The Veteran by Frederick Forsyth (by Kevin Mims)

This new post by Kevin Mims, essayist, short story writer, and frequent contributor to this blog, addresses again a subject he discussed in his September 2, 2021 post “A Semiforgotten Masterpiece of Short Fiction”—the short stories of Frederick Forsyth. If you love short fiction, I think this review will make you want to try to find a copy of the Forsyth collection Kevin focuses on this time, a book that first saw print twenty years ago.  —Janet Hutchings

Last September, I wrote an appreciation of No Comebacks, Frederick Forsyth’s excellent 1982 short story collection. I ended the essay by writing, “It is a shame that Forsyth hasn’t written more short stories, because he has a real knack for it.” Fortunately, Jon L. Breen, who knows more about crime and mystery fiction than almost anyone alive, contacted me to let me know that Forsyth had continued writing short stories even after the publication of No Comebacks, and five of them had been collected in The Veteran, published by St. Martin’s Press back in September, 2001. I got hold of a copy of The Veteran in September of 2021.

No Comebacks was such a brilliant collection, published during the author’s heyday—a fourteen year period (1971-1984) during which he brought forth The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Shepherd, The Devil’s Alternative, No Comebacks, and The Fourth Protocol—that I assumed The Veteran, a much later production, would prove to be a bit of a letdown. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. If anything, The Veteran may be an even better collection of stories than No Comebacks. The paperback edition of that earlier collection contained ten stories in 289 pages, for an average of about 29 pages per story. The paperback edition of The Veteran contains half as many stories spread across 344 pages, for an average of nearly 70 pages per story. Longer stories are not necessarily better than short ones. Oftentimes, they are worse. But that is not the case with those in The Veteran. It is a cliché when reviewing a collection of good longer stories (novellas, novelettes, whatever you want to call them) to say that each story has the heft of a novel. That is what many reviewers said of the four stories in Stephen King’s collection Different Seasons, which was published in hardback by Viking Press in August of 1982. The cliché is not always warranted but it was definitely true of Different Seasons, and it is equally true of The Veteran. Each of the five stories feels as if it could easily have been expanded into a full-length novel.

The book’s title story starts out as a straightforward police procedural about the search for the young thugs who brutally beat to death a disabled war veteran in a seedy part of London. This is a gritty cop story and fans of darker British crime dramas such as DCI Banks, Scott & Bailey, Happy Valley, Broadchurch, and the like will be sure to enjoy it. I said that “The Veteran” starts out as a straightforward drama. This is true of most Forsyth stories. They always start out as if they are going to proceed predictably from Point A to Point B and eventually to Point Z. But no Forsyth story I’ve read ever remains on the straight and narrow path. Every one of his stories contains at least one jaw-dropping twist to it, and many of them contain multiple such twists. It takes the police detectives quite a while to discover the identity of the victim of the brutal beating that is at the heart of “The Veteran.” Eventually, however, we learn his name and that he was a member of a close-knit band of British military brothers who fought valiantly together in a foreign war. The reader gets his first major jolt when, after the two thugs who committed the killing are arrested, another member of that band of military brothers, now a highly regarded London barrister, agrees to defend them. The police were originally confident in their case, even though much of it is circumstantial. But when they learn that the eminent James Vansittart is going to be arguing for the defense, their confidence completely vanishes. Vansittart’s firm is wealthy and has much greater resources at its disposal than the public prosecutor. But why would Vansittart agree to defend such miscreants? Suffice it to say that Forsyth has plenty more twists in store.

The second story in the collection is called “The Art of the Matter,” and it is a much cozier mystery, involving art theft and forgery and some rather unexpected reversals of fortune. After the grittiness of the title story, this one comes as a bit of a palette-cleanser, but it is nonetheless a fully-fleshed-out crime story that could easily have been stretched out to novel length without much effort. It is a somewhat comic heist caper that will satisfy anyone who enjoys a good revenge tale.

The third tale in the book is called “The Miracle.” In his fiction, Forsyth often likes to weave together events from different timelines. “The Miracle” is a story that operates on three different timelines. The framing story is set in Siena, Italy, on July 2, 1975. It concerns a middle-aged Topeka, Kansas, cattleman and his wife who have traveled to Italy to witness the Palio di Siena, a horse race that takes place there every summer and attracts roughly 40,000 spectators. These two Americans have arrived late. They failed to book a hotel room on time and thus had to stay at an inn far from the city. Their rental car overheated on the drive to Siena, and now, traveling on foot, the wife has twisted her ankle just a quarter mile away from where the race is set to begin. She sits down in a cobblestoned courtyard. A foreigner who speaks English takes a look at her ankle. He informs her that it is not broken but that it needs to be wrapped. He offers to tear up a shirt into strips and wrap the ankle for her. The husband asks the stranger who he is, and the stranger responds that he is a gardener. He is actually being modest. He is a trained doctor. In fact, he was a Nazi surgeon during the Second World War. He was stationed in Italy and exactly 31 years earlier, on July 2, 1944, he witnessed a miracle in that courtyard that changed his life. At this point we get our first story-within-a-story, as the gardener/doctor tells his wartime tale. He tells this story in the third person, not acknowledging that he himself is the doctor at the center of the tale. Siena was in the middle of an area being hotly contested by both the Allied and Axis powers. The courtyard where the American couple now sit peacefully was, in July of 1944, a makeshift emergency field hospital for wounded German soldiers and Allied prisoners of war. As American General Mark Clark and his troops advanced into Siena, the Germans evacuated, leaving behind soldiers and POWs too wounded to be moved. All of the medical staff are evacuated with the retreating German Army except for a young German surgeon and an even younger Italian girl who has been pressed into service as a nurse. The German surgeon cannot speak Italian and the Italian girl cannot speak German. The young surgeon and his nurse have been left in charge of 220 men, all of whom are near death. He assumes that by the time the Allied troops arrive, nearly all of his patients will have expired. In fact, three days later, when the French and American troops arrive in the Sienese courtyard, all 220 patients are alive and on the mend. The surgeon attributes this miracle to the ministrations of the mysterious nurse. To explain this miracle, he goes back even further in time, to 1540, when Siena and the surrounding countryside were “a vision of hell,” wracked by plague and famine and riots and revolts and clashing clans. To look after the community’s most wretched sufferers, a young noblewoman named Caterina established a sort of makeshift hospital in the same courtyard where, years later, in 1944, the Germans would set up their own makeshift hospital. Forsyth spends the rest of the story tying his three timelines together in surprising and entertaining ways.

