Title: The Fourth Protocol
Author: Frederick Forsyth
Forsyth, Frederick (1985). The Fourth Protocol. New York: Viking
Date Updated: October 14, 2015
The Cambridge Four continue today to stir conspiracy theories and inspire endless novels. I have read several books and seen many movies about those four. At the heart of most of the books is Kim Philby.
The Fourth Protocol is a cold war spy story. Kim Philby, a traitor to the UK and a deserter, lives in Russia. He and Russian officials hatch a plot to destabilize the West or even cause revolution. If the plot works, many will die and the alliance between the UK and the USA will be broken. Russia dispatches an agent to the UK, who can pass for an Englishman to work on the plan.
John Preston works with the intelligence agency of the UK government. He is very able, but not much appreciated by his superior. He becomes aware, by accident, that foreign agents are in the country, planning a big coup, but is not sure what it is. The plot consists mainly of his efforts to gather information and put all the pieces together. Not only does Preston have to deal with foreign agents, there are those in his own government whose motives he cannot be sure of and who seem to interfere with the plans to find out what is going on.
Forsyth does his research. He fills his novels with historically accurate details that give so much life to his writing. He is also master of the suspense novel. With spies as his main characters, and intelligence gathering guiding his plot, it is the perfect book for me. No wonder I loved the movie made of the book.
The New York Times (Michiko Kakutani, August 30, 1984) says of the book: “THEY would not really try it, would they?” thinks a senior British Intelligence officer. “Not breach the Fourth Protocol? Or would they? Desperate men sometimes take desperate measures.” Well, of course they’d try—this is a Frederick Forsyth novel, after all. And besides, who cares about probability, anyway?
In The Day of the Jackal, Mr. Forsyth wrote about a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle—even though de Gaulle had died peacefully a year before the book was published. And in The Odessa File, he wrote about a Nazi plan to liquidate Israel by using rockets filled with bubonic plague.
What, though, is the “Fourth Protocol,” and why do the Russians want to breach it? To begin with, the year is 1987, and technology has progressed to the point at which it’s possible to build a tiny atomic bomb—“small enough to go in a suitcase and simple enough to be assembled from a dozen prefabricated, milled and threaded components, like a child’s construction kit.” Apparently these things are just as bad as big atomic bombs, and in a way more dangerous, because you can destroy your enemy by planting one of them in a locker or an abandoned house—no need to use missiles that might trigger radar or a counterstrike.
Mr. Forsyth’s Russians, however, don’t simply want to bomb Britain. They are far more subtle than that: their plan is to set off a small nuclear explosion that will give credibility to the British antinuclear movement; that, in turn, will bring the Labor Party to power; that, in turn, will enable hard-core leftists to seize power; that, in turn, will make Britain a Marxist state.
Sound complicated? Most of The Fourth Protocol is pure unadulterated plot—unsullied by well-developed characters, moral insights or interesting prose. When the main story bogs down, Mr. Forsyth simply throws in a subplot about office politics inside British Intelligence, or summons an allusion to a real-life event such as the Falkland crisis, or a previous spy scandal. He even gives the traitor Kim Philby a supporting role in the novel—though his role, like that of many others, ends up being little more than a red herring.
The problem with The Fourth Protocol is not that its premise seems silly: Mr. Forsyth has such a knack for describing technical matters like cracking safes and building bombs, and such a deft ability to juggle the sort of little details spies specialize in, that his novel has a strong documentary sense. The problem with The Fourth Protocol is that—unlike some of the author’s earlier books—it becomes predictable, and so lacking in suspense. Halfway through, the reader knows exactly where it’s headed. In the end, in fact, the novel resembles one of Mr. Forsyth’s little atomic bombs—a kit “assembled from a dozen prefabricated, milled and threaded components.”