The Outsider

Title:                      The Outsider

Author:                 Frederick Forsyth

Forsyth, Frederick (2015). The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue. New York : G.P. Putnam’s Sons

LCCN:    2015015842

PR6056.O699 Z46 2015


Date Posted:      November 11, 2016

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

Let us hope that certain passages in this memoir by British thriller writer Frederick Forsyth do not cause trouble–perhaps fatal trouble–for authors who follow his example and use their profession as a cover for work for intelligence agencies.

For those of you unfamiliar with the thriller genre, Forsyth is at the top of the pack. He has succeeded because his 15 novels, most of them best-sellers, have a definite ring of authenticity. Forsyth spent his early years as a journalist, beginning with a provincial British newspaper, then with the Reuters news agency and BBC, with assignments throughout Europe and Africa.

A shrewd reporter, Forsyth eschewed the egotism endemic among too many journalists. He developed what he termed his “Bettie Wooster mode, an adopted persona based on P. G. Wodehouse’s witless hero: helpless, well-meaning, affable, but as dim as a five-watt bulb.” The contrived bumbler pose enabled Forsyth to mingle with African war lords, mercenary soldiers, and drug dealers who took him as “the harmless fool with a British passport.” Despite his innocent guise, Forsyth never lacked bravery–at age 19, he had been the youngest pilot in the Royal Air Force, and his girlfriends included the mistress of the East German defense minister.

Drinking late night beers in the 9th arrondissment of Paris, a red-light district, the young reporter was an unnoticed presence who “stared vacantly at the wall” and listened to military dissidents rant about their idea of killing former Premier Charles de Gaulle, who had decided to end France’s domination of Algeria. Once he left BBC, Forsyth holed up in a friend’s apartment and, in 35 days, wrote a novel on a plot to kill de Gaulle, The Day of the Jackal. A string of subsequent best-sellers brought him international fame.

Forsyth also had developed a reputation as a hard-nosed reporter with both a conscience and a zest for the truth. He recognized early-on the mass starvations in strife-torn Biafra, a human tragedy which the British foreign office chose to ignore.

But the government included a strong dissenting voice: the Secret Intelligence Service—he called it “the Firm”—which preferred to deal in hard facts rather than political opinion. Forsyth’s reporting from Biafra attracted the attention of an SIS officer who shared his disdain for what he called the “cowardice” of the government. The officer needed a trusted “source on the ground” whose eyes-on evidence could rebut charges of media exaggeration. Forsyth willingly became the SIS’s source, continuing his journalistic work all the while.

Unfortunately, the SIS effort failed, despite the efforts of Forsyth and international relief groups. As he writes, a “coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honor of my country forever, and I will never forgive them.”

Forsyth’s work for SIS did not end with Biafra. As he writes, “the firm has always been able to rely on a widespread army of volunteers prepared to help out if asked nicely. They come from a vast array of professions, something that causes them to travel a bit. They may agree while on a foreign visit…to pick up a package, deliver a letter to a hole in a tree, make a payment, or just keep their eyes and ears open and undergo a cheerful debriefing when they get home.”

Forsyth describes several such missions on behalf of SIS. Perhaps the most dramatic involves a Russian asset who had brought a package of information to Dresden. The deal was that he would swap it for a package from SIS (presumably containing money or further contact information). SIS officers constructed a hiding spot beneath the battery of Forsyth’s auto, and he carried out the swap successfully (albeit with a scare or two along the way).

His noble and patriotic motives notwithstanding–not to mention his bravery–Forsyth’s decision to write about his relations with SIS is something that writers of thrillers and other books can find disturbing. As he puts it, “If the profession of foreign correspondent made a very good cover for a bit of ‘enhanced entourism’ on behalf of the Firm, an established author researching his next novel was even better. It enabled me to go just about anywhere, ask to meet and converse with just about anyone, and pose just about any question. And all to be explained as such as research for a novel to be written–or not, for all anyone could prove.”

As of this writing, a Washington Post reporter named Jason Rezaian has been held in an Iranian prison for more than a year on accusations of being a spy– a charge his editors and his family emphatically deny[2]. Other reporters working in the turbulent Middle East, where the concept of a free press does not exist, are in daily danger.

Forsyth is justifiably proud of distinguished careers in journalism and fiction writing. He should have been content to rest on those laurels alone.


[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, pp. 103-104). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[2] Jason Rezaian was held in an Iranian prison for more than 18 months. He was released by Iran on Jan. 16 2016 through a deal with the U.S.

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