The fourth story in the collection is called “The Citizen” (Forsyth often gives unaccountably bland titles to thrilling stories, a habit he—thankfully—doesn’t extend to the titles of his novels). This is a gripping story about a British Airways 747 Jumbo Jet that is traveling, full of passengers, from Bangkok to London. Midway through the flight, one of the stewards finds a note that a passenger has left in the galley. The anonymous note is addressed to the captain and informs him that two of the passengers appear to be smuggling drugs from Bangkok into London. The captain finds all this a bother. He’d prefer to ignore the note and let British Customs find the drugs (or not) on its own. But aviation law requires him to radio ahead to Heathrow and let the authorities know about the note. And when he does, the tension ratchets up and the plot, naturally, takes some odd twists.

Which brings us to the final story in The Veteran. Writers and their editors often like to begin a story collection with the second best story in the book and conclude with the best. You want a very strong story to lure the reader in. You want an even stronger one with which to send the reader and (especially, perhaps) the book reviewer off. If the middle stories are of a slightly lesser quality, a good final story will often help the reader/reviewer overlook that shortcoming. None of the stories in The Veteran are less than riveting. But “Whispering Wind,” the final story in the collection, is an absolute masterpiece, one of the most inventive fictions Forsyth has ever written. At 140 pages it is the longest story in the book and the one that seems the most novel-like. In fact, it essentially is a novel. It begins in Montana in 1876, just a few days before General Custer’s foolhardy attack on the Indians at The Little Big Horn. The main character is a Scottish-American frontiersman named Ben Craig, whom Custer’s Army has enlisted as a scout, both because of his knowledge of the terrain and his ability to speak the language of the Cheyenne Indians. Here is another case where Forsyth’s status as a conservative ex-military man who is generally quite fond of America and Americans may cause the reader to entertain false expectations of how the author will treat this historical subject. In this story Forsyth evinces no fondness whatsoever for the American military. His sympathies all lie with the Indians (Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho). Early in the tale Ben Craig witnesses an appalling massacre of Indian women and children by some of Custer’s military officers in the days prior to Custer’s Last Stand. They shoot a beautiful young girl named Whispering Wind through the leg as she tries to escape the slaughter. Ben Craig ministers to her wounds, but he is ordered by Custer’s men to keep her tied up. They plan to return later to gang rape her and then kill her like the rest of her tribe. Craig, who is disgusted by what he has seen of the American Army, sets her on a pony and allows her to escape. Custer will sentence him to death for this. Fortunately, Custer delays Craig’s execution until after the planned raid on the Little Big Horn. He wants the Indian-loving Craig to watch as the General and his men slaughter the warriors gathered there. Craig does get a front row seat to the slaughter, but not the one that Custer was promising.

This story goes through more permutations (a favorite word of Forsyth’s) than any other Forsyth tale I have read. It starts out as a Western tale and pretty much remains one until the end. But it also manages to satisfy the requirements of many other pop-fiction genres —the fantasy tale, the romance, the time-travel tale, the revenge tale, the chase story, etc. It is also a pretty good example of The Hero’s Journey, as defined by Joseph Campbell.

I’m not exactly sure why The Veteran never became as popular as No Comebacks. The advance review that ran in Kirkus Reviews was headlined “Big Pro Shows His Stuff. Boffo.” As it happened, however, the book was released just a few weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, a time when readers across the globe were still obsessed with nonfiction accounts of the attacks and their aftermath. Few paid any attention to Forsyth’s story collection with its bland-sounding title. Thanks to Jon Breen, I was made aware of this underrated collection, and I’m glad I was. Anyone who loves thrilling stories ought to seek it out as well. And if, after reading No Comebacks and The Veteran, you’re in the mood for more Forsyth short stories, well, I’ve got good news. You can find them in two more books. The aforementioned volume The Shepherd, published in 1975, was given the stand-alone treatment, but it’s a very slim book, heavily illustrated, and it contains a single short story, written as a Christmas present for his wife Carole. And then there is Forsyth’s 1991 book The Deceiver. This book has always been marketed as a novel but it is in fact a collection of four discrete stories all of them featuring a British spymaster named Sam McCready. The stories began as episodes of a British TV series called Frederick Forsyth Presents, which debuted in 1989. Forsyth himself introduced each episode of the TV series, a la Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling. A total of six episodes were produced. After all of the episodes had aired, Forsyth collected four of the stories into The Deceiver. The McCready character seems to have been inspired, at least in part, by TV’s Lieutenant Columbo. Throughout the book he is variously described as “a crumpled fellow,” “quirky” and “irreverent,” “somewhat scruffy,” and “a diamond in the rough.” At one point he is described as “the medium-built, rather rumpled man with thinning brown hair in a gray raincoat.” Like Columbo, he is forever being underestimated by those around him. Each story can stand on its own, and each story is thrilling. If there are any other Frederick Forsyth short stories out there, I am not aware of them. But perhaps Jon L. Breen is.

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