Tuesday, May 03, 2011

[Books] Book Look: The Devil's Alternative

Book Look: The Devils Alternative by Frederick Forsyth: When it comes to cold war thrillers, Frederick Forsyth is everyone's daddy. He wrote such movie fodder as Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File. When William F. Buckley wanted to start writing his own cold war fiction he told his publisher he wanted to write something like Forsyth. And now having read The Devil's Alternative, the source of the tone, pacing and style of Tom Clancy's The Hunt For Red October and Red Storm Rising have become quite clear. So yeah, Forsyth's a genre monster.

When I delve into genre fiction it's almost always either a spy thriller or a mystery. Mysteries tend to be more flexible; they can span great stretches of time and vary anywhere from screwball comedy to high concept art. Spy thrillers seem to be more limited. Some have literary aspirations and most people mention John Le Carre as an example of the literary bent of spy novels. I'm not sure I'm on board with that. Le Carre writes more subtly and with a greater capability to dramatize than most, but I'm not sure I would call any spy novels "literary" other than at the margin.

And that's not condescension. Genre writing takes as much talent and dedication as mainstream fiction; even more for well written works that find new angles and insights within the standard constraints. So when I say I feel lukewarm about The Devil's Advocate it's simply because it's heavy on the aspects of the spy genre that aren't to my taste.

Released in 1979 and set a couple of years into an imagined future, we are in the heart of the spy writer's glory days of the Cold War. (Spy writers really have never recovered from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Islamic terrorism is just too crude and dirty by comparison.) Due to twin disaster of nature and incompetence, the Soviet Union is facing a crop failure that will inevitably lead to famine. Separately, a Ukrainian dissident has committed a terrorist act that he hopes will inspire rebellion in other nations subjugated by Russians. Despite being mortal enemies, the U.S. does not want such chaos to ensue since it will likely lead to the downfall of the Soviet premier and his replacement by a super hawk and inevitably change the cold war to hot. These twin threats and their resolution become linked over the course of the novel and we are treated to cast of international characters, nicely diverse in motivation, all with a role to play for good or evil. And, of course, a surprise twist at the very end.

The Devils Aternative reads like a movie yet to be made -- mix in a leading man (say a Christian Bale type), a good side man (Morgan Freeman would work; doesn't he always?), maybe a call backs to the genre (Harrison Ford as someone's superior officer; Michael Caine as a spymaster) and crack director (not Michael Bay please) and you got yourself a summer blockbuster. You could write the script nearly scene for scene with the novel (maybe that will be my next project).

It's about the perfect spy thriller and where it falls down for me is not a shortcoming of the book but my lack of appreciation for comprehensive technical description. The book is about a third too long. There are longish stretches where the technical points and procedures are explained in very thorough detail, something that is key for the genre fans. This adds to the realism and fires the imagination of readers (I won't call them spy-nerds, but if I did it would not be an insult) who are the bread and butter targets of espionage/military writers. A description of the inner workings of an oil laden supertanker is riveting to some. Not me. I would rather you cut to the chase because to me it doesn't matter. As long as the plot is plausible, I'm happy. I don't need proof. But that's why I am not the main target audience here. By the half-way point I found myself skipping and skimming to get to the resolution.

Should you read The Devils Alternative? If you love espionage ala Ludlum and Clancy, then yes. Read it now. You will not be disappointed. If you're looking for something to distract yourself with while your cable is out and you can't get the latest action flick -- sure. Otherwise...meh. You could do worse, but you may find it grueling in parts. Feel free to skip ahead now and then.