Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My Crime Beat Column: Frederick Forsyth Offers a Fact-Based Story of An All-Out War On the Drug Lords In 'The Cobra'

I’ve been reading Frederick Forsyth since his classic thriller The Day of the Jackal in 1971.

I like that Forsyth uses his skills as a journalist to infuse his thrillers with true facts and details about crime, espionage, terrorism and war. Forsyth also offers a good, thrilling and suspenseful story.

His new thriller, The Cobra (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), continues in that fine tradition.

“There are two ways of doing this job, a news agency bureau chief told me once,” Forsyth wrote in a piece called Behind the Story: The Cobra. “You can not bother and get it wrong, or take the trouble and get it right. In my office, we get it right.”

Forsyth went on to write that the bureau chief was a good journalist who taught him a lot. And when Forsyth switched from being a foreign correspondent to novelist, the training stuck. Even though it is fiction, Forsyth says he tries to get even the smallest detail right.

“That includes the weird places to be visited,” Forsyth wrote in Behind the Story. “For The Cobra, a deep delve into the murky world of cocaine, smugglers, Coast Guards, cops and gangsters, there were “must go” targets. The HQ of the DEA in Washington, the back streets of Bogotá, the dockside dives of Cartagena. But the more I researched, the more I came across a recurring name: Guinea-Bissau.”

Forsyth called the African state a shattered, burned-out hellhole: the ultimate failed state. Of course, this hellhole is the perfect shipment point for cocaine going from South America to Europe.

It was while Forsyth was researching his novel there, posing as a bird watcher, that the country suffered yet another coup d’atat. Forsyth wrote that the airport and the borders were closed, so he was trapped inside and no one could get into the country.

“In the trade, it’s called an exclusive,” Forsyth explained. “So I borrowed my host’s mobile and filed a thousand-word summing-up to London’s Daily Express, for whom I do a weekly column.”

The intensive research paid off.

Forsyth’s new thriller begins with the American president determined to smash the illegal drug trade after coming into contact with the parent of a teenager who died from a drug overdose. The president decides to use a retired CIA officer known as “the Cobra.”

Paul Devereaux, 70, a CIA legend in the mold of real-life CIA legends James Jesus Angleton and Cofer Black, was sent into retirement because he was too ruthless for the CIA.

Devereaux skirts American law and gives himself more authority by declaring the drug smugglers to be terrorists. He is given carte blanche to take down a truly vicious and truly successful Colombian drug cartel known as the Hermandad — the Brotherhood.

The chief of the Brotherhood is Don Diego Estaban, an educated, cultured and aristocratic Colombian. By force of personality, Estaban was able to forge the other major cocaine warlords into a single and all-powerful syndicate.

To assist him in the battle with the Brotherhood Devereaux hires as his number two, Cal Dexter, a former Vietnam “tunnel rat” and bounty hunter known as the “Avenger.” Devereaux and Dexter both appeared in Forsyth’s previous novels The Afghan and The Avenger.

Devereaux and Dexter bring in Navy SEALs, the British Special Boat Service (SBS), and other specialized military units to stop the flow of the cocaine into Europe and the United States.

Dexter has the British and American naval special operations teams placed on converted merchant vessels that can track, isolate and sink the ships that are carrying smuggled cocaine. The teams place the crews and the cocaine cargoes in secret locations. Dexter also recruits a pilot who flies a British Blackburn Buccaneer and shoots down aircraft carrying drug shipments.

The Brotherhood are aware that their drug shipments are not reaching their destinations, but how, and who, are the questions the drug lords want answers to. Being violent and paranoid, they turn on each other.

”So if you’re interested, dear reader,” Forsyth wrote in Behind the Story. “It’s all in The Cobra. The dives of Cartagena, the U.S. Navy SEALs, their British equivalents, the SBS, the Global Predator UAVs, oh, and dear old Guinea-Bissau."

“And it’s all true. Well, okay, it’s not all true, it’s a novel,” Forsyth stated. “But it’s accurate.”

If you like fast-paced and fact-based thrillers, as I do, then I highly recommend Frederick Forsyth’s The Cobra.

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