At a bookstore recently, we scarfed up a few novels to use as intellectual breaks from work and time-killers, not that time-killing is really a thing around here. Two of them are of interest because they’re from authors we’ve been reading for 40 years, and who are still writing. Having finished the books, we found them both flawed, but we liked one much more than the other, and found they had some things in common.
The authors are Wilbur Smith, whom we came to like for his great stories of Africa, his own native ground; and Frederick Forsyth, who grabbed us by the stacking swivel with the same novel that put his name on the map, The Day of the Jackal, back in the 1970s.
The Vicious Circle. Wilbur Smith
In the Smith entry, Vicious Circle, his protagonist, the head of a small, professional Private Military Corporation staffed largely by fellow SAS vets must deal with an attack that has personal as well as global implications, and is thrust into a situation where men are not what they seem, at first. The plot is complicated and intricate; Smith has not lost his knack for pacing or for exotic locations, and his action scenes are stirring and cinematic.
Where the book failed was in characterization. The good characters are so good, so decent, so loyal that they make an e-type silhouette look deep and complex. And they are deep and complex, compared to the villains, who are so bad, so evil and so corrupt that they seem to have been crossed with crocodiles, simply bringing higher human logic to the primitive violence of the saurian eating machines.
The paper thin characters meant that, when Smith dangled a character who was not what he seemed, Helen Keller would have seen the tells before Smith could spring his reveal. So instead of, “Holy crap! That guy was really a good man, not a terrorist!” you are more likely to think, “About time, I saw this coming two chapters ago.”
And the violence was so graphically described that it passed beyond realism into some kind of sadistic prurience. In our view, it is enough to know that Character X was the subject of a brutal homosexual gang-rape. We do not need to know the injury by injury, thrust by thrust details of the crime. If some bestial form of death is visited upon an innocent character (and it surely is), we do not see the narrative advanced by page after page of gruesome detail. Then, the characters’ reactions to this violence are not always realistic. (The rape victim establishes a permanent relationship with his principal rapist. Sure, that happens all the time, right?)
While the story is set in the world of today, and the villains initially appear to be some of the usual bad guys, there’s a predictable TV Movie twist, and the true villain turns out to be — a corporate guy, corrupted by the blood of the Nazi that flows in his veins. This is less a spoiler than Smith evidently thought it would be, thanks to his never using a hint of foreshadowing when a billboard with lights and motion is potentially at hand.
If you want to read Smith at his best, we’re going to have to send you to his back list. Look for copyright dates pre-1990 for his very best stuff.
The Kill List. Frederick Forsyth.
The Kill List is, likewise, a story that could be next week’s headlines. A mysterious propagandist has been making videos, inciting young Mohammedans to leaderless, isolated acts of terrorism. In Britain, the USA, and elsewhere, previously unnoticed singletons are whacking second-, third-, and fourth-tier political and national-security figures, inspired to acts of suicidal martyrdom. The only things that tie the disparate cases together are fundamentalist Islam, and video incitement.
The List of the title is not kept by the terrorists. They do not have to hit specific targets, they can do what they want to do — destabilize their enemies, and perhaps provoke overreaction — by hitting any targets. No, the List is the list prepared and approved by the American President.
The book explores some serious concepts, like the limits of droning identified leaders, both as national policy and CT operational art. But it does that in the context of a cracking good adventure yarn.
Forsyth’s characters, including his terrorists, are more complete constructs than those of many novelists. They do things for reasons; they have internally-consistent or at least -reconcilable belief systems. They’re not, most of them, superhuman in abilities, talents or perfection.
A true test of a novelist’s art is the reader’s emotional state as the book draws to a close. In the last 100 pages, are you looking forward to what comes next? Or are you dreading the last page, the one that tells you your time with these characters is at an end? We were relatively sorry to see Forsyth’s characters off. This may not be his greatest book, but after Vicious Circle we were asking only to be entertained by one of our own favorites, and bedamned if we weren’t.
One Problem with Both Books
Both books do a poor job of describing firearms and their operation, and contain small and grating errors. Nobody’s errors rise to the level of “he screwed his silencer onto the revolver” or “gripping the grenade pin in his teeth” or “he recognized the assassin’s gun instantly as a .380 Bulgarian Magnum.” But they get close, and for a gun guy, it’s jarring.
There are a lot of other small errors. A small Forsyth explanatory paragraph deftly describes the Lockheed C-130 Hercules with poetic economy:
The most frills-free airliner cannot compare with the rear of a C-130. No soundproofing, no heating, no pressurization and certainly no beverage service. The tracker knew it would never get quieter, but it would become savagely cold as the air thinned. Nor is the rear leakproof. Despite the oxygen-delivering mask on his face, the place was by now redolent with the odors of kerosene and oil.
In fact, the cargo compartment of the C-130 is pressurized, and has been since the first one flew in 1955. Forsyth actually missed a trick here: he is describing a HALO insertion, but one of the most remarkable details of such an operation is that the plane is pressurized until shortly before reaching the drop zone. As the plane bears down on the release point, the jumpers breathe oxygen from an onboard console and the plane is depressurized and the tailgate opened. The jumpers switch to bailout bottles and test their oxygen rigs as part of their prejump checks. As soon as the jumpers are clear (unless there is reason to monitor them from the tailgate), the gate is closed and the plane repressurized. Getting this right would have kept Forsyth from wasting the talent and effort he clearly applied to that small excerpt above, at least with knowledgable readers.
In another gaffe, a real-life figure, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is described as being “from the Jordanian village of Zarqa.” Zarqa is actually Jordan’s second city, the historical home of the Arab Legion. It’s a few miles from Amman and has a population of some half-million souls. Some village!
These kinds of small errors are only distracting, of course, if you know they’re errors. Most of you probably haven’t been to Zarqa this year, unlike us. And there are fewer of them in The Kill List than there are in Vicious Circle; we just happened to use examples from The Kill List because that’s the book nearest at hand when writing the review.