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Friday, 14 September, 2001, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
Master storyteller caught short
Frederick Forsyth (photo by Tracey Rowe)
Forsyth is known for his in-depth research
By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani

Frederick Forsyth has become increasingly known in the UK for his strident political views on all manner of subjects from the state of the Labour government to the nature of the European project.

So perhaps his fans will be relieved to see him once again return to what he does best - writing thrillers.

Except The Veteran is something different. Four stories and one long enough to be a novella, covering themes well known to his fans.

Here we have a hardy but worn detective up against a dashing QC trying to beat a murder charge against two nasty thugs.

There is an art scam par excellence played out in the auction rooms of London. A medieval miracle story followed by an international drugs investigation.

Cover of The Veteran
First timers may want to read his novels
Finally, Forsyth tells us the story of the only man to have survived General Custer's disastrous last stand against the plains Indians in 1876.

Years ago Forsyth threw down the gauntlet to other thriller writers by producing stories so embedded in a fictional reality - thanks to his enormous capacity for research - that they not only gripped readers but were completely believable with it.

While the same level of research is present all the way through these stories, only two of them really come up to the high standards that he has set himself as a teller of tales.

Avid Forsyth fans may not be disappointed, but first time readers would do better starting with the one of his full-blown (and page-turning) novels.

Take the book's first and eponymous story. A middle-aged man with a limp is killed by thugs in a squalid part of London.

Believability

As the police investigation progresses, Forsyth delights in revealing to the reader the twists and turns of the story.

We learn how a detective gets his man, how a case is prosecuted and how a half-decent barrister - never mind a brilliant one - will pick holes in the strongest of cases.

But in a seeming rush to keep the story under 100 pages, the twist that comes at the end comes far too quickly and breaks that cardinal Forsyth rule of believability.

Thriller writing is easy if you can convince the reader that the clearly preposterous may in fact be the case.

Frederick Forsyth earned his reputation by turning his face against the approach of the fantasists, so the climax of The Veteran is eyebrow-raising to say the least.

Pointless

The medieval miracle story unfortunately suffers a similar fate.

It is a wonderfully imagined story of the spirit of a pious woman who returns to heal fatally-wounded soldiers dying in war-torn Italy.

It is richly told but pulls up desperately short by a flat and pointless finale. More eyebrows raised.

In contrast, the Art of the Matter is not only pacy but comes closest to the cover's boast of being from the pen of "The Master Storyteller" (do authors get a say in these silly cover lines?)

Forsyth draws you into a world of dastardly backstabbing and plotting over the fate of Old Masters. If there is a detail of this world not contained in the story, it's not worth knowing.

But it is the final novella, Whispering Wind, that stands tall among the short stories as Forsyth invites you to learn the ways of the hunter/tracker of the old Wild West.

His quarry is the one true love denied to him by forces beyond his control. How he sets out to regain that love is a history-cum-ghost story richly told spanning two eras and a single frontier mentality.

This collection is tautly written and practically boasts of the deep level of research that underpins it.

But the storytelling itself has mixed results - perhaps too mixed to convince a first-time reader of Forsyth's reputation as the thriller writer's thriller writer.

The Veteran is published by Transworld

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