Day of the hack fall

Fred­er­ick Forsyth’s new cy­ber thriller is as pre­dictable as it is clichéd.

New Zealand Listener - - BOOKS & CULTURE - By GREG DIXON

You’d think af­ter all these years, Fred­er­ick Forsyth would know a thing or two about what makes a good yarn. Af­ter all, it’s al­most half a cen­tury since he banged out the much­praised The Day of the Jackal. Le­gend has it the then down-on-his-up­pers jour­nal­ist wrote it in a month, and in the process he ar­guably rein­vented the mod­ern thriller.

There have been many yarns since, around a dozen nov­els be­fore this and a cou­ple of short-story col­lec­tions. So, yes, you’d think the now 80-year-old’s con­trol of plot, pace and epic spec­ta­cle would be unas­sail­able. The Fox, his first novel for five years, sug­gests oth­er­wise.

The be­gin­ning is promis­ing enough. A team of Bri­tish and US spe­cial forces raid a sub­ur­ban home in Lu­ton, look­ing for some sort of su­per hacker who, against odds of a gazil­lion to one, has man­aged to break through the pow­er­ful fire­walls of a com­puter data­base hous­ing the Yanks’ most care­fully guarded se­crets.

Un­for­tu­nately, the spe­cial-ops raid finds only a tired old trope. The home’s fam­ily of four in­cludes your stan­dard in­no­cent prodigy archetype, an 18-yearold with Asperger’s syn­drome, a boy whose con­di­tion just hap­pens to give him a kind of se­cond sight – Forsyth never re­ally ex­plains how it works – that some­how al­lows him to hack the

seem­ingly un­hack­able.

The kid, for the pur­poses of the plot, is im­me­di­ately con­sid­ered the most dan­ger­ous per­son on the planet, and nat­u­rally the Amer­i­cans want him thrown in prison. How­ever, an­other tired old trope, Sir Adrian We­ston – a wily re­tired spy and hush-hush ad­viser to the Bri­tish PM – has a bet­ter idea. They will weaponise the boy – now dubbed “The Fox” – and use him against the evil axis of Rus­sia, Iran and North Korea, to hack the un­hack­able for Queen, coun­try and the Western Al­liance.

There is one good set piece in­volv­ing a Rus­sian war­ship, but af­ter the first 100 pages, Forsyth’s story be­comes repet­i­tive, episodic and en­tirely pre­dictable as The Fox, more de­vice than char­ac­ter, per­forms one mirac­u­lous world-shak­ing hack af­ter an­other, be­fore a fi­nal act that is not just ris­i­ble but ut­terly laugh­able.

Still, Forsyth’s great skill, and the thing that helped make the Jackal such a hit, is

the way he weaves present – and, to some ex­tent, plau­si­bly pre­scient – events into his sto­ries.

You feel as though his yarns are hap­pen­ing in the world we live in and that here is the real story be­hind the news. He makes the reader feel like an in­sider, guid­ing you through the machi­na­tions and mo­ti­va­tions of end­less spy agen­cies, politi­cians and as­sorted un­der­world types.

Con­spir­acy the­o­rists might find that com­pelling. Those want­ing more bang for their buck than cliché, wafer-thin char­ac­ters and for­mu­laic cy­ber drivel will feel hacked off.

THE FOX, by Fred­er­ick Forsyth (Ban­tam Press, $37)

For­mu­laic: Fred­er­ick Forsyth.

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