First published in 1984, and set several years in the future, Frederick Forsyth’s ninth novel, The Fourth Protocol, is a complex but superbly written espionage story, set during the Cold War, involving Russia’s interference in the UK’s 1987 general election. With Labour growing in popularity, and a hard-left faction set to take control of the party once they achieve the expected win, Russia’s interest in the election takes on new levels of intensity. Kim Philby, disgraced Russian spy, meets with senior members of the Soviet political system, setting in motion a chain of events that will culminate in the smuggling into Britain, and assembly, of the individual components required to build a small nuclear bomb…
Whilst I can’t agree with his personal politics, there’s no denying that Frederick Forsyth is an extremely readable author. His experience in the intelligence service always comes across as bona fide, lending the novels a level of authenticity that is difficult to replicate with research alone. You genuinely feel you are privy to how things like this go on, even if that isn’t actually the case. There’s an assured tone in all of his fiction. The first novel of his I read was 1971’s The Day of the Jackal, a masterpiece of intrigue and political insight, and I have yet to come across any of his work that I haven’t loved. The Fourth Protocol is no exception.
The opening third of the novel takes its time in arranging the characters and revealing the various characters involved in the story. Like much of Forsyth’s work, fiction and fact are blended in a compelling way, adding veracity to the events. There’s a nice middle section where the man tasked with uncovering the murky plot, John Preston, visits South Africa to investigate someone suspected on being a foreign agent, reminding us that spy fiction is really just a branch of the crime genre. Preston is a likeable character, not flashy like James Bond, but a little bit more action-based than a character in a John le Carre novel. The final third of the novel is absolutely brilliant, detailing the assembly of the nuclear bomb by a Russian agent based in Suffolk, as John Preston and his British secret service colleagues race against the clock to thwart his plans.
If you enjoy espionage or crime fiction you may well have read this already, as it’s a classic of the genre. And rightly so. It’s an exciting, brilliantly executed novel, full of twists and turns, with a sympathetic central character and a plausible plot. This is highly recommended.