The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

This is a spectacularly brilliant book. It is utterly gripping and absorbing. If I had to give someone who’d never read a thriller an example to show them what the genre can do, it would be this one.

Compared to books by Desmond Bagley, Alistair MacLean, Eric Ambler or Hammond Innes which generally weigh in at around 220 pages, The Day of The Jackal is nearly double the length (at 382 pages in the Corgi paperback version) and twice as gripping.

The length is an indicator of its key strength, its lavish attention to detail, the depth and meticulousness of its research. Rarely can a thriller have been written with such verisimilitude.

Political background

France invaded Algeria in 1830. Very quickly it became not a colony, as in the British model of Empire, but an actual administrative department of France, fully integrated into the patrie. After World War Two there were growing calls for independence and low-level violence escalated into a full-blown war of independence which started in 1954, led by the main independence movement, the National Liberation Front or FLN.

By the late 1950s their campaign of violence – with retaliatory attacks by the French Army and paramilitary groups – had spilled over into mainland France and it had become the dominant political issue: should France cling on to Algeria at the cost of ever-increasing repression and violence, or grant the country independence? Communist, socialist and liberal deputies and opinion formers argued for independence, but the Army, the right wing and most of the colonists, or pieds noirs, were violently opposed, considering Algeria not a colony but a part of the sacred soil of France.

By 1961 it became clear that only one man could heal the massive rifts in French politics and Charles de Gaulle, the embodiment of the nation, the voice of freedom during the dark days of the Nazi occupation, was recalled from retirement and made President. Both sides expected a miracle, that he could somehow square the circle, but inevitably one side had to lose and it was the colonists – de Gaulle called two referendums in which the nation as a whole voted to withdraw from Algeria. The Army and colonists felt betrayed and opposed the plan with every means at their disposal including violence, attacking police and political sympathisers. The Organisation de l’armée secrète or OAS was founded in January 1961, in response to the first referendum, and one of its central aims was to murder the traitor, de Gaulle. No fewer than six attempts were made on the President’s life.

Plot

The novel opens with a detailed account of one of these plots, the assassination attempt mounted by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry in the Paris suburb of Le Petit-Clamart on 22 August 1962. The plot failed, Thiry and his co-conspirators were caught, and Thiry was executed by firing squad on 11 March 1963.

So far the book has been a completely factual account of actual historic events. This is part of what gives it such depth and conviction, not just that it is based on historical fact, but that those events are described with such a debonaire and confident combination of factual accuracy and drama.

The fiction is seamlessly woven into fact, as the radio announcement of Thiry’s execution is heard by the OAS’s second in command, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Rodin. (He has taken over control since the head, Antoine Argoud (real historical figure) was abducted from Germany by French security forces.)

Rodin convenes a meeting of two senior directors of OAS and presents them with a novel plan in his highly-guarded rooms in a Rome hotel. They will hire a foreigner, someone with no connection with France let alone the OAS. It will be done in complete secrecy by this special committee of three, telling no-one else in the organisatoin in order to ensure total security.

They draw up a shortlist of international assassins and their search brings an Englishman to their Rome hotel. He demands half a million dollars to carry out this once-in-a-lifetime hit. The three agree.

To pay for it, they order the OAS to carry out a wave of violent crime across France to raise the money, leading to a spate of robberies, thefts, burglaries, along with the response of the authorities. Meanwhile, the Jackal returns to London and starts to make his elaborate and detailed plans.

Forsyth describes in detail the clever scam whereby French security kidnap one of the bodyguards from the Rome hotel, and then the gruesome torture techniques they apply (electric clips to the nipples and penis, huge electric shocks). He reveals that a foreigner came to visit Rodin and his codename, le chacal. French security deduce a foreign assassin has been hired and convey this to their masters.

Forsyth reveals an incredibly detailed and thoroughly researched grasp of the structure of the various French security services, how they interlock and overlap with civil servants and ministers of the relevant ministries. Roger Frey, the French Minister of the Interior, convenes a meeting of the heads of all the services to discuss what to do.

The Minister stood at the head of the table. To his immediate right sat his chef de cabinet, and to his left the Prefect of Police, the political head of France’s police forces. From Sanguinetti’s right hand down the length of the oblong table sat General Gibaud, head of the SDECE, Colonel Rolland, chief of the Action Service and the author of the report of which a copy lay in front of each man. Beyond Rolland were Commissaire Ducret of the Corps de Sécurité Presidentielle, and Colonel Saint-Clair de Villaubin, an air force colonel of the Elysée staff… To the left of M.Maurice Papon, the Prefect of Police, were M.Maurice Grimaud, the Director-General of the Sûreté Nationale, and in a row the five heads of the departments that make up the Sûreté. (p.181)

At this meeting the Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire says the first thing is to establish the Jackal’s identity, a job for a detective. When asked who is the best detective in France he replies (not, alas, Inspector Clouseau who, coincidentally, made his debut film appearance in 1963) but his own deputy commissioner, Claude Lebel.

