Thursday, February 21, 2013
Warning: significant spoilers ahead.
The first Frederick Forsyth novel I read was The Day of the Jackal, which was technically sound, fast-paced and a great read to the last page. The Odessa File wasn’t as good, because the Odessa had too many opportunities to kill the protagonist, who escaped only through authorial fiat. Still, I liked the premise of Forsyth’s The Cobra. The president of the United States hires a retired superspy to destroy the cocaine industry… well, I had to find out how this could be done.
The Cobra is Paul Devereaux, a Boston Brahmin trained by the CIA. Elegant, controlled and possessed of a nearly eidetic memory, the Cobra is the kind of hero I find really intriguing — someone who never actually kicks ass and takes names himself, but who pulls the strings so that others do this on a grand scale. Think Lord Tywin Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire. He is, in other words, the perfect spymaster, and he also has the perfect second-in-command, Cal Dexter. Think William Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dexter, a Vietnam veteran, takes most of the risks in enemy territory, including jumping for a Black Hawk helicopter a few feet ahead of a pursuing gangster.
Between them, the Cobra and Dexter recruit a motley crew of professionals (including a gigolo), buy ships and set a complex plan into action. On the other side of the chessboard, Don Diego, the head of the Colombian Brotherhood, is busy transporting millions of tons of cocaine across the ocean, and at first is blissfully unaware of the gathering storm about to break over his head.
So far, so good. As one reviewer on Amazon commented, Forsyth knows his hardware, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel. Anything to do with guns, planes or ships sounds authentic. Where the book failed, for me, was the characterization.
Just one example. Roberto Cardenas, a member of the Colombian Brotherhood, has a beautiful daughter who is his one weakness. He reminded me of Ming the Merciless that way, and the daughter is easily seduced by the gigolo the Cobra hires. She was lucky he wasn’t a rapist, since on the day she meets him, she allows him to walk her to her apartment and kiss her. We’re not told what the gigolo looks like, just that he’s “drop-dead gorgeous”. If he had been a boat, Forsyth would no doubt have put more effort into his description. Anyway, it’s very convenient for the Cobra that she was such a pushover.
The welder who worked on all the cocaine-smuggling ships is almost as easily convinced once he’s kidnapped, taken to the States and offered a new life there for his family as well. Dexter assures him that in the States, the welder’s son could grow up to be anyone. “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief.” Okay, not the last one, but the welder is won over. “Pedro? My son, a senator?” he says, and coughs up a list of eighty-seven ships from memory. After that, it’s Global Hawks, Buccaneers, Q-ships and political machinations to put the cartel’s allies away as well.
The end was where the novel really faltered, though. The Cobra’s plan succeeds so brilliantly that it creates a cocaine deficit in the States, which eventually results in widespread gang warfare that takes out some innocent bystanders as well. To the Cobra, this is acceptable collateral damage—especially since the gang hostilities won’t last for much longer—but the Oval Office thinks differently and orders a ceasefire in the literal War on Drugs. Since it was obvious that the book couldn’t end with cocaine being completely neutralized as a threat, this ending would have worked for me… but apparently it didn’t for the author.
Therefore, he has the Cobra strike a deal with Don Diego when they finally meet for the first time, and the Cobra offers to sell him back a hundred and fifty tons of stolen cocaine for a billion dollars. His reasoning is that he placed his faith in only God and his country, but now his country has let him down.
Imagine you are a cocaine kingpin. You meet for the first time with someone who has crippled your operation, stolen billions of dollars from you, convinced your people to betray you and tricked you along every step of the way. This person then offers to sell you back some of your own property. Do you:
1. Accept the offer in all sincerity?
2. Shoot the guy and say, “A hundred and fifty tons of cocaine, one billion dollars. Getting rid of you, priceless. For everything else, there’s Mastercard”?
I’d pick the second option, but that’s why I’m not a cocaine kingpin. So the Cobra, previously an ice-cold spymaster who was nevertheless on the side of the angels, now becomes a venal hypocrite (obviously God can’t have been all that important to him if he was willing to sell cocaine).
And he also suffers a lobotomy along the way. After the hundred and fifty tons is sunk at sea at the last minute by Dexter when he finds out about the deal, does the Cobra go into hiding? Does he take any steps to protect himself from Don Diego? No, he stays in his house and is murdered. I’d have tried a little harder to stay alive, but then again, I’m not a spy trained by the CIA.
The Cobra has its bad moments and its good ones. If you enjoy Forsyth novels and want to remember this one fondly, stop at the point where the Oval Office pulls the plug on the operation and you won’t be left with the impression that Forsyth had no idea what to do with the Cobra after that point. He did so much with the Cobra before then that the character deserved a better send-off.