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How Legendary Spy Novelist Frederick Forsyth Learned He’d Been ‘Bowdlerized’

‘Did you know that select passages have been removed from The Fourth Protocol?’ His eyebrows shot up. ‘I did not.’

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“Good morning. A pleasure to meet you. Please forgive my attire. A difficult night.”

Somewhat disheveled and wearing only a bathrobe and slippers, Frederick Forsyth greeted me from what I assumed to be a favorite armchair in his living room. I felt slightly envious of a man who had reached an age and level of success where he doesn’t care what people think about him and doesn’t need to care.

Crisp, unwrinkled copies of The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph sat neatly on an ottoman in front of him awaiting his inspection. With an unexpected display of strength, his 60-something personal assistant lifted a substantial chair off the floor and moved it close to her employer, inviting me to sit down before she withdrew to get us coffee.

“So what is required of me?” Forsyth began with a formality that belied his ensemble. “An interview, is it?”

Now 85, his impeccable English manners were on display and, once primed, so was his agile mind.

Frederick Forsyth must be considered one of the inventors of the modern thriller novel. The author of such bestsellers as The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, and The Fourth Protocol, all major Hollywood productions, his career has spanned six decades, and with Eddie Redmayne set to play the Jackal in a television miniseries reboot of the 1971 novel-turned-film, his popularity shows no signs of slowing down, even if he does. To date, Forsyth has sold more than 70 million books in more than 30 languages.

“Provide me with some background.” He sipped his coffee. “I think you have some questions for me.”

Indeed, I did.

Forsyth has lived a remarkable life. A get-the-story-or-get-killed-trying investigative journalist back when the journalist’s job was, in his words, “to hold power to account,” his worldview had been shaped by the Second World War and the specter of a third. After assignments with Reuters in Paris, where he covered the government of Charles de Gaulle, and Cold War Berlin, where he made numerous forays into East Germany and slept with a woman who turned out to be a member of the secret police, he went to work for the BBC reporting on the Biafran War in Nigeria in the late ’60s. When he naively dispatched honest accounts of the incompetence and corruption of the side supported by the British government and told of the millions dying from starvation and indifference, he fell afoul of the official state narrative and was told to cease and desist in no uncertain terms.

“When a reporter is told to publish a pack of lies,” said Forsyth, “there are only three things he can do: see to his security and do what he’s told; sit in the corner blubbering at the unfairness of it; or raise a middle finger at the lot of them and walk out.”

Walk out he did and, having nothing better to do, returned home in 1969 and decided to write a novel. “Friends told me I had lost my mind. But I had no money, no job, and no prospects of a job.”

The result was The Day of the Jackal.

“Much to my surprise and that of my publisher, books started flying off the shelves! Piles of money began to accumulate. So they asked if I had any more novels in me. I thought, what else do I know anything about? I knew about Nazi war criminals having met them in Germany, and I knew about mercenaries in Africa from my reporting there. I hurriedly wrote out a description of the novels on a sheet of paper and they signed me for both.”

Those novels were The Odessa File and The Dogs of War.

While researching for The Odessa File, he met with Simon Wiesenthal. “He told me he could give me 15 minutes. But once he heard about my project, he gave me several hours. I told him I was creating a fictional Nazi war criminal. He said, ‘Why fictitious? I have a shelf full of real ones.’” Forsyth waved a hand at his own bookshelves. Wiesenthal pointed out that some of them were likely still alive.

Forsyth chose a file containing the life and crimes of SS-Obersturmführer Eduard Roschmann, the so-called “Butcher of Riga,” as his villain. Normally, this would be a risky undertaking since the subject might sue for libel. But there was no such risk with Roschmann who, if alive, would not come out of hiding to denounce a book as a false representation of his criminal deeds.

“When the film was made, some Argentinian was watching it in a fleabag cinema when he realized Roschmann, who had become so comfortable that he reverted to use of his real name, lived just down the street!” Forsyth said with a chuckle. “Fearing extradition, he tried to escape to Paraguay on a ferry, but had a heart attack and died!”

I recalled the story from Forsyth’s lively memoir The Outsider. The body went back and forth between the Paraguayan and Argentinian coasts with neither side eager to claim him. It was a satisfying and somewhat humorous end to a despicable life.

Forsyth was justifiably proud of the fact that his novel had led to the arrest of a real Nazi war criminal. But it was Wiesenthal who would later claim credit, saying he had used Forsyth to flush out Roschmann. A petty, vainglorious boast, whatever Wiesenthal’s contribution, Forsyth had penned the bestseller that led to Roschmann’s panicked flight and untimely death.

