- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 2, 2001

THE VETERAN: FIVE HEART-STOPPING STORIES
By Frederick Forsyth
Thomas Dunne Books, $24.95, 367 pages
REVIEWED BY LYN NOFZIGER

Novelist Frederick Forsyth, one of the better practitioners of the spy/international espionage genre, it turns out also writes or has written kind of cutesy short stories that run the gamut from detective tales to the mystical and various stops in between. His publishers, undoubtedly looking for a way to keep his name before the public and his books on the shelves of airport book racks during a dry spell, have now given us a book that contains four of Mr. Forsyth's short stories and a fifth that is almost a short novel, a novelette, maybe. The title of the book is "The Veteran" after the name of its first story.
These are fun tales, all five of them, with nice little twists for endings, and I would be remiss if I didn't say I enjoyed each one. But great literature they are not. Neither are they, the title page to the contrary, "heart-stopping." Rather they are stories to go to sleep by. And a couple, especially the novelette, are obviously contrived. With all of them it's almost has if someone had given the author five endings and then challenged him to write stories around them. And he took them up on it.
Fortunately, Mr. Forsyth has an easy-to-read style. In his favor, he appears to have thoroughly researched his subject matter, thereby giving each story a touch of authenticity that adds to the reader's enjoyment. This is especially true in the case of the fifth story, the novelette "Whispering Wind." Mr. Forsyth gives us a detailed description of the mistakes and miscalculations that led to the massacre by the Sioux of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and his men at Wounded Knee. In fact, the amount of historically accurate detail in this story comes perilously close to padding. Readers ignorant of but interested in the details of the Custer massacre will enjoy the results of Mr. Forsyth's research. Even so, it doesn't add a heck of a lot to the story.
Remember the old comic strip, Buck Rogers, about a young aviator who wakes up one day to find himself in the 25th century? Well, in "Whispering Wind" which, not surprisingly, is the name of a beautiful Indian girl, a young mountain man, the lone survivor of the massacre, goes to sleep and wakes up 100 years later in what turns out to be 1976. During that time he hasn't aged more than a day and, lucky for him, his horse hasn't aged either and all his gear is as good as new or at least as good as it was when he went to sleep.
The mountain man, Ben Craig, as you might have guessed was in love with Whispering Wind before he fell into his long sleep. But their marriage, an old medicine man informed them, was not to be, at least back there in 1876. However, he assured them that eventually they would be together. And that was good enough for Craig as he tucked himself in, figuring he would wake up the next day, not in the next century.
When he does awake it takes Craig a while to figure out that he didn't go to sleep just last night. Nevertheless, undaunted by the passage of a century, Craig sets out to find his lost love, and find her he does, after a fashion. To tell what happens thereafter would be a disservice to the reader, so just let it be said that after some travail and turmoil and a modern-day repeat of a chase that first took place 100 years in the past, the ending is a happy one, sort of.
There are some jarring notes in "Whispering Wind" which have nothing to do with its outlandish plot, but which detract from Mr. Forsyth's usual smooth style. For instance, Craig not only is uneducated but also comes across as not very bright. There's nothing wrong with this but still it seems out of place for him in a moment of anguish to shout out "… you have cast me into this wilderness, an outcast of man and God."
Beyond this, no one among the 20th-century people Craig mingles with seems much interested in his past and he doesn't seem much interested in telling anyone about it. As for the 20th-century clone of Whispering Wind she is a beautiful, smart, moral young lady whose actions before she meets Craig are clearly out of character. When Craig finds her, she is engaged to marry a young, pimply-faced, effeminate drunk with peculiar sexual proclivities, whose only good attribute is that his father is rich. It doesn't ring true. It's hard to figure out why they even talked to each other much less decided to marry.
Mr. Forsyth is a better writer than this. It is almost as if these are (take your pick) unpublished stories unearthed from his early writing days, or else he was writing against a deadline and neither he nor his editor thought it worthwhile to go back to fix things.
Also, Mr. Forsyth who is a British writer, persists in using British spelling when writing about the American West and using the British slang word for helicopters. He doesn't call them "copters" or "choppers;" he calls them "helos." You have to read it twice to figure out what he's talking about. Still, for all its flaws, readers who grew up on pulp fiction will enjoy "Whispering Wind." The good guys are all good, the bad guys are all bad, the weakling would sacrifice his daughter to keep his bank and there are a couple of pretty good chase scenes.
The other four stories qualify as genuine short stories. In none of the four are things quite as they seem to be. In "The Veteran," after which for some reason I have yet to understand, the book is named, an old geezer, a disabled veteran of British military action in the sultanate of Oman in the early 1970s, is kicked to death by a pair of thugs. The thugs are found and arrested but are turned loose by a British court thanks to a rich and brilliant lawyer who for some strange reason decides to act as the British equivalent of a public defender.
But that, of course, is not the end of the story. Justice prevails. In this, as in the other stories Mr. Forsyth gives the reader a welcome and needed touch of reality not only in the police work and the court scene but also in describing the fighting in Oman. The book's second tale, "The Art of the Matter," deals with a lost-and-found painting masterpiece and how the protagonist gets even with his crooked boss for ruining his reputation and his career. There are some nice twists in this one, along with considerable implausibility, but once again it is apparent that Mr. Forsyth knows his subject.
"The Miracle" and "The Citizen," the third and fourth stories, have endings that are genuine surprises, neither one of which not even Sherlock Holmes, much less the average reader, could be expected to anticipate. "The Citizen" is a story about dope smuggling and "The Miracle" concerns, of all things, a miracle. Unfortunately both leave the reader, at least this reader, with a bit of a letdown at the end.
All in all, while "The Veteran" can supply a few hours of relaxed reading to the undemanding reader it is not a book that I would urge my friends to rush right out and buy.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political advisor to President Ronald Reagan.


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