Frederick Forsyth is known for his espionage novels, much like John le Carre. Majority of his novels start with a chink in the armour of Western powers that has been found by the Soviet authorities, who know want to exploit it for their own gains. However, call it USSR’s bad luck or the good luck of their Western enemies, the latter always get a hint of their problems just before the former are about to launch their offensives. But such similarities do not lead to a lackluster story always. In Forsyth’s masterful hands, they become as good as any other spy story, if not better.
The President of Russia is dead and one of the leading figures to win the next Presidential election is a man named Igor Komarov. Now Komarov may seem like your ordinary Russian Presidential hopeful: full of ego; hateful of the West; in league with the mafia; corrupt. Komarov is all that and much more. He wants to carry out the Final Solution for a second time in the history of the world and eliminate not just the Jews, but also the other Soviet minorities. He pens his vision in a document called the Black Manifesto and sends it to a couple of trusted colleagues. But as luck would have it, that document is left lying about by his Secretary and stolen by a cleaner, who after glancing through the document decides that it is something that should be sent to the British Embassy in Moscow.
Enter the British MI6. The agency is handed over the charge to stop Komarov from becoming the President and carrying out his plan. But Komarov controls the mafia, has 70% of the popular vote share and commands loyalties of a vast majority of people due to his bulging coffers. And bulging coffers seem to get you anywhere in Russia considering that everyone has a price. Realizing that sending a large Western force to resolve this affair and risk exposure is not an option, the British decide to send in an agent who has previous experience of Russia and its ways. Once inside Russia, Jason Monk goes about achieving his objective with methodical precision. He enlists the help of a Chechen rebel leader to offer him protection, convinces a retired tank general to air his honest views about Komarov and secretly meets with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church to discuss possibilities to install a new Tsar in Russia to dilute the power of the President. He engages with the heads of powerful banks of Russia, who fund the TV channels, to stop the propaganda broadcasts of Komarov. Meanwhile, the printing press where Komarov’s articles are published is blown up. All this causes a substantial dip in his ratings and leads him to order his second-in-command, Colonel Grishin, to clean up the mess and storm the Kremlin at New Year’s Eve and effect a coup.
The coup would have gone as planned but for the alertness of guess who-Jason Monk. He alerts the incorruptible head (yes, there is such a person in Russia who cannot be bribed) and manages to save the power from transferring into the hands of Komarov. Grishin is killed and his boss arrested.
As mentioned earlier, the espionage angle has been used by the authors in the past. But Forsyth has a magical talent of making even the mundane seem interesting. The characters are genuine and what I really like is the fact that he has incorporated some real life elements into his storyline-Aldrich Ames, the famous agent responsible for leaking secrets to the USSR features prominently throughout the story to explain why it is not all smooth sailing for Monk in this particular book. There is I believe no one in the world right now who writes spy stories as well as Forsyth, though probably le Carre can. Although the book is not as good as the author’s The Day of the Jackal, it is surely a read that cannot be missed.