Book Review: The Fox by Frederick Forsyth

Book Review: The Fox by Frederick Forsyth

Hacking as telepathy

Frederick Forsyth is a name known to all readers for his terse Cold War-era thrillers, from Day of the Jackal to The Fourth Protocol. With the world changing over time — with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the evolving saga of Russia, North Korea and Iran, Forsyth has been updating the themes of his novels. In his newest, The Fox, Forsyth turns his sights on the world of computer hacking and its implications on the profession of spying.

Alas, he misses a few tricks here.

The Fox is Luke Jennings, an 18-year-old in England who is a genius at hacking into secure computer systems. Unfortunately, he’s an autistic, painfully shy young man who needs a familiar, comforting environment to function. When he’s discovered by British and American secret service agents, they figure out that he could be a weapon in their hands. Sir Adrian Weston, a retired British spymaster, becomes his ‘handler’, taking care of Luke and his family, and directing him towards suitable targets in enemy countries: nuclear enrichment labs, warship control centres, gas pipelines… The Fox hacks all these targets in double-quick time, causing catastrophic failures in evil military programmes, or maybe just embarrassing the heck out of them. Soon enough, said enemy countries discover the existence of this prodigy and set out to kill him. These attempts are all old style, set in the world that Forsyth is familiar with: storming lonely estates with hired soldiers, silenced motorboats with assassins, snipers, and so on. But Weston is also experienced, and he has been working on countermeasures to protect his young charge. The bulk of the book is composed of these various attempts by the various evil agencies to kill Jennings, and Weston’s countermeasures to protect him. It helps that both Weston and Jennings possess the strongest weapon of all: plot armour (aka being protagonists of the book, who must always survive).

Now, without the computer-hacking part, this is a standard template in political thrillers: a secret weapon that is the bone of contention between nations, which the good guys must acquire/protect at all costs. We’ve even had the secret weapons be people before: witnesses to crimes, heirs to thrones, even telepaths. Here it’s Jennings. So if one takes the book at face value, one might enjoy it.

The problem is that computer hacking is a very different thing from telepathy — hacking, for one, exists and is at large in the modern world. In the newspapers, in magazines, even in PSAs, we are warned about how hackers acquire data, how they work in groups, what their common targets are. This reflects in popular fiction as well. Ever since Lisbeth Salander burst onto the scene, the expectation is that a hacker is not just a convenient plot device, but a real person who works in an increasingly familiar domain. Surely we should be hearing about Jennings’s methods of acquiring passwords, about the various social engineering techniques he employs, or at least about the various tools and websites that hackers have at their disposal?

Forsyth is, after all, the man renowned for going deep into his subject. But we hear no insightful detailing of this new electronic world. Forsyth treats hacking as just a plot device. Just like telepathy, no one has a counter-weapon either — no “evil hacking department” makes an appearance.

This omnipotence of hacking leads to another problem with the book: the lack of a clear climax. Jennings can do anything, get anywhere, break any system. So we never have a singular goal towards which the book leads — a large unbelievable achievement by Jennings, say, or a slowly unfolding plan to assassinate him. Instead, there are multiple cycles of hack, after-effects, attack and counter-attack. None of these attempts seems any more significant than the others. So once we’ve been through one complete round, there is nothing too much to look forward to. In order to end the book, Forsyth is forced to employ a rather weak deus ex machina.

Finally, there is the world in which the book is set. Forsyth’s forte is the world of organised secret agencies, and he gives us readers a proper dose of spy tactics. In the world of today, the power equations have gotten murky, with Russia, Iran, England and the US, all taking on increasingly grey shades. In Forsyth’s mind, however, England remains the best country ever with all the best people and an ideal society. He is willing to make fun of both Trump and Putin (without explicitly naming them), but will treat British politicians and the civil service reverentially. Possibly this was acceptable a generation ago, but with the recent economic slippage of England, no one will give it that leeway any more.

As a long-time Forsyth fan, this reviewer ends up disappointed. Would not recommend.