From this point onwards the novel becomes a cat and mouse narrative, split into two streams, one detailing the immensely thorough precautions and plans of the Jackal; the other describing in just as much detail the actions of the French policeman.

Several things contribute to the novel’s phenomenal power:

Timeline

The forward momentum and pace of the novel never let up, from the moment Thiry is executed in March 1963, as it follows day by day the activities of the Jackal, of the OAS and then of Lebel right up until the fateful 25 August when the plot and the novel come to their explosive climax. Almost every chapter begins or ends with a phrase like ‘as they were talking the clock passed midnight and it was Monday 15 August’. The pressure of the timeline is always present in the narrative.

Verisimilitude

The novel is mind-bogglingly well-researched. Forsyth the narrator comes across as immensely knowledgable and thoroughly in command of his material. He displays a totally convincing understanding of the intricate and complicated roles and responsibilities of all of France’s police and security agencies and then, when the hunt moves to England, a similar grasp of the overlapping responsibilities of the police, Scotland Yard, Special Branch and MI6, or ‘the Service’.

Not only are the stakes of the novel high – life and death of the leader of a major western nation, the future of France – but Forsyth’s grasp of the implications of the plot, at all levels, from the most senior geopolitical issues, through the mazes of security and police bureaucracy, down to the tiniest details of the Jackal’s preparations for the assassination, is complete. It is a masterful text, an astonishing achievement.

Sex and death

Sex, death, guns, sports cars, forged papers, security services, kidnapping, torture, international banking transactions – all are described in the same efficient, factual and powerfully credible style. Forsyth exudes confidence. He is at home with all of this stuff. One of the striking features of this and his other novels is how relaxed and matter of fact he is about sex. In the thrillers I’ve read up to the mid-1970s by Eric Ambler, Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and John le Carré, sex has been conspicuous by its absence. The anonymous narrator of Len Deighton’s Ipcress novels alludes to having sex with his girlfriend, but only in the most oblique ways (she asks for her ear ring back). Compare and contrast with Forsyth’s frank, unashamed description of sex between the Jackal and the lonely Baroness he picks up because she has a conveniently isolated chateau where he can hide out.

The door opened and the Baroness came in. Her hair had been let down around her shoulders and she wore a pegnoir held together at the throat but open down the front. As she moved it swayed briefly open. She was quite naked beneath it, but had kept on the stockings she had worn at dinner and the high-heeled court shoes. The Jackal propped himself up on one elbow as she closed the door and walked over to the bed.

She looked down at him in silence. He reached up and slipped loose the bow of ribbon that held the nightdress closed at the throat. It swung open to reveal the breasts, and as he craned forward his hand slid the lace-edged material off her shoulders. It slid down to the floor without a sound. (1975 Corgi paperback edition, p.316)

At which point she grasps his wrists, pushes him flat onto the bed, straddling his chest, dangling her breasts in his face, then tells him to ‘perform’ as she moves her loins up over his mouth. Cunnilingus. I’ve read nothing like this in the English thriller tradition up to this point. It’s not so much that it’s rude and arousing, as that Forsyth reports it with the same confident, unembarrassed savoir faire he applies to every other aspect of his story.

And so, when he realises the Baroness has (very foolishly) used the extension in her bedroom to overhear the Jackal’s brief phone call to his OAS minder, he kills her just as coldly and efficiently, and Forsyth deploys the same unembarrassed, uncoy, uneuphemistic, accurate, factual style to describe it.

She made a rush for the door. He caught her easily and hurled her back across the room on to the bed, coming after her in three fast paces. As she bounced on the rumpled sheets her mouth opened to scream. The back-handed blow across the side of the neck into the carotid artery choked off the scream at source, then his left hand was tangled in her hair, dragging her face downwards over the edge of the bed. She caught a last glimpse of the pattern of the carpet when the forehanded chop with the edge of the palm came down on the back of the neck. (p.326)

Psychology

One reason for reading novels, and a key element in ‘literature’, is interest in the depth and fullness of ‘character’, and to observe how characters interact and change and develop through the incidents of the plot.

