His creations garrote, disembowel and blow each other up amid international intrigue penned years before headlines turn plots into reality.
But scooting forward on a leather couch overlooking the Columbia River, avuncular Briton Frederick Forsyth seems a world away from terrorism and bloodshed.
Forsyth, whose name is usually prefaced by "best-selling thriller writer," was in Astoria this week researching his latest novel.
He self-consciously guards the plot of "The Afghan," but will reveal that it features Islamic terrorists and its hero is a British soldier who helped the Muhjahadeen drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Forsyth has a January deadline so it can hit stores in September 2006.
His visit to the Northwest had two purposes: researching scenery in the North Cascades while visiting special forces vets who can kill you with their thumbs.
In the 1950s, Forsyth was the youngest pilot in the Royal Air Force at 19. He worked as a Reuters news correspondent in Paris and East Berlin during the height of the Cold War, and then freelanced in Africa for magazines and the BBC.
Al Venter, a South African-born author who lives in Chinook, Wash., hosted his North Coast stay.
They met in the late 1960s during the Nigeria-Biafra War. Forsyth was in a hospital dying of malaria when a taxi driver alerted Venter, a fellow journalist, to his plight. He supplied chloroquine for Forsyth's recovery.
They share a fascination for Africa, a common hobby of scuba diving (though they have never dived together) and a joint obsession with mercenaries. Forsyth's third book and movie, "The Dogs of War," featured an executive who hired private soldiers to overthrow an African government and secure lucrative mining rights. Venter's latest project is a revision of his nonfiction book about mercenaries, "War Dog." Earlier in his career, Venter, who has written for Jane's worldwide intelligence and defense publications, wrote "The Chopper Boys," a book which features real soldiers-for-hire.
He felt the shot part his hair before he heard the retort from the Belgian-made Fabrique Nationale rifle. The Nigerian sniper missed, providing the correspondent a souvenir and a story to dine out on. In the silence after the firefight, Forsyth dug the bullet out of the woodwork behind his head; his London jeweler fashioned it into a memento mori.
Africa is an ocean and an age away. Today Forsyth is wearing stone-colored trousers and a powder-blue open-necked shirt. His long face, recognizable from book jacket photos, is drenched in late-evening sun. He is nearing 68 and trying to conceal his weariness from too many meetings while distorting his body clock to chat by phone with England while the North Coast sleeps.
Unlike many interview subjects, he talks in complete sentences, rather than fragments, but at a natural pace, not condescending dictation. His comments appear thought-out, but not rehearsed.
Periodically, he sips 2001 Louis Jadot Pinot Noir from a long-stemmed glass which he fusses with once or twice. The burgundy is the brightest color in Venter's front room which is littered with maps and his own research notes about men who kill for money in faraway lands.
In 1971, Forsyth wrote his first novel, "The Day of the Jackal," in 35 days. Returning from Africa, he crashed on a friend's couch, homeless, unemployed and "skint" (British slang for penniless). He typed 12 pages a day for 35 days, then found a publisher willing to take a chance; his only prior book was a nonfiction work on the Biafran War.
More success followed, with "The Odessa File," a novel with its roots in the world of Simon Weisenthal, Israel's real-life Nazi war-criminal hunter, then "The Dogs of War," about mercenaries in Africa. Jon Voight and Christopher Walken starred in the movie versions.
More thrillers followed, including "The Fourth Protocol," "The Negotiator" and "The Fist of God," about Saddam Hussein's weapon of mass destruction. His one change of genre, "The Phantom of Manhattan," a sequel to "Phantom of the Opera," was hammered by critics who repeatedly praise Forsyth for his attention to detail.
He concedes that reputation is a mixed blessing.
"I wanted like hell to do it right. People said they were bewildered by detail," the author recalls. "It became a sort of trademark."
Now he spends a full year researching, using what he calls "extended journalism" to avoid mistakes that would cause readers to question his authenticity.
"I listen to experts and get it right," says Forsyth, prompting Venter to join the conversation.
"He's one of the most modest men I know," his host says.
"I just keep my vanity well concealed," Forsyth whispers back before returning to how he wins over a reader.
"If he can trust you about things that he can check out then he's willing to believe things that he wouldn't.
"I get a bit picky about getting things right."
The British government thinks Forsyth reveals too much. Although his books were banned in the Soviet Union, Forsyth says a KGB defector once told him his stories were required reading for trainee spies. In "Jackal" he embarrassed British authorities because his lead character obtained a false British passport by checking tombstones to locate the name of an infant who died, knowing there were no cross checks with death records. Government policy was changed after the revelation.
