It’s been 40 years since Frederick Forsyth wrote “The Day of the Jackal,” a classic that vaulted him to the upper ranks of espionage-suspense writers. The times and the villains have changed, but Forsyth’s talent remains, as is evident in his latest novel, “The Kill List.”
It’s a story about today, about the list of terrorists that the U.S. president —Barack Obama isn’t named — has approved for elimination.
The two most famous names on that list were Osama bin Laden, who was killed in the famous SEAL Team 6 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan; and Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was killed by a missile fired from a drone over Yemen.
This story involves the hunt for a terrorist fluent in several languages, including English, who, with only his eyes visible, preaches the gospel of hatred on the Internet and incites his followers to become martyrs. Because Western intelligence agencies don’t know his identity, he is called simply the Preacher.
Chosen to pursue him is a battle-hardened Marine colonel named Christopher “Kit” Carson, who is assigned to a little known and harmless sounding organization called TOSA — Technical Operations Support Activity.
His father is a retired Marine general who, after his son begins to pursue the Preacher, becomes a victim when one of the zealots who hang on the Preacher’s every word carries out an attack on a lawmaker with whom the general is golfing.
The general is one of 11 casualties in the United States and Great Britain attributed directly to the Preacher.
Carson, who acquires a number of aliases along the way, becomes known as the Tracker. One of his earliest challenges is technological. He doesn’t have the Internet knowledge to find the Preacher, who thrives online, or his key allies.
To that end the Tracker recruits an adolescent with Asperger’s syndrome who also suffers from agoraphobia. His name is Roger Kendrick, he lives in his parents’ attic, and he morphs into different person at a computer. He can find anyone and anything. Tracker dubs him Ariel, and he proves invaluable.
Ariel is the Tracker’s most intriguing asset, but not the only one. Another exists in the person of a Mossad agent planted with a terrorist group in Somalia. And yet another is an aspiring young actor of Latino descent who, without knowing it, gives the performance of his life at the Tracker’s request.
Last but hardly least is a team of British Pathfinders whose role in the quest for the Preacher begins with a freefall from 25,000 feet.
Forsyth’s plot is as complicated as the war on terror itself. He doesn’t just handle the big picture, creating characters and moving them around like a chess pieces. He’s also a master of minutiae. Evident chapter after chapter, it’s perhaps most memorable in the process the Pathfinders go through in girding for battle and boarding the plane that will take them to their drop zone.
Forsyth knows his craft well enough that the Los Angeles Times describes him as “truly the world’s reigning master of suspense.”
His skills are on display in “The Kill List” for readers to enjoy yet again.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.