A Simple Edit or a Complicated Conspiracy?

But I was here to discuss more than his illustrious career. I had wanted to meet Forsyth since I discovered mysterious edits to his 1984 novel The Fourth Protocol. Having downloaded it on Audible during the pandemic, I listened to it while bouncing through the fields of my ranch on a tractor during breaks in my own writing. Clocking in at 13 hours and 52 minutes, I calculated this book to be a solid weekend’s worth of entertainment. Little did I know that it would send me down a rabbit hole culminating in a meeting with the author.

The Fourth Protocol is a political thriller in which the Soviets attempt to detonate a nuclear device next to an American military base in Britain. The novel contains fictitious letters from the very real English traitor Kim Philby — and still very much alive at the time of the book’s publication — to the general secretary of the Communist Party. A former MI6 operative and one of the infamous “Cambridge Five” in real life, the fictitious Philby, now in exile in Moscow, explains to his communist hosts how British democracy might be subverted from within via a classic “march through the institutions”:

…all history teaches that soundly based democracies can only be toppled by mass action in the streets when the police and armed forces have been sufficiently penetrated by the revolutionaries that large numbers of them can be expected to refuse to obey the orders of their officers and side instead with the demonstrators….

Our friends have done what they can. Since taking control of numerous large metropolitan authorities, through the press and the media, at every level high and low, they have either themselves, or using wild young people of the Trotskyite [i.e., communist] splinter factions as shock troops, carried out an unrelenting campaign to denigrate, vilify and undermine the British police. The aim, of course, is to vitiate or destroy the confidence of the British public in their police, which unfortunately remains the most affable and disciplined in the world….

I have narrated all of this only to substantiate one argument … that the path [to socialism] now lies though … the largely successful campaign of the Hard Left to take over the Labour Party from inside…

Paragraphs like these, numerous and detailing Marxist strategy, jolted me from the work of cutting hay for my horses. This was not merely fiction. It was a road map for the overthrow of Western governments. More than that, it was precisely what we were seeing taking place in America’s streets in the carefully orchestrated riots of Antifa, BLM, and the whole “Defund the Police” agenda.

With this touching so near to the focus of my own work, I decided to order a hard copy of the book to inspect these passages more closely. Squinting through dirt and sweat, I slipped off my gloves and thumb-typed the title into the Amazon search bar.

Curiously, the book was out of print.

How could this be? It was, after all, a major (if somewhat mediocre) movie starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan. Forsyth’s other books remain in print, so why not this one? From the seat of my tractor, I instead purchased a copy of the 1995 Bantam Books (US) edition from an online used book dealer. A few days later, it arrived.

These paragraphs were missing.

This was more than a little strange. Going still deeper into the warren of tunnels, I ordered a copy of the 1994 Viking (US) edition.

Again, not there.

Finally, I ordered the Hutchinson & Company (UK) first edition. Somehow, this was the one Audible had used. Comparing this original text with the Bantam and Viking editions, I found that it contained 24 chapters while the others contained only 23. This was because chapters three and four were combined in the North American editions. But that’s not all that was going on here. Someone had removed select paragraphs in chapters three and four and altogether rewritten portions of them, altering facts, dates, and removing 15 of 20 points enumerated in a Marxist strategy to seize the institutions of political power.

All of this, and yet the publisher’s page of the Bantam Books edition reads:

This edition contains the complete text of the original hardcover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.

The capitalization is not mine; it is the publisher’s. And, of course, it’s not true. Whole pages had been omitted from the original hardback. But why? And did Frederick Forsyth know? After a bit of sleuthing, I discovered that the author, though aged, was still alive and living in genteel retirement. But how to contact him?

“Laurence, I have a favor to ask,” I began. “Can you get me a meeting with Frederick Forsyth?” Laurence Fox, a talented British actor and anti-Marxist agent provocateur in his own right, is not only a friend, but he is also the nephew of Edward Fox who played the Jackal in the 1973 film.

“I don’t see why not,” he said between puffs on his hand-rolled cigarette. “But the place to start is with my dad.”

Dad is actor James Fox of “King Rat,” “Passage to India,” and “Sherlock Holmes” fame. Like Forsyth, he is 85, but a snappy dresser. A text by him, a couple of emails, phone calls, and an international flight later, and I was taking a taxi from London to “Freddie” Forsyth’s home in a quiet village in the fashionable English countryside.

Forsyth, le Carré, and the Spy Game

It was possible that this was all much ado about nothing. The edits might have been done by Forsyth himself for any number of reasons: to abbreviate chapters heavily laden with Gramscian tactics that weren’t necessary to advance the plot; to accommodate an American audience that might find these discussions tedious; or simply because, upon reflection, he didn’t like these chapters. But none of these theories fit with the peculiar nature of the edits.

