WHILE MANY PUNDITS remain divided over whom they would prefer to emerge today at the helm of the self-appointed fight against global terrorism, one small group at least agree on one thing: it is likely to take much longer than the four-year term of the next president of the United States before the latest genre of thriller writing becomes old hat. Such is the pervasiveness through deeds, threats and reportage of global terrorism that even at the age of 68, with 70 million books sold and a fortune made, master thriller writer Frederick Forsyth can't resist its lure. The British writer has already postponed his retirement twice and recently emerged after seven years with another best-selling thriller, Avenger (Transworld Publishers, $101). He now says that not only will he write 'something to do with global terrorism' in the next couple of years, but that the state of world affairs will spawn a new generation of writers. 'I think it will be the subject for the next two decades. It's like a second cold war, a covert war,' he says. 'The cold war spawned Len Deighton, John le Carre, people like myself, Tom Clancy. This new undercover war is going to do the same because there's a new flood of plot lines - thrillers that can derive from the idea of a secret Arab society trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament or something. 'There is a thriller to be written about Iraq, Afghanistan, September 11. I'm surprised they've not begun already because there's so much material there.' Drawing on current events to devise plots has been a Forsyth trademark since he used his experience as a Reuters correspondent in France to write his first thriller, The Day of the Jackal, in 1971. 'They are topical,' he says. 'I try to keep them topical. It's something I saw, something I read, maybe a TV documentary, something that triggers a train of thought - what would happen if they did this and this, and this?' The spark for Avenger was when 'I heard that the Americans had very quietly passed a law saying that if you murdered an American anywhere on the planet they would regard the whole planet as their jurisdiction. Essentially, they send in a snatch squad. I thought, 'That's pretty self-confident stuff'.' Forsyth looked into this dinner party anecdote and discovered that not only was it true, but that there had been 10 such snatches since the law was passed, the latest quite recently, involving an al-Qaeda suspect. 'So, I thought why not do something about bringing back to justice a murderer.' The result: a thriller in his usual taut, fast-paced style in which a former Vietnam tunnel rat - soldiers who fought the Vietcong in their underground tunnels - must snatch and bring to justice a Serbian gangster responsible for the death of an American in Bosnia. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia is no longer front-page news, but Forsyth says that doesn't matter. After all, The Day of the Jackal, his story of an assassin's bid to kill French president Charles de Gaulle, sold more than nine million copies and is still selling. It was written in just over a month when Forsyth, then a 31-year-old journalist, was unemployed after quitting his job with the BBC to work freelance. 'It was about shooting the president of France, now long dead. Thirty-four years later people are still reading it, even though it can't be topical any more,' he says. Like The Day of the Jackal and the 10 best-selling thrillers since - well-known titles such as The Odessa File, The Dogs of War and The Devil's Alternative - Avenger carries another Forsyth trademark, one crucial to his success. His avenger is a small-town lawyer called Cal Dexter who, Batman-like, dons his avenger persona when the need arises. He's a renegade, an outsider. Forsyth says readers don't want heroes who are establishment figures. 'One man against the authorities? There's always an element of that. The public seems to empathise with the rebel against the authorities,' he says. Even his first and best known anti- establishment character, the Jackal, captured the readers' sympathy along with their imagination. 'I thought the Jackal was going to be a really vicious, cold-blooded killing machine - but half the people wanted him to win.' Often, the establishment people are the bad guys, or the bad guys' protectors. And although Forsyth, a vociferous critic of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a Conservative with a capital C, seems an unlikely rebel-sympathiser, in Avenger this is also the case - Dexter's nemesis is a CIA man who offers the killer protection. Again Forsyth quotes real-life instances to back the credibility of his narrative. 'The idea that the bad guys get protection from the establishment - there is a precedent for that,' he says. 'After the second world war a number of Nazis were given sanctuary by the Americans. They told the Americans they were anti-communist experts.' Name a title and Forsyth can summon such examples to substantiate his plot. 'It has to be feasible,' he says. So, at the heart of his work lies extensive research. Before touching the keys of his electric typewriter - he doesn't own a computer - he talks to experts who help him put the flesh on the bones of the story he's already written in his head. This is the part that's 'quite fun', he says. 'It takes me all over the place. I normally work out the idea first and then find the person who is an expert in that field and ask them if they will talk to me and usually the answer is yes.' His favourites for 'spilling the beans' are those recently retired or disaffected. He cites former CIA agents angered by the refusal of their superiors to listen to them in the lead-up to September 11, as a new, potentially rich source for writers. 'People who resign because they're not happy with the way things are going in their department are prepared to spill the lot. If I wanted someone to tell me why the perpetrators of the destruction of the World Trade Centre got through, I wouldn't talk to the FBI, I'd talk to the guy who resigned because he was so pissed off with the FBI. The guy with a chip on his shoulder can be a mine of information.' The results of this research - maps, photographs, notes - are spread out on a horseshoe arrangement of tables in his study at his farmhouse in Hertfordshire, southern England. Each pile is consulted as he arrives at the relevant point in the single draft he writes of each book - the part he says that is 'actually very boring'. A huge weight of detail is crammed into each story - so much so that some critics have portrayed them as little more than journalism. Forsyth has 70 million reasons not to care what the critics say, but he agrees that his kind of writing and the investigative journalism he undertook for Reuters and the BBC in Europe are close relatives. His ability to recall details long ago stuffed into the boxes he'll one day donate to an archive is impressive. But Forsyth, dubbed Freddie and often portrayed as a right-wing stuffed shirt by the British media, is good company and happy to make light of his memory. Sure, he can remember who commanded Polish troops in 1939, but he relies on his wife, Sandy, to remind him who he had dinner with last week, he says. 'I have terrible trouble remembering names.' He also claims to be bone idle, taking a year off between books to spend time on his 70-hectare farm, with his two sons from his first marriage, and to go scuba diving. But his other passion, flying - at the age of 19 he was the youngest pilot in the Royal Air Force - ended when his license lapsed several years ago. He toyed with the idea of buying a microlight, but Sandy said she would be off to a solicitor - the threat she also uses if he contemplates life as a member of parliament. So neither will happen, the author says. But nor will retirement. 'If I've an idea and I know it's an ingenious idea then I can't not worry at it, like a terrier with a rabbit hole. Then, when it's ready for writing I think, 'It's a pity not to do it now - I'm so far into it that the project takes over.' 'By the time it's a complete story the book's the boss.'