Another detail in "The Negotiator," where British agents place microphones in Irish terrorists' coffins to monitor conversations between mourners at funerals, was based on Secret Service practices that have been discontinued.
Forsyth's books have been slam-dunk scripts for movies. He offers a Gallic shrug when asked whether authors have any control of their work once it reaches Hollywood. "Film people don't like authors," he says.
Neverless, he recounts a story of Fred Zimmerman, whose "High Noon" and "Man for All Seasons" impressed him. The Viennese director asked Forsyth about casting his British assassin. Stars were lining up, and the studio demanded an American.
"Michael Caine, Roger Moore and Charlton Heston all wanted it," Forsyth recalls, offering a passable Cockney voice imitation of his buddy Caine, who later starred in "The Fourth Protocol."
But Zimmerman wanted an Englishman with an aristocratic look, and laid out six publicity photos. Forsyth pointed to theater-trained unknown Edward Fox, whom Zimmerman had already engaged based on his success in "The Go-Between" with Alan Bates and Julie Christie. ("The other five were male models who couldn't act," Forsyth recalls with a chuckle.) Fox continues in a career that alternates films with the London stage.
So is it all glamour? Forsyth avoids the celebrity circuit, preferring home life at his farm in a desirable county north of London and his wife's nest in the suddenly fashionable capital suburb of Notting Hill. He revels in sport fishing and spending time with two grown sons.
He prefers to read nonfiction, mostly histories of the 20th century. He says he never reads his competitors in the genre - Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, etc. But he is quick to correct a visitor who mistakes a likeable sergeant-major in the mercenary drama "The Wild Geese" for his own "Dogs of War" - even volunteering the name of the actor who plays him in the movie.
After Astoria, his search for authenticity will take him to Pakistan. Once his notebooks are full, he'll return to his English barn and begin a regimen, writing from 6 a.m. to noon, stopping for a light lunch and swim in his pool, followed by reworking from 4 to 6 p.m.
He'll type 10 clean pages a day for 50 days, careful to make a photocopy of every sheet, paranoid about losing it all in a fire.
He resists computers. Instead, he types page after page after page on a typewriter.
It's Japanese, and electric, but for once the master of detail cannot remember what model.
Beware. Islamic terrorists are planning another big strike.
That was the grim message from author Frederick Forsyth this week.
"It will cause convulsions of enormous importance," he said.
Speaking during a trip to Astoria to research his next novel, the Briton warned that Sept. 11 and July's subway bombings in London signal more trouble ahead.
Forsyth's planned thriller, "The Afghan," will reflect today's reality as extremists within a divided Islam attack enemies on two fronts.
"There is a doctrinal revolution within Islam that is bewildering to most nonMuslims," said Forsyth. "At the moment, the extremists are winning, especially the younger generation."
Unlike some religions, which have a central authority like the pope, Islam is fragmented and its holy book, the Koran, is open to interpretation. Forsyth said this allows extremists to preach revolution, "purging" Islam of pro-Western moderates while encouraging attacks on Western nations.
He said history shows little development in the Arab world in scholarship, science, literature or economics in the past five centuries - other than oil drilling - while Western and even Far East cultures have become prominent.
"All the ills are the 'infidels' fault - we are the guys targeted for blame, for what's gone wrong with Islam in the past 500 years."
"They ask 'How could Allah let us be like this - living in poverty when there's so much wealth and prosperity?"
With this attitude, bewilderment becomes resentment then hatred.
"Revolutionaries tend to be young, and tend to grow out of it, but not before they have killed a lot of people."
Considerable supportHe said a recent survey showed 24 percent of Muslims "approving" or saying they "could see the point of view" of Osama bin Laden and the radical clerics who stir up violence against Islamic moderates and the West.
Suicide attacks like 9/11, the recent London bombings, the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the USS Cole in 2000 have failed to properly open the West's eyes to the danger from fanatics, he said. These bombers smile as they press the detonator, believing they'll be rewarded in paradise by Allah if they die while killing "infidels."
So nations are bolting the stable door. The French are expelling "firebrand preachers"; the British are outlawing the promotion of religious hatred.
"It's years too late." said Forsyth. "They have created their own little mini-generation of warped minds."
As for President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair's attempt to westernize Iraq by ousting Saddam, Forsyth is barely polite as the insurgency intensifies.
"The dream of imposing democracy seems threadbare, because it seems there's no appetite for democracy."
Forsyth said Western policymakers have failed to learn from history. Some Muslims still hate the English for the Crusades 10 centuries ago; its ally, the United States - "the great Satan" - is viewed as at fault for modern ills.
"We have underestimated them. It's a chip like a Washington pine," he said. "The only solution is that moderate Islam has simply got to take charge and now it's in a state of war."
- Patrick Webb