I had, at Forsyth’s request, given him the highlights of my own writing career and, more importantly, a hint of my interest in him. At Laurence’s suggestion, I warmed him up with a few softball questions, holding my primary interest in reserve for the moment.

“James [Fox] requested I ask you this ‘cheeky question’: was John le Carré a double agent from the start?”

Questions about the late espionage novelist’s loyalties are the stuff of internet chatroom conspiracies and whispered rumors in the all-male (until last week anyway) salons of the exclusive Garrick Club in London where members of MI6 like to gather for cocktails. Le Carré applied for, and received, Irish citizenship shortly before his death in 2020. According to some, this was yet another indication of the shaky nature of his fidelity to Britain.

Forsyth sat forward. Maybe this wasn’t a softball question.

“Ah, le Carré,” Forsyth seemed to be dusting off a memory of the man. “You mean David Cornwell. John Le Carré was just his penname. He was recruited into MI5 or MI6, I can’t recall which one, but he was never, as they say, ‘in harm’s way’ as I was in the East Bloc.”

“I find him too depressing,” I added. “He’s too nihilistic for me.”

“Yes, well, there was that. I met him once, you know, at a luncheon for writers.” He didn’t elaborate and did not indicate whether he liked him or not, but I lean toward the latter. In addition to political differences, Le Carré/Cornwell characterized the pro-Brexit crowd as neo-fascists while Forsyth saw the European Union as the embodiment of a rising “bureaucratic dictatorship,” Forsyth did not share Le Carré’s cynicism. In short, Forsyth is a patriot while Le Carré, in my opinion, was not.

Earlier, I had taken a mental snapshot of Forsyth’s bookshelves. Now I recalled there had been one, possibly two, le Carré novels there. Perhaps Forsyth had read them on a Majorcan beach for fun, or maybe he had read them to keep tabs on the competition. Possibly both.

“You have to divide his writing into two periods,” he said with some objectivity. “His early works and his later works. His early stuff was much better. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was excellent. The twist at the end was particularly clever. The Looking Glass War was good, too. But then he started writing about things and places he knew nothing about. Like Africa. The Constant Gardener. What was that?” Forsyth shook his head. I told him of le Carré’s Irish citizenship and he said nothing. He just me gave a knowing if somewhat playful look.

“You did a bit of work for MI6, as I recall.”

“Yes, in East Germany. Pick up a parcel, bring it back across the border. Deliver one. I had the perfect cover.” He was warming to the conversation now. “You have two choices: blend in and be insignificant. But if you’re too insignificant, you’ve got no access to power. The other is to hide in plain sight. Say you’re there researching your next book and make them prove that you aren’t — and they can’t.” The last line was delivered with a mischievous grin.

I felt validated because this is precisely what I have done on a number of occasions, most notably, crashing the World Economic Forum to chat with Theresa May, former prime minister of the United Kingdom, about the WEF’s stupid Ukraine policy.

“In The Fourth Protocol you seem to have anticipated the Marxist tactics being used in America and throughout the West to destabilize democracy. Do you think we are seeing a new fascism, a resurrected Marxism, or some of both?”

“Depends on the country. The far right is surging in Germany and Sweden. Sweden! But not here in Britain. The Labour Party is in firm control.”

Forsyth believes we are witnessing the rise of a dictatorship that maintains power through a vast bureaucracy regulating even the minutest aspects of British life, a propagandizing media, and a docile population. He had seen it in East Germany, and it alarmed him that his own country was inching in that very direction with little resistance. He (rightly) complained of how the Stasi would envy British surveillance powers. Western governments are rapidly transforming from states with police into police states.

“How are we on time?” I asked.

He glanced at his watch. “We are fine. Continue.”

‘Bowdlerizing’ Forsyth

If he was initially impatient to conclude our business and get on with other things in his day, and I sensed he was when I first arrived, he wasn’t now. The moment seemed right.

“Did you know that select passages have been removed from The Fourth Protocol?”

His eyebrows shot up. “I did not.”

I explained the missing passages, the total rewrites, and the rabbit hole that had brought me to him. I wasn’t sure which had surprised him more: that the book had been edited without his knowledge or the manner in which I had discovered it. I sensed that I was now being recategorized from groupie to something that intrigued him much more.

“I’ve been bowdlerized!” he exclaimed.

A reference to Thomas Bowdler who, along with his sister Henrietta, published The Family Shakespeare in 1807, a collection of the Elizabethan playwright’s works in which all bawdy bits were removed lest they scandalize readers.