In Forsyth the characters are robots: the OAS characters are bent on revenge; the security characters pursue logically all administrative precautions to prevent the assassination; the Jackal is a killing machine – if ‘competence’ is a mark of the thriller protagonist, the level of professionalism he brings to every aspect of his life is off the scale – and, for his part, detective Lebel is a man given a task by his superiors who carries it out to the best of his ability.

There are a few moments or areas where a shadow of psychology creeps in:

  • In the daily briefings which Lebel is ordered to give to the entire assembled security chiefs, one of them, Saint-Clair, is consistently harsh in his criticism of the failure to arrest the Jackal – we know, and Lebel eventually proves, that this man has been going home and telling everything he’s learned to his young mistress, while she sexually pleasures him in various explicitly described ways, before she sneaks off and phones her OAS control, who then tips off the Jackal – for the is an OAS plant. The growing antagonism between Saint-Clair and Lebel almost amounts to a bit of character development, though the simplicity with which he is revealed as the leak, and accepts his humiliation is surprisingly straightforward.
  • More simply, the Baroness is given a backstory wherein her husband has abandoned her to gallivant with starlets in Paris; she is given a scene where she admires her naked body in the mirror and makes the conscious decision that, alright, she too is going to enjoy herself – and it is this decision which leads her to accede to the Jackal’s advances, and ultimately leads to her death.
  • Most tellingly, there is one long paragraph which purports to give an insight into the Jackal’s motivation.

He looked out at the jewelled sea and the lithe brown girls walking along the beach, the hissing Cadillacs and the snarling Jaguars that crept along the Croisette, their bronzed young drivers keeping half an eye on the road and the other flicking across the pavements for a likely pick-up. This was what he had wanted for a long time, from the days when he had pressed his nose to the travel agent’s windows and gazed at the posters showig another life, another world, far from the drudgery of the commuter train and the forms in triplicate, the paper clips and tepid tea. Over the past three years he had almost made it; a glimpse here, a touch there. He had got used to good clothes, expensive meals, a smart flat, a sports car, elegant women. To go back meant to give it all up. (p.277)

It is not enough. It doesn’t justify the Jackal’s superhuman precision and efficiency. In fact, it is a bit of a letdown. The Jackal isn’t a man, he is a phenomenon, an embodiment of ‘a certain type of masculinity’, raised to almost mythical status, he is Achilles, he is Beowulf. From about half way through the novel the authorities think they’ve identified him as an Englishman, Charles Calthrop, involved in previous mercenary work. Only at the very end do we learn that even this identity was a fake, that he appears to have no identifiable past.

He is, in fact, a man with no name and, like the Clint Eastwood character (who debuted in the 1964 movie A Fistful of Dollars), the very absence of backstory, or psychology, or any attempt at explanation, is crucial to his conception. He is a sort of force of nature.

The movie

The novel was a famous success, bestseller of 1971 and launched Forsyth’s long career. Inevitably it was imediately snapped up by a producer and turned into the classic thriller movie directed by Fred Zinneman and starring the impossibly plummy Edward Fox.


