By Patrick Anderson
Monday, September 6, 2010; C04
By Frederick Forsyth
Putnam. 364 pp. $26.95
At the start of Frederick Forsyth's 13th novel, the president of the United States (not named but said to have had a Kenyan father, which narrows the field) is moved by a teenager's fatal overdose to declare an all-out war on the Colombian cocaine industry. To direct this war, he recruits a retired CIA official named Paul Devereaux, known as The Cobra for his ruthlessness. The crusty Devereaux demands and gets a $2 billion budget, total secrecy and control over a special military force. He decides that the cocaine trade cannot be defeated on the ground, either in Colombia or the United States and Europe, and must instead be pursued on the high seas, by attacks on the cartel's ships and airplanes, which deliver hundreds of tons of the drug. The president secretly agrees to reclassify cocaine smuggling as terrorism. The smugglers will be pursued like al-Qaeda: shoot to kill and no questions asked.
Forsyth was a journalist before he turned to fiction, and one of his strengths, going back to his 1971 classic, "The Day of the Jackal," has been his exhaustive research. In "The Cobra," we soon learn more than we ever expected to know about the growth, production, transportation and sale of cocaine. For the first half of the novel, a fascinating account of a corporate-style cartel's multibillion-dollar business alternates with a portrait of Devereaux grimly building a military force to destroy it.
Forsyth does not devote the same care to his characters, who are easily identified as the good guys and the bad guys. Devereaux is a hero and patriot, as is his deputy, lawyer Cal Dexter, who became a nemesis of criminals after his daughter was raped and murdered in a previous Forsyth novel. The U.S. and British military men who assist them are equally heroic. The drug lords, by contrast, are vicious, cowardly, paranoid and given to settling disputes with torture and chainsaws.
Once the war begins, it's almost laughably one-sided. Devereaux's secret army/navy/air force can halt a ship at sea, disrupt its communications via high-tech electronics, seize its tons of cocaine, take its crew prisoner and sink the ship without the cartel knowing what hit them. Forsyth scorns political correctness, but he resorts to a version of it in these attacks. The cartel's cocaine-carrying airplanes can't be stopped at sea like ships; they have to be blown out of the skies. But his high-minded U.S. and British pilots aren't into coldblooded murder. Happily, an officer of the Royal Air Force tells Dexter: "Mind you, there is one Air Force that will blow a cocaine smuggler out of the sky without compunction. The Brazilians." Just why Brazilian pilots are given to homicide is unclear, but we soon meet Maj. Joao Mendoza, who -- driven in part by having lost his younger brother to cocaine -- gladly incinerates 17 drug-laden planes and their crews.
At times, "The Cobra" becomes the 72-year-old Forsyth's hymn to old soldiers, old wars and old certitudes. Devereaux is around 70, and Dexter is about 60. Many of their colleagues are retired soldiers who often reflect on days gone by. In Rotterdam, Forsyth conjures up "a British Tommy who had marched through [the city] in a welter of flowers and kisses in early 1945." Another scene recalls an all-night battle "among the rocks of Tora Bora" between a small force of U.S. Navy SEALs and al-Qaeda fighters, after which "in the morning light they counted three hundred Al Qaeda corpses." One main character in the book, better developed than any human, is the Blackburn Buccaneer, a British naval bomber introduced in the 1960s and lovingly revived here to help win the war on cocaine. Forsyth's scorn for young whippersnappers focuses on the White House chief of staff, an ex-congressman from Illinois who is said to be hot-tempered and foul-mouthed but is soon put in his place by Devereaux's slights and insults.
There's some good writing in "The Cobra," and fans of military adventures may delight in it. Forsyth remains a master of logistics, but the novel's plot is often unconvincing, and the war on cocaine finally becomes a fantasy that spins out of control. After I finished the novel, I picked up "The Dogs of War" (1974), Forsyth's third novel, which I'd never read. It concerns some mercenaries who set out to conquer a small African nation. It's brilliant, fascinating, reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway's work. "The Cobra," by contrast, too often reminded me of Tom Clancy. If you want Forsyth at his best -- which is very, very good -- go back to those early novels.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.