion, and despite the shadowing presence of the Communist regime, moonlight on behalf of the British secret service. 

Nor was that the last time Forsyth would operate as an ‘asset’: while never a spy, Forsyth regularly made himself available to facilitate operations run by the SIS/MI6.

Indeed, so packed with incident was the first half of his life — he covered the Biafran War as a BBC foreign correspondent, got involved with Russian princesses, romanced beautiful Czechoslovakian spies, flew with the Red Arrows — that Forsyth doesn’t get around to talking about his fiction until we’re about two-thirds of the way through this memoir. 

A hard-bitten, cynical journalist by 1970, Forsyth was still naïve enough as a novelist not to realise that a thriller about an assassination attempt on a living historical figure — Charles De Gaulle — simply wouldn’t work. 

The result, The Day of the Jackal, was a ground-breaking tour-de-force of realism, largely due to Forsyth’s insider knowledge of guarding De Gaulle, garnered from a Corsican ex- Foreign Legion mercenary Forsyth met while working in Biafra.

And on the anecdotes go. While living in Ireland in the 1970s, Forsyth becomes a regular dinner-party companion of the ‘amusing rogue’ Charles Haughey, who offers the author the position of Senator. 

For The Cobra (2010), and now in his 70s , Forsyth flew into the ‘West African hell-hole’ of Guinea-Bissou to research cocaine-smuggling, “where I had staged through 40 years earlier, perched on a crate of mortars, when a bullet came through the floor and went through the ceiling.”

He can be forthright in his criticism of British foreign policy, and pulls no punches when detailing his time working for the BBC, but Forsyth makes for an urbane narrator, the stories unfolding in the manner of tall tales and outrageous yarns swapped beside the blazing fire of an exclusive club, and enjoyed with a glass of something amber in hand.

It’s Boy’s Own stuff, of course, and overall The Outsider is an enthralling account of a life that would make for a thrilling, if delightfully implausible, novel.


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