The Fourth Protocol

Posted: July 2, 2014 in Book reviews

By Frederick Forsyth

Its 1987 and the General Secretary of the Politburo, aided by British traitor Kim Philby, has hatched a plan designed to ensure a Labour victory at the next UK General election by breaking the so called Fourth Protocol, a secret caveat of previous nuclear talks. The Fourth Protocol precludes any of the nuclear powers from smuggling a nuclear weapon into another country. Now the Soviets plan to not only smuggle the parts of such a device into the UK, but to assemble and detonate it near to a US airbase, making it seem that an American bomb has gone off which will drive the British voters towards the Labour party. Shortly after the election victory the plan is for Neil Kinnock to be replaced by a hard left candidate who will become Britain’s first Marxist Prime Minister.

KGB Agent Valeri Petrofsky is chosen to infiltrate the UK, setting himself up with house in Suffolk. Slowly but surely the component parts of the bomb are smuggled in by a succession of Soviet agents. Petrofsky hasn’t reckoned with the dogged investigations of MI5 agent John Preston however, although Preston’s concerns about a possible Soviet plot aren’t taken nearly seriously enough by his superiors, which complicates matters.

With time running out can Preston track down Petrofsky before he completes his mission?

One of Forsyth’s greatest talents as a writer is to make even the most banal and procedural elements of a story seem exciting. In his hands a search of hotel cards in The Day of the Jackal feels like a running gun battle. He is meticulous in his research, and in putting this all down on paper.

When done well, as in his best novel (the aforementioned Day of the Jackal) or The Dogs of War, it makes for fascinating reading. However sometimes there isn’t enough of a payoff from all that hard work, and whilst The Fourth Protocol is fascinating in places, it lacks the sense of drama to make it a classic.

As a protagonist Preston makes for a great hunter, but unlike the eponymous Jackal Petrofsky is a thinly realised character, and although the book tries to build towards a tense finale it never quite has you on the edge of your seat.

There’s early promise in a detailed examination of a burglary committed by a top criminal that will have wide reaching ramifications, and similarly the nuts and bolts espionage work is intriguing. It’s just a shame things fizzle out towards the end.

There’s also the problem that Forsyth lets his politics show through a bit too much. Perhaps he had done before but it hadn’t been so noticeable because he was talking about France, or Africa. When he’s talking about Great Britain of the 1980s, about Thatcher and Kinnock, the Cold War and CND, it seems so very obvious which side of the fence he’s on. That’s not to say a writer shouldn’t let his politics inform his writing, he, or she, should perhaps be a bit more subtle about it.

Similarly, although very much a product of its time (written in 1984), it’s hard not to wince a little at how gays and ethnic minorities are portrayed, although Forsyth is hardly the only author to have written in this way.

As a snapshot of the 1980s, and the Cold War, it’s interesting, and it’s enjoyable enough as a thriller, but a book about the potential detonation of a nuclear bomb should really create more of a bang than this does.

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