The Cobra

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

The Cobra
by Frederick Forsyth
Bantam Press HK$204

From one of literature's most reliable assembly lines rolls the sleek new-model Forsyth. Economical, stylish, powerful, the quality control is impressive as ever.

Frederick Forsyth knows what he's doing, and his readers, after more than a dozen novels, will know what they are getting. He doesn't disappoint. The Cobra is an expertly paced thriller, crammed with convincing detail. It's a densely populated novel with plenty of exciting action, but don't worry about getting lost. Forsyth provides you with a list of characters, and another of acronyms and abbreviations, for those of us who don't know our BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) from our UDYCO (Anti-Drug Unit, Madrid).

Whether it's covert banking accounts, a fearsome array of weapons, or the electricity supply in Guinea-Bissau, you can be confident in Forsyth's research. The only thing that is made up is the story.

The Cobra's subject is cocaine. The book opens a window on the globalisation of organised crime, one of the largest industries in the post-cold war world, as described in Misha Glenny's brilliant McMafia. The Cobra is a work of fiction but Forsyth has done his homework and you can learn a lot from this book about the multibillion-dollar cocaine trade and its seemingly unstoppable expansion. Forsyth asks: what would it take to stop it?

It is the summer of 2011. The president of the United States - he's unnamed, but his wife is called Michelle - decides to put unlimited power and resources in the hands of a team who will bring down the cocaine barons of Colombia. Who is the man for the job?

The Cobra, an ageing ex-CIA operative who was fired for being too ruthless, is tempted out of retirement and given a huge budget and no questions asked. His best friends, if he had any, would not describe him as a liberal, and he gets results by being nastier than his enemies. But personally, he is a man of fastidious tastes, and a devout Catholic. His genius is for planning. Other people do the dirty work.

Soon the action is zooming about the world map, from the jungles of Colombia and Brazil to the coasts of Goa and West Africa, as the Cobra's agents mount their campaign against the cocaine industry. There is hi-tech mayhem and a lot of bloodshed, but also clever deception and intelligence work, until the bad guys begin to turn against each other.

At this point Forsyth asks the truly scary question: if the cocaine supply really could be choked off, could we afford the consequences?

The Cobra's characters have no time for introspection, and almost no time for sex (in any case, there are hardly any women in this book). Once we had thrillers of courage and heroism. Nowadays they tend to be stories about the triumph of expertise and equipment. Of its kind, this book is in the deluxe class.