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Literature / The Fourth Protocol

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The Fourth Protocol is a 1984 Cold War thriller novel by Frederick Forsyth. The plot involves a plot against Britain involving smuggled nuclear weapons and a Soviet-friendly faction of the Labour Party.

It was adapted in 1985 as a video game and in 1987 as a movie starring Michael Caine and Pierce Brosnan.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Abnormal Ammo: Valeri Petrofsky carries a handgun that fires hollow-point bullets filled with cyanide.
  • Batman Gambit: An incompetent KGB agent with obviously false papers is sent to service the radio Petrofsky is using, knowing the British will follow him to Petrofsky. In exchange, the KGB boss who assigned the agent knows his opposite number will realize this was done deliberately, and honor their unspoken deal.
  • Cacophony Coverup: A safecracker breaks into an apartment while the owner is away in the country for New Year's Day, and waits till the stroke of midnight before setting off the charge that blows open his safe, covered by the fireworks and general outburst of revelry.
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  • Chronic Evidence Retention Syndrome: A jewel thief plans to burn a briefcase from his latest job (and his fence scolds him for still having it). But it's such a nice one, he can't bear to, so he checks to see there's no identifying marks and keeps it. However it's someone else who gets burned; after his fence is murdered by men searching for the case, he examines it a second time and discovers a hidden compartment full of top secret documents.
  • Concealing Canvas: An early scene meticulously details the locating and destruction of a safe hidden behind a painting.
  • Day of the Jackboot: The novel details how a hardline communist faction within the Labour Party could take over Britain.
  • Driving Question: Four questions drive the plot.
    • Who is the traitor inside the Defense Ministry?
    • Who is Jan Marais, the handler of the traitor?
    • Why are the Soviets smuggling a nuclear weapon into Britain?
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    • Why do the Soviets send Winkler, an obnoxiously incompetent field agent, just when their plan is on the brink of success?
  • Even Evil Has Standards: It's mentioned that even hardened criminals turn against people who betray their country.
  • False Flag Operation:
    • A Soviet spy pretends to work for South Africa to get a British official to reveal secrets. The British official was a staunch anti-Communist who felt that South Africa needed to know information to help fight the USSR and that South Africa was being denied information because of their "minor" problems with oppressing blacks. So he tells the spy classified information to help South Africa fight Soviet influence.
    • The Russian plot is to detonate a nuclear bomb near a US Air Force base, to cause the election of an anti-nuclear, pro-Soviet government. (Labour at that time were anti-nuclear. While not pro-Soviet, they had quite a few fellow travelers attempting to influence them from within. In the novel a faction of these are thus waiting in the wings to take control and remove the US nuclear missiles from the UK, eliminating this threat to the Soviet Union.)
  • Feed the Mole: At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist John Preston uncovers a False Flag Operation feeding information to the Soviets. As the mole is a fervent anti-communist (he thought he was giving information to South Africa), British Intelligence decide to make the best of a bad situation and use him to funnel false information to the Soviets, which comes in handy later in the novel.
  • Fun with Acronyms: The head of the Joint Intelligence Committee complains that he doesn't have a catchy acronym, whereupon the CIA liaison officer suggests Supreme Head of Intelligence Targeting. Preferring not to be known as the SHIT of Whitehall, he quickly drops the matter.
  • Headphones Equal Isolation: One of the MI-5 Watchers is wearing headphones while tailing a suspect, so he will appear not to be paying attention to his surroundings.
  • He Knows Too Much: Petrofsky and the KGB scientist who assembles the bomb are both set up to be killed. In the film the bodycount goes up even higher, including KGB defector Kim Philby, who sets up the plan.
  • Incredibly Obvious Tail: Averted with the Watchers.
  • Nose Tapping: The Mole working for SIS inside the Russian embassy starts a casual discussion about the effectiveness of a False Flag Operation. The KGB agent he's talking to doesn't say anything, but does smile and tap his nose, thereby confirming to the mole (and the British) that the KGB is running such an operation.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: The acting head of MI5 refuses to do anything about Preston's initial investigation (implied to be about the Communist plan to seize power) or the courier carrying an atomic bomb component. Preston has to secretly approach the Chief of SIS to get help.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Preston is reassigned to Ports and Airports, but this puts him in a position to search for the other bomb couriers. He's then forced to go on leave.
  • Scaramanga Special: The nuclear bomb fits this trope. Components are either concealed in or disguised as everyday items (including a rubber ball and a transistor radio, as shown in the film version) as they are smuggled in.
  • The Killer Was Left-Handed: MI5 investigator John Preston is investigating Jan Marais, a South African diplomat he believes to be a Soviet agent, but the South African authorities have thoroughly investigated his background and found nothing amiss. Preston comes up with a plausible theory on how Marais was replaced by a Soviet agent while a prisoner in World War II, but is told it's just speculation. Preston shows them a photograph of Jan Marais taken on a cricket pitch as a youth, where he's gripping the ball as a left-handed spin bowler. He says he's had Marais under surveillance for months, and the man is right-handed.
  • Torture First, Ask Questions Later: KGB thugs torture a Dutch fence of stolen diamonds by Hand Gagging him and snapping his fingers one by one. When the thug takes his hand away, the fence is begging to be asked questions.
  • War for Fun and Profit: The Soviet plan involves stirring up a crisis that might lead to war, though the plan was to allow the head of the British Labour Party to avert the crisis at the last minute; the resulting popularity would enable him to win the election, whereupon he would be toppled by a communist faction inside his own party.
  • You Know Too Much: Petrofsky has been told the bomb has a timer, but it's actually set to go off immediately. When the SAS raid his house, their leader executes him, because a deal has been made to cover up the Soviet Union's role in the affair.

