WHEN IT COMES to espionage, international intrigue and suspense, Frederick Forsyth is a master. The Devil's Alternative is the first novel in six years from the author of The Odessa File, The day of the Jackal and The Dogs of War, and it is worth every day of the wait. But admiration for the craft, in this case, must make room for a distinct sense of discomfort. The tale is entirely too plausible and startling in its timeliness.
It begins with a catastrophic Russian grain failure, ultimately traced to a sticky valve in the pesticide machine at the central grain dispensary. The president of the United States, seeing the strategic opportunity, orders an embargo on grain sales to Russia and announces that the government will instead buy up surplus grain from American farmers. The embargo will last until SALT iv can be negotiated and signed.
Meanwhile, in Moscow, the militant wing of the Politburo sees its own opportunities and proposes that the Russian army be sent into a harvesting conquest of western Europe, the only alternative to famine. The declaration of war comes within one vote of passage, forestalled only by the chairman, a crafty old fox who prevails on his slim majority to give the West SALT iv in exchange for restoring the grain sales.
Pay attention. While all this is going on, a fanatic but amateur group of Ukrainian nationalists operating out of England assassinates the head of the KGB, only to be captured by the West Germans when they kill an airline pilot in Berlin during their attempt to escape back to England. Next, the Ukrainians' co-conspirators in Holland hijack the world's first and only million-ton oil supertanker on its maiden voyage and hold it hostage outside Rotterdam, demanding that West Germany release the captives or they will spill the crude oil into the North Sea.
Now only the Politburo bosses know that the assassination attempt on the KGB chief has been successful, and they have every reason to prevent this embarrassing news from leaking out. So a Soviet ultimatum is issued to the White House: either let the trial of the Ukrainians proceed (for the killing of the pilot) or no treaty. Thus the Western leaders are faced with an impossible decision: refuse the hijackers' demands and risk a terminal case of oil pollution, or free the Ukrainians and give Europe a terminal case of the Red Army.
Every plausible alternative is explored and found wanting. One possible course remains -- the devil's alternative -- but it is repulsive and, besides, it would never work. Still . . . .
Given this scenario, a writer less skillful than Forsyth would have any number of opportunities to take the reader on an improbable leap of faith, to slap together the pieces of the growing dilemma, maximizing the spectacular while ignoring the real world. We constantly look for an opening to say, "Aha! Now that could never happen." You'll find no such opening here. Indeed, the discomfort grows because Forsyth makes each step along the way seem not only plausible but so damned inevitable. He has this plot locked up airtight -- closed, sealed and ticking -- and it would be pure pleasure to read except that there is not a hint of unreality to it. Gum up a valve in Kiubyshev next spring and something very close to all this is not at all far-fetched. The assassination of the KGB head, for example, depends on no James Bond whizbang; it is accomplished by two cagey, determined fanatics with a very accurate rifle.
You want timeliness? Forsyth sets the story in 1982, and suggests that will be the year that Russia will invade Afghanistan. He is two years off the mark. It is no solace.
Forsyth lays out the strands of his suspense in the early stages, and we are fully prepared when he starts drawing them together. Using a sort of literary split-screen, he follows what first appear to be unrelated developments -- the crop failure, the crossing of the Russian border by the Ukrainians, the construction and outfitting of the gargantuan tanker. Slowly, inevitably, agonizingly, they meet.
This is no task for a novice -- nor is distinguishing among 13 separate personalities on the Politburo -- but Forsyth is assuredly no novice. He is deadly serious, and this unsettling novel is much too close to events to be merely entertaining.