“I suppose someone,” Forsyth speculated, “decided the details about how to build a nuclear bomb were too dangerous, so they took them out.”

“Those aren’t the missing passages.”

He again looked surprised.

“Besides,” I continued, “Clancy did something very similar in The Sum of All Fears, and those parts weren’t removed either.

Forsyth rolled his eyes. “Ah, yesss,” he said with mock exaggeration, indicating, we both knew, that he believed Clancy had taken the central plot theme from The Fourth Protocol which had been published some seven years before his own techno-thriller about a nuclear bomb.

“No, it’s not the parts about building a bomb. It’s the parts about how Marxists penetrate the government, the police, and the army especially, and capture them from within.”

He looked thoughtful. After a moment’s reflection, he offered a theory:

If you think about it, my earlier works can be read as history. They were all telling a fictitious story of something that had happened: an attempt on de Gaulle’s life; a hunt for a Nazi war criminal; a group of mercenaries overthrowing an African government. But Protocol is different. You don’t have to read it as history, but as something that might happen. Read that way, it could be deemed a dangerous “how-to” manual.

This made sense. The Fourth Protocol is a “what if.” What if a foreign government or terrorists smuggled parts for a nuclear bomb into Britain or the United States, assembled it, and detonated it? What if Marxists were able to penetrate a major political party in Britain or America, radicalize it, and slowly weaponize government agencies and offices, purging them of their conservative and democratic elements? Of the two scenarios, whoever edited the book thought the latter more unsettling.

But it is no longer a “what if” scenario. It is precisely what has happened with the Democrat Party and institutions reaching downward into every aspect of American society from elementary schools to churches. Forsyth had written the playbook as a warning, and someone didn’t like it.

Or did they?

It’s possible, of course, that Forsyth’s memory failed him here, and that he had, in fact, been notified of the rewrites or had even done them himself. It was 40 years ago. That’s a long time for anyone. But he didn’t strike me as forgetful on these points, whatever his age.

To the uninitiated, a given publisher’s contract with an author depends on many things. A publisher will ask for as much as they think they can get. This will range from film rights and royalties to use of the author’s name and image. Words like “in perpetuity” appear regularly in these documents. If the author is new and overly anxious for his first book deal, the publisher is likely to get whatever they want. But in my own book contracts with HarperCollins and Post Hill Press, and I didn’t have anything like the leverage Forsyth would have had, I’ve never given a publisher the right to print one word that wasn’t mine. It is the author’s name that goes on the dust jacket and the spine, and he or she will have to defend what is contained therein.

So it seemed highly unlikely that Frederick Forsyth, who had been a famous author for more than a decade by the time The Fourth Protocol was published, had surrendered complete editorial power to his publisher. That said, it was also hard to imagine an editor of such swaggering arrogance that he would take it upon himself to not only delete whole paragraphs from the pages of a well-established author’s manuscript, but totally rewrite them, altering factual details as he went.

But if Forsyth’s memory was intact, that is exactly what had happened.

“A final question for you, Mr. Forsyth: Did you write purely to entertain your readers, or did you use fiction to educate them?”

“I wrote for the audience.”

“But The Fourth Protocol feels like a warning—”

Forsyth acknowledged this was true, but an outlier.

His son walked into the room. “This man has discovered that I’ve been bowdlerized!” he told him. I rose, we chatted briefly, and I thanked the old spymaster for his time. Forsyth, ever gracious, shook my hand, told his PA to ready his correspondence, and ambled off in the general direction of his office.

Heading back to London in my Black Cab, I puzzled over the edits and decided readers of thrillers are as conspiracy-minded as their authors. This much, however, is certain: These days we are all being bowdlerized technologically.

You know those updates you do on your phones and computers? They often include edits to your electronic books, and while these are mostly to correct typographical errors, those aren’t the only edits. This is called DRM: Digital Rights Management. If you use Amazon’s Kindle, for instance, buried in your Conditions of Use is this:

Amazon and its affiliates reserve the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders at their sole discretion.

You will find similar language if you use Apple Books or another e-reader. And don’t think they don’t reach into your devices from time to time to change whatever they want. They do. But what offends modern bowdlerizers is exactly the opposite of what offended Thomas and Henrietta. So if you don’t want Huck Finn or your Bible or your dictionary definition of “fascist” altered on your e-readers, remove the DRMs or, better yet, get hard copies of any books you value. Book burning, digital style, is in high fashion once again.

Now back in my London hotel, I remembered le Carré and the query I was to make of Forsyth regarding him. I made a quick call:

“James? Larry. About le Carré: the answer is no. Sort of.”


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