Having been mightily impressed and engrossed by two of Frederick Forsyth's novels, I opted to read the third of his most acclaimed works, The Dogs Of War.
Basically, the novel tells the story of the discovery of platinum deposits in a fictional African republic, and the efforts of a British company to exploit this via a coup d'etat, to be undertaken on its behalf by mercenaries. I had been conditioned to expect the bulk of the book to concentrate on the combat itself. In the event, I discovered, to my pleasant surprise, that most of the pages are given over to an analysis of the mercenary's "art", how he organises, sustains and conceals himself, and how he relates to those who commission his services. Only late on is the military operation itself reached, followed by the clever twist which concludes the story.
In common with other Forsyth works, The Dogs Of War interweaves fiction with real events. It also benefits from what appears to be a combination of the author's knowledge of the subject (and related fields), and thorough research.
As mentioned above, most of the story is taken up by the elaborate preparations and precautions conducted by all concerned in the "plot". As demonstrated in some of his other work, Forsyth is superbly adept at documenting these clandestine manoeuvrings, imbuing such normally mundane matters as airline tickets, hotel bookings and restaurant appointments with a sense of drama and tension. The paranoia and mutual distrust of those nominally on "the same side" is also evident, with a battle of wits raging, and all parties endeavouring to insulate themselves at every turn.
As the planning stages gather pace, we are given an insight into the murky world of the arms trade. Details of financial and logistical issues inevitably become more complex around this stage. However, it is not essential to absorb or grasp every individual detail in order to appreciate the growing suspense and tension.
Along the way, there is some reasonable character development, particularly surrounding the lead mercenary Shannon. We gain some idea of his motivations and worldview. Some of the other characters flirt very vaguely with stereotypes, but never threaten to be caricatures. Care is also taken to provide some plausible and rounded background on the fictional country of Zangaro.
Shrewdly, the author injects a few sub-plots, in particular the threat posed by Shannon's foes in the mercenary sphere, and the possible interest of the Soviet Union. Both of these strands help to sustain the interest and curiosity of the reader, even though they do not prove as pivotal to the story as they initially promise to be.
As for the "twist" at the end, with Shannon thwarting the ambitions of his employers, this was well handled and deployed I thought. The observant could pick up hints dropped at various stages, although Shannon's innermost thoughts and intentions are not explicitly revealed.
I suppose that there is some kind of "moral" in the story, albeit largely articulated by Shannon himself. Those with malign intent often judge those who they hire entirely by their own standards, blithely assuming a total absence of scruples.
Another strong piece of writing.
Links to my other blog posts about Frederick Forsyth novels:
The Day Of The Jackal
The Odessa File