I am slightly mercenary. I write for money Like his novels, Frederick Forsyth's life has been full of intrigue. He talks to Olga Craig about being chased by arms dealers, an assignation with a Czech spy – and how he was embezzled. Frederick Forsyth in Paris in 1984 on the balcony of his flat in Paris Photo: CORBIS
Sometimes, one has to suffer for one's art and pay the price of fame. Something Frederick Forsyth knows an awful lot about. Forsyth, bestselling author of 11 novels, is not only renowned for the cracking pace of his pulsating spy thrillers and his adrenalin-charged political novels, but also for their meticulous accuracy. When Forsyth writes of the murky world of arms dealers, the shadowy Nazi underground movement or the intricacies of worldwide drug cartels, every scenario is entirely plausible. Every detail is minutely researched. By him.
"Well, I'm getting on a bit. It's becoming more and more difficult," he says. "And, yes, it has led to some hairy moments."
Such as when the young Forsyth, fresh from the success of his debut novel, The Day of the Jackal, travelled to Hamburg in the early Seventies posing as an arms dealer for his third book, The Dogs of War. The novel, which tells the story of a British mining executive who hires mercenaries to overthrow an African government in a bid to install a puppet regime that will give him access to its colossal platinum ore reserves, meant that he needed to infiltrate the highly dangerous world of the arms trade.
"I managed to penetrate their world and was feeling rather proud of myself actually," Forsyth recalls. "What I didn't know was that the arms dealer had passed a bookshop shortly after our meeting. And there, in the window, was The Day of the Jackal. With a great big picture of me – the man he thought was a South African arms buyer – on the back cover."
A few minutes later, back at his hotel, Forsyth received a phone call warning him that he had 80 seconds to get out of the country. "I left all my clothes, grabbed my money and passport and ran across the square to the train station. There was a train pulling out so I did a parachute roll through the window, landing on a bewildered businessman. The ticket conductor asked me where I was going. I asked him where the train was going and he said Amsterdam. So am I, I said."
Forsyth, a big bear of a man with a surprisingly softly spoken voice and impeccable manners, has announced his retirement, how shall we say, several times. With the publication of his new book, The Cobra, a hairy account of a White House-hatched plan to let loose a seasoned Special Operations former CIA operative – who had been 'retired' for being too ruthless – on the worldwide cocaine industry, with the remit that there were no boundaries, no rules, he insists he has no plans to write any more books. "That said," he laughs, "I've said that at least three times now. So, who knows?"