Book Review: The Cobra

June 20, 2011

I just finished – or should I say, I just managed to struggle through to the end of – this best seller by Frederick Forsyth. I think I used to read Frederick Forsyth twenty-odd years ago. I’m reasonably certain I read The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File and The Fourth Protocol. Maybe also The Negotiator. I had the impression of good, fast-paced, thrilling action books, with intricate plots. Either my memory sucks, or the Frederick Forsyth who wrote The Cobra is not the same Frederick Forsyth who wrote those masterpieces. Because, I don’t care how many million copies he’s sold and what the rest of the world says, in my opinion, The Cobra is no masterpiece.

There are many problems with the book. The first and foremost is that it just doesn’t draw you in. A good book should draw you in no matter what point you flip it open at. And certainly, it should draw you in at the beginning. And even if it wants to get off to a slow start (which it shouldn’t if it is supposed to be an action-thriller) it should still get going in the first 50 pages or so. This one doesn’t. I waited for it to get going for the first 292 pages and then realized that it would finish in another 100 pages. Mind you, a riveting climax after a 300-page yawn would still be something – but nope – no climax, riveting or otherwise.

The book doesn’t have much of a plot. It has a problem statement, which is to the effect: Cocaine is bad. It destroys people. The “plot” if you want to glorify it by the name, is to get rid of the cocaine industry. In my dictionary, the word “plot” involves some twisting and turning, something well woven together, multi-dimensional. Something that goes in a straight line could possibly be a “story” but even a story should have some elements of interest, some element of surprise. On reading the Pied Piper of Hamelin recently (kids’ version – is there any other?) I discovered that it has a twist in the tail. I either never knew, or had forgotten, that after he rids the town of rats, the Pied Piper is cheated of his payment and takes his revenge by walking off with all the children of Hamelin. That’s what I call a story. Without that part, it’s hardly even a tale worth telling. The Cobra doesn’t have that. There is something that happens at the end, but, to be honest, I didn’t get it. And in any case, the main aspects of the ending were such a let down, that it was hardly even worth wondering about the details.

Even books without a plot are carried through sometimes on the strength of their characters. Wuthering Heights, for one. The plot is one that has been repeated a thousand times before and since. But the characters – ah! What characters! It’s probably unfair to pit a lowly work like The Cobra against a true masterpiece like Wuthering Heights, but if you’re supposed to be an international best seller, then you’re asking for it.

Next problem – The Cobra is full of people – so many that the author thought best to list them out in the beginning and probably had to refer to the list himself to remind himself of who’s who. That’s what it comes across as. Each person is a name and a designation (of sorts) but nothing more than that. Even characters who play key roles, who occupy the central parts of the narrative, such as Cal Dexter, The Animal, the Cobra himself, the Don, all of them are two-dimensional. The only character who has a shade of a third dimension is Senor Cardenas, and that’s only because he effectively sacrifices his life for his daughter, a daughter he dearly loves – this, at least, is something the average reader can relate to. The rest of the characters – nada.

And the biggest let down – for an action thriller, this book is completely lacking in action and thrill. There is something happening, of course. Something is happening right through the book, all the way to the end, almost. But it’s not exciting. You don’t get right into the action – you see it from a mile above. There are a lot of dry details about how the “war” against drug trade is planned. You might well be impressed by the author’s knowledge of ships and planes. You might also, towards the end, be impressed by the number of gangs he names in various parts of the world. But come on – this is not a text book on ships, planes, and gang names. I want the action, gimme the action!

You’d think that with that many fast-paced action thrillers under his belt – which I presume he has, though I haven’t read all of them – the author would know by now how to get the reader right down into the action. But either Frederick Forsyth has forgotten his craft, or I’ve forgotten how to read this genre.

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