The video game provides examples of:

  • Nonstandard Game Over: Usually, if you take too long or don't get anywhere with the plot, you get a memo telling you you're being reassigned to The Falkland Islands. When you find the bomb you have to defuse it, and if you mess it up you are told the plan succeeded: Britain fell to the Soviets, and they started working on Europe from two fronts. But sometimes a different ending appears: the bomb leads to a limited nuclear war, destroying both sides and making the northern hemisphere uninhabitable.

The film provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The film drops the burglary, the search for the leak, and digging up evidence of The Mole in South Africa. Instead MI-5 already know who the traitor is, and the film opens with Caine's character committing the burglary to make him contact and thus identify his handler. Also the communist plot to take over Britain is removed as well.
  • All There in the Manual: The film doesn't even explain what the Fourth Protocol is. You have to read the novel to find out.
  • Almost Dead Guy: The scientist dies before blurting out that she's reprogrammed the timer, but it's enough to make Petrofsky check the timer before pressing the Big Red Button.
  • Dead Drop: There's on in a pizzeria, forcing the Watchers to follow every delivery to find out who is getting them.
  • Improperly Placed Firearms: Zig-zagged. Petrofsky is using a Soviet Makarov, a weapon appropriate to his nationality — but as an 'illegal' KGB agent carrying out a mission that can't be linked to his country, that's the last weapon he'd be carrying.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: A British government official is caught providing nuclear secrets to two South Africans. He's unrepentant, saying the only issue that matters is the struggle against global communism, and South Africa's "unfashionable domestic policies" shouldn't be held against it. He breaks down when he finds out who the South Africans really worked for.
  • Not So Different: Caine's character tells off the KGB and SIS spymasters for this.
  • Pillow Pistol: The KGB agent Petrofsky and the female Soviet weapons expert Vassilievna have just finished having sex. She rolls over in bed and sees the imprint of Petrofsky's latest orders on a notepad: KILL HER. Petrofsky promptly shoves a pillow against her chest and fires his Makarov pistol through it as an improvised silencer.
  • Please Shoot the Messenger: This happens twice.
  • Spies in a Van: The MI-5 Watchers have one outside the flat of a British politician who is stealing NATO secrets. They listen to a wiretap of the politician cancelling a date with his mistress, then watch him walking to the subway where he dodges various people in case they are following him...all of whom are shown sitting in the van after he reaches the Dead Drop.
  • Taking You with Me: Petrofsky is shocked when he finds the timer has been set to zero, but the SAS choose that moment to blast through the door, so he does his best to fulfill the mission.
  • You Know Too Much: Even more than the novel, where only Petrofsky and the KGB atomic specialist are set up to be killed. The movie opens with Kim Philby (who planned the operation) getting shot (Take That!, you dirty traitor!), then the man who executed Philby is killed by Petrofsky, then an innocent bystander who walks in on Petrofsky picking up one of the parts, then Vassilievna, and finally the bomb is set to detonate the moment Petrofsky activates it.
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