Every Tuesday morning, the President of the United States, with a small number of advisers, reassesses the kill list. When young western men are radicalised by the words of an extremist Islamic cleric to the extent that they blow up, shoot, slaughter leading American and British diplomats and politicians, it is just a matter of time before The Preacher is added to the top of the list. On his trail is former US marine Kit Carson, otherwise known as The Tracker, but the hunt is not just professional. It becomes deeply personal.
The Kill List presents the Tracker’s forensic, methodical and relentless pursuit of his target’s identity and life. The Preacher is not a ‘normal’ terrorist. He makes full use of digital technology to both disseminate his video sermons amongst his followers and hide their origin. The Tracker, though, has a bonus up his sleeve – the brilliant Hacker. The Hacker is a teenager, unable to leave his own home but with the key to the world’s network of communications at his fingertips. Further afield, on the ground is an agent prepared to put himself in the greatest of danger as the secret forces of America’s allies unite against the Preacher.
Frederick Forsyth, author of The Day of the Jackal, is an undoubted master of spy thrillers and, with The Kill List, he shows himself to be well up to date with the latest techniques of perpetrating and discovering acts of terror. The success of The Kill List, and what made it unputdownable for me, is the time spent constructing the background to the characters. In an almost dispassionate tone, we are guided through the lives of both Tracker and Preacher, through the horrendous methodology of the Preacher, his recruits and his immediate circle, as well as the actions of Somali pirates and the means by which negotiations are brought to a successful conclusion – or not. It’s an extremely effective technique of building tension, with layer upon layer of cause and effect, and as the novel proceeds the tension becomes almost unbearable. Just what you want from a thriller.
The Kill List also takes us on a journey through many of the world’s danger zones, while highlighting the consequences of these places on the suburbs, golf courses and shopping centres of the west.
While Forsyth has undoubtedly moved with the times when it comes to 21st-century terrorism, he has yet to leave the 20th century behind when it comes to the role of women in modern life. This is not a woman’s world. There are very few female characters and the most memorable is a tealady. This didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel, which is never less than engrossing, but it did give it an old fashioned air that contrasted severely with its modern villain and hero.
I think that comparisons are inevitable with this summer’s hit spy thriller I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. While I did prefer I Am Pilgrim, not least for its ambition, The Kill List, at half its size, is an elegant and perfectly structured, satisfying thriller, which above all else defines the word ‘tense’. I would recommend that you read them both.