The Fox by Frederick Forsyth

last updated: 9 February 2019 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 879 words)

Like most recent Frederick Forsyth books, the story in The Fox is very current and is very much driven by/a reaction to recent events (such as the Salisbury Novichok poisonings).

Forsyth reflects that the West currently does not face a single threat, but rather a range. In The Fox three threats to global security are identified as:

  • Russia
  • Iran, and
  • North Korea

If you like Forsyth novels, you’ll probably like The Fox. If you don’t, you likely won’t. If you’ve never read Forsyth, start with The Day of the Jackal—it’s a better book and even though it was first published in 1971, it stands the test of time.

That isn’t to say that you should ignore The Fox. Quite the contrary—it is a good book—however, The Day of the Jackal is better.

Style

Stylistically, this is a typical Forsyth book: it’s short on dialog and long on detail. It is then written in a detached, matter of fact journalistic style. There is no sensation—Forsyth rarely lets his opinion intrude. Instead, he tells the tale in a calm, dispassionate matter, mostly allowing the reader decide for themselves what conclusions to draw.

Forsyth has a reputation for his research and The Fox is no different. It is obvious that there is extensive and detailed research behind this novel. This research is then used as the building blocks on which the fiction hangs. But, as you will know if you’ve read any of Forsyth’s other novels, the book doesn’t read like fiction. Instead, it appears to simply be a (highly skilled) journalistic retelling of facts.

Cyber

The Fox is Forsyth’s first venture into the world of cyber and this is where things start to get tough…

For a novel, cyber is, shall we say, less than interesting. One person sitting at a desk, tapping keys, and looking at a screen doesn’t really grip the reader. While Forsyth’s portrayal of the teenage hacker Luke Jennings, the eponymous Fox, is probably highly realistic, from a dramatic perspective the character is effectively a black box. What he does—in terms of his hacking exploits—is ghost in the machine stuff. Impressive things “just happen” and happen at a dramatically convenient moment in the narrative.

Further, the hacker is on the autism spectrum and is a highly withdrawn individual. So, from the start, it’s hard to portray this character as a rounded, three-dimensional individual. Instead, we have his perspective and his significance relayed through those close to him, primarily his mother and his handler.

The teenager is clearly a vulnerable individual who, because of his condition, can be easily upset. On one hand, he’s highly protected and is doing what he enjoys (hacking) while on the other he is regarded as a delicate machine and every surrounding character is keen not to break this machine. So as a character, for me, the Fox doesn’t really work—he’s not choosing to sacrifice anything of himself for the mission and it doesn’t feel that anything is at stake for him.

That’s not say that there is nothing at stake. Quite the contrary—there are foreign assassins trying to kill him. But his well-being is the responsibility of others and feels born out of concerns for the mission more than basic humanity. And while this is probably an accurate reflection of how the situation would play out if it were real, it creates a sense of a lack of humanity, which when contrasted with the inhumanity of the adversaries, is uncomfortable.

So What Does This Hacker Do?

The hacker—the Fox—undertakes a number of hacking missions. He’s given a target—a system to hack—and he hacks. Once he’s gained access to the target system, often managing to breach any air-gap, he then has a secondary mission (for instance, redirecting a warship to run aground).

The difficulty, from the story perspective, is that the hacker is given a series of missions without there being a coherent and over-arching mission. This isn’t a matter of stopping the man who wants to kill the President of France, but rather break something in Russia…OK, now break something in North Korea… Each adversary of the West is targeted.

And yes, he performs these missions well, but from a story perspective, it reads more like a grouped series of short stories rather than a novel. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with having a grouped series of short stories—simply, I would have preferred a longer single-threaded story.

Also, with the teenage hacker being a withdrawn keyboard warrior, it is harder for the novel to have a central protagonist.

In many ways, the closest to a protagonist is the character of Sir Richard Dearlove who was Head of MI5 until his retirement. He’s a wily old spy master who, in his day, was in the field and took risks with his own safety. However, in the context of this novel, Dearlove is effectively playing several games of multidimensional chess with several players. Sure, he’s smart and resourceful…but this remote control battle makes a less gripping novel.

Should You Read?

As I said at the start, if you like Forsyth novels, you’ll like The Fox. However, if you like his novels, I suspect you’ll probably also find something slightly disappointing about The Fox…and fundamentally, to me, that’s because the story isn’t strong enough.

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