The Devil's Alternative

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The Devil's Alternative
First edition
Author Frederick Forsyth
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Thriller
Publisher Hutchinson
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 478
ISBN 0-09-138870-8

The Devil's Alternative is a novel by British writer Frederick Forsyth first published in 1979. It was his fourth full-length novel and marked a new direction in his work, setting the story several years in the future (to 1982) rather than in the recent past. The work evolved from an unfilmed screenplay entitled No Alternative.

Plot summary[edit]

The story opens with the discovery of a castaway in the Black Sea. Recovering in hospital in Turkey, the man is visited by Andrew Drake, an Anglo-Ukrainian. The castaway, Miroslav Kaminsky, is a Ukrainian nationalist who escaped after he was betrayed to the KGB. Drake convinces Kaminsky that they should strike a blow against the Soviet Union. Kaminsky tells Drake about Lev Mishkin and David Lazareff, two Ukrainian Jewish nationalists who have suffered lifetimes of abuse and discrimination by the anti-Semitic Soviet authorities and are ready to take any actions that strike out against the USSR.

Meanwhile, a chain of failures at the Soviet Union's plant that makes fungicide for wheat has led to the inadvertent poisoning of the wheat crop. The United States is aware of this crisis and plans to sell its food to the Soviets in exchange for political and military concessions. Hardliners in the Politburo come up with a different strategy: to take the food from the West by invading Western Europe, stupidly insisting on ideological rather than factual grounds that the West (particularly the U.S.) will not launch a nuclear war and will instead accept defeat and the total victory over the West by the Soviet Union and their allies. The Politburo, led by Chairman Maxim Rudin (a murderous and unyielding Communist but also a pragmatic leader), narrowly votes down the war plan; however, Rudin is dying of cancer and it is only a matter of time before the faction in favor of war gains supremacy.

The news of the war plan comes to British intelligence agent Adam Munro through a Russian woman, his former lover Valentina, who works in the Kremlin offices and has access to the records of Politburo debates. The information shakes both the British and U.S. political leadership.

Mishkin and Lazareff, with the help of Drake, complicate the situation for Rudin by assassinating his ally in the Politburo, the chief of the KGB. Mishkin and Lazareff hijack a Russian airliner to escape from Ukraine but are arrested in West Berlin after one of the pilots is shot dead during landing. Drake needs the two men released because only they can reveal the truth about the death of the KGB chief, thus triggering nationalist uprisings in Ukraine and other Soviet republics (the controlled Soviet press circulated a false story about the KGB Chief's death in an auto accident). Drake and other Westerners of Ukrainian origin hijack an oil supertanker in the North Sea and demand the release of Mishkin and Lazareff. The coastal countries threatened by ecological catastrophe support the release of the prisoners.

US President Matthews receives information from the British that the USSR will cease negotiations regarding grain and military concessions if the prisoners are released, so there appear to be only two potential outcomes: an ecological catastrophe, or a Soviet invasion of western Europe. Thus Matthews is faced with the 'Devil's Alternative' of the title: no matter which course of action he pursues, massive loss of life is guaranteed. Munro devizes a third option which enables the prisoners to be released (thus ending the oil tanker standoff) and then quietly executed without them being able to reveal that they have assassinated the KGB chief. Drake and his team are killed while trying to escape the supertanker, and the Politburo member most in favour of war is removed in disgrace.

In the epilogue, Rudin proclaims a relative moderate from the peace faction as his successor. After the ceremony he privately reveals to Munro that Valentina had been working for him all along, feeding Munro and the Western governments the information they needed to defuse the crisis and avert war. He tells a shocked Munro that Valentine will never be with him romantically again, but genuinely loved him.


In 1975 Forsyth sold an original screenplay entitled No Alternative - about "a supertanker being held for ransom" - to film producer Lew Grade who had also purchased film rights to Forsyth's The Shepherd. Grade paid Forsyth US$150,000 for the work plus a percentage of the gross.[1] Martin Starger and Paramount Pictures would co-produce the film.[2] No film was made.

References to true people[edit]

The novel features many real life people with their names disguised; British Prime Minister Joan Carpenter is Margaret Thatcher (who had only recently become the PM when this novel was published); American president William "Bill" Matthews is James "Jimmy" Carter (although the fictional Matthews is finishing up his 2nd term of office in the book, while Carter was nearing the end of his 1st and only Presidential term in 1979); his Polish National Security Advisor Stanislaw Poklewski is Zbigniew Brzezinski; and Secretary of State David Lawrence is Cyrus Vance. Margaret Thatcher would later appear as herself in The Fourth Protocol, The Negotiator, The Fist of God, A Little Bit of Sunshine and Icon.


  1. ^ Nathan, Paul S. (1975). "Rights and Permissions". Publishers Weekly. 207 (Part 2): 28. 
  2. ^ "Starger to Produce Films for Paramount". Los Angeles Times. 21 July 1975. p. E9.