From The Jackal to The Fox: Frederick Forsyth on remastering the spy game

News – Frederick Forsyth on remastering the spy game

The world was a different place when Frederick Forsyth wrote his first novel. The year was 1967. Forsyth, broke from being a news correspondent in West Africa, thought it might help to write a novel. It wasn’t the brightest idea. “People said ‘Rob a bank if you like; don’t write a book’,” he recalls. But he did anyway.

He based his first story on his time as a 23-year-old rookie in France, covering the chaotic aftermath of the attempted assassination of President Charles de Gaulle in 1962. The Day of the Jackal, didn’t just change Forsyth’s fortunes; it altered the template of the espionage thriller. The book focused on spy-craft, intelligence and counter-intelligence, and had a mystery that lasted until the end. A hit film followed, as did 20 more books and a style that influenced writers for decades. “It was all luck, luck, luck for me,” he says.

Fifty-six years on, The Fox follows a young hacker the British use to spy on enemy nations. But The Fox is a novel in disguise — an old-fashioned spy tale underneath the barest references to technology. Agents place coded ads in the papers when it’s time to meet. Readers get explanations for Trojans and firewalls…

The Fox is a clever book. An old-fashioned spy novel disguised as a tech thriller. What made you think of writing about hacking?

I’d read that somewhere in Britain, a young man [activist Lauri Love] had been charged by the American government with breaking into one of their most secret databases. But he also had a fragile mind – he had Asperger Syndrome, which makes it hard to get along with other people, but was at home in cyberspace.

I didn’t know such a brain existed. Everything I’ve ever written about has depended upon two half-answered questions: ‘What would happen if…?’ and ‘Would it be possible to…?’ I wondered what it would be like to take this young man with a strange talent, put him on the payroll, and have him peek into our enemies’ secret archives.

Parts of the book are almost eerily familiar, especially the bits about Russia sending assassins to kill spies in England.

I didn’t even need to look at the papers. The poisoning of a former Russian spy in Salisbury in March had nothing to do with computers, like in my book. But it was an indication that the man in Kremlin was prepared to murder people in foreign countries if he was upset enough. By the time I wrote the book, he’d already done it. I didn’t even need to hack into a database to figure out what he was thinking.

I didn’t name Putin, but it’s obvious it’s him. I didn’t name Trump either, but it’s obvious it’s him. That’s my little joke.
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