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Good international spy thriller from the cold war era
on 12 May 2005
"The Devil's Alternative" is a spy thriller from the end of the 1970's. The story pits the Russian leader (modeled somewhat on Leonid Brezhnev) against the American President (modeled somewhat on Lyndon Johnson) in a world crisis situation. At the same time the story is very European in that it is the British who just happen to have a spy with access to the Russian Politburo meetings. Also, most of the scenes that do not take place in the White House or the Kremlin take place in Europe.
The story is very exciting, although somewhat unrealistic. As usual, the good guys are trying to prevent World War III while the "hawks" in both the Kremlin and the White House can hardly wait to get going. The ending is somewhat contrived but on the whole the book is a very good read.
For someone reading this book nowadays it seems rather dated because of the huge changes in the world political and military situation since the 1970's. This can be considered either negative or positive depending on whether you are interested in the history of this era.
The differences between then and now are amazing. At that time the Soviet Union and Russia were a world superpower. Eastern Europe was communist, Germany was divided, and West Berlin was an isolated non-communist island in communist East Germany. The major political and military conflict in the world was the efforts of the communist countries to try to convert the whole world to communism and the efforts of the non-communist countries to prevent this from happening.
All of the above facts play a major role in this story, so an understanding of the situation then being different from the situation now is brought forcefully home to the reader.
There is an interesting passage in "The Devil's Alternative": "One day, maybe not too long from now, the Russian empire will begin to crack. One day soon, the Romanians will exercise their patriotism, and the Poles and Czechs. Followed by the Germans and Hungarians. And the Balts and Ukrainians, the Georgians and Armenians. The Russian empire will crack and crumble, the way the Roman and British empires cracked, because at last the arrogance of their mandarins became insufferable." (Page 410 in the paperback edition I read.)
Was Frederick Forsyth perceptive in writing this, or just lucky? My memory of that era is that not many people would have agreed with that prediction at that time.
What about the plot? In a book like "The Devil's Alternative" the plot is not so important - it is a vehicle for the characters to play out their conflict, and Frederick Forsyth is good at creating interesting characters who play out an interesting conflict.
Some parts of the story are somewhat unrealistic. In particular, the ending is rather contrived and some of the technical details about the fictitious world's largest supertanker strike me as very improbable. It is because of these various problems with the realism that I'm giving "The Devil's Alternative" four stars instead of five.
But for the most part the story is realistic enough for us to suspend our disbelief and let ourselves get excited, and even scared of the possible consequences of things going wrong. That's what makes this one of Frederick Forsyth's better books, and I can recommended it, especially if you want to relive the world political and military situation at the height of the cold war.