Forsyth’s method is almost formulaic. These stories are carefully planned, then meticulously realised. You can see how he has an idea, researches and/or thinks it through, then spells it out precisely, neither skipping nor wasting words. There’s no ebullience or flights of wit, surrealism or insight. The characters are all described dispassionately, at a distance, and are frightfully British – reserved, self-controlled, non-demonstrative. A strange way to describe a book that includes several murders, blackmail over illicit sex, and even big game fishing, but Forsyth, while professionally conveying detail, doesn’t write in order to make our heart beat faster.
However, he does write with an addictive slow burn. These stories aren’t flashy, but they are satisfying and meaty. The twists are generally potent, and occasionally you have the added bonus of the little man surprisingly overcoming.
I first read this collection over twenty years ago, and it says something for the lasting impact of these stories that I could still clearly recall several of them: the irony of ‘No Comebacks’ and ‘There are no snakes in Ireland’; the epic metamorphosis of ‘The Emperor’; and the delightful justice of ‘Privilege’ have all stayed with me through the years.
It could be seen as dated, but I’d more see it as an able time piece: you can feel, for example, the 70s society so wonderfully pilloried by the Monty Python TV shows in these pages. Moreover the ideas for these stories (except, perhaps, ‘Sharp Practise’, the weakest of the series: an (obvious) accomplice is hardly a shock twist) are consistently strong, and ably presented.