Related links

Forsyth’s books

1971 The Day of the Jackal – It is 1963. An international assassin is hired by right-wing paramilitary organisation, the OAS, to assassinate French President, Charles de Gaulle. The novel follows the meticulous preparations of the assassin, code-name Chacal, and the equally thorough attempts of the ‘best detective in France’, Commissaire Lebel, to track him down. Surely one of the most thoroughly researched and gripping thrillers ever written.
1972 The Odessa File – It is 1963. German journalist Peter Miller goes on a quest to track down an evil former SS commandant and gets caught up in a high-level Nazi plot to help Egypt manufacture long-range missiles to attack and destroy Israel.
1974 The Dogs of War – City magnate Sir James Manson hires seasoned mercenary Cat Shannon to overthrow the dictator of the (fictional) West African country of Zangaro, so that Manson’s mining company can get its hands on a mountain virtually made of platinum. This very long novel almost entirely amounts to a mind-bogglingly detailed manual on how to organise and fund a military coup.
1975 The Shepherd – A neat slick Christmas ghost story about a post-war RAF pilot whose instruments black out over the North Sea but who is guided to safety by an apparently phantom Mosquito, flown by a pilot who disappeared without trace during the war.
1979 The Devil’s Alternative – A Cold War, geopolitical thriller confidently describing machinations at the highest levels of the White House, Downing Street and a Soviet Politburo riven by murderous factions and which is plunged into emergency by a looming grain shortage in Russia. A plot to overthrow the reforming leader of the Soviet Union evolves into a nailbiting crisis when the unexpected hijacking of an oil supertanker by fanatical Ukrainian terrorists looks like it might lead to the victory of the hawks in the Politburo, who are seeking a Russian invasion of Western Europe.
1982 No Comebacks Ten short stories combining Forsyth’s strengths of gripping technical description and clear fluent prose, with his weaknesses of cardboard characters and improbable plots, but the big surprise is how many of them are clearly comic in intention.
1984 The Fourth Protocol – Handsome, former public schoolboy, Paratroop Regiment soldier and MI5 agent John Preston, first of all uncovers the ‘mole’ working in MI5, and then tracks down the fiendish Soviet swine who is assembling a tactical nuclear device in Suffolk with a view to vaporising a nearby US Air Force base. the baddies’ plan is to rally anti-nuclear opinion against the Conservatives in the forthcoming General Election, ensuring a Labour Party victory and then (part two of the plan) replace the moderate Labour leader with an (unspecified) hard-Left figure who would leave NATO and effectively hand the UK over to the Russians. A lunatic, right-wing fantasy turned into a ‘novel’.
1989 The Negotiator – Taciturn Clint Eastwood-lookalike Quinn (no first name, just ‘Quinn’) is the best negotiator in the business, so when the President’s son is kidnapped Quinn is pulled out of quiet retirement in a Spanish village and sent to negotiate his release. What he doesn’t realise is the kidnap is just the start of a bigger conspiracy to overthrow the President himself!
1991 The Deceiver – A set of four self-contained, long short stories relating exciting incidents in the career of Sam McCready, senior officer in the British Intelligence Service, as he approaches retirement. More gripping than the previous two novels, with the fourth and final story being genuinely funny, in the style of an Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness.
1994 The Fist of God – A journalistic account of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing US-led ‘Desert Storm’ operation to throw him out, complete with insider accounts of the Western military and intelligence services and lavish descriptions of scores of hi-tech weaponry. Against this backdrop is set the story of one man – dark-skinned, Arabic-speaking Mike Martin who goes undercover posing as an Arab, first in occupied Kuwait, then – even more perilously – in Baghdad itself, before undertaking a final mission to locate and assist the destruction of Saddam’s atom bomb (!) and the Supergun designed to fire it at the Allies. Simultaneously gripping in detail and preposterous in outline.
1996 Icon – Hot shot CIA agent Jason Monk is brought out of retirement to foil a fascist coup in post-communist Russia in a novel which starts out embedded in fascinating contemporary history of Russia but quickly escalates to heights of absurdity, capped by an ending in which the Russian people are persuaded to install a distant cousin of our very own Queen as the new Tsar of All The Russias! Sure.
2001 The Veteran – Five very readable short stories: The Veteran, The Art of the Matter, The Miracle, The Citizen, and Whispering Wind – well engineered, sleek and almost devoid of real human psychology. Nonetheless, the vigilante twist of The Veteran is imaginatively powerful, and the long final story about a cowboy who wakes from a century-long magic sleep to be reunited with a reincarnation of his lost love has the eerie, primal power of a yarn by Rider Haggard.
2003 Avenger – A multi-stranded narrative which weaves together the Battle of Britain, the murder of a young American aid worker in Bosnia, the death of a young woman in America, before setting the tracking down of a Serbian war criminal to South America against a desperate plot to assassinate Osama bin Laden. The least far-fetched and most gripping Forsyth thriller for years.
2006 The Afghan – Ex-SAS man Colonel Mike Martin, hero of The Fist of God, is called out of retirement to impersonate an Afghan inmate of Guantanamo Bay in order to infiltrate Al Qaeda and prevent their next terrorist attack. Quite a gripping thriller with an amazing amount of detailed background information about Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and so on.
2010 The Cobra – Two lead characters from Avenger, Paul Devereaux and Cal Dexter, are handed the task of wiping out the illegal cocaine trade on the authority of Barack Obama himself. Which leads to an awesome display of Forsyth’s trademark factual research, scores of pages building up a comprehensive picture of the drugs industry, and to the detailed description of the multi-stranded operation which almost succeeds, until lily-livered politicians step in to halt it.
2013 The Kill List – Another one about Islamic terrorism. The Preacher, who has been posting jihadi sermons online and inspiring a wave of terrorist assassinations, is tracked down and terminated by US marine Christopher Carson, aka The Tracker, with a fascinating side plot about Somali piracy thrown in. Like all Forsyth’s novels it’s packed with interesting background information but unlike many of his later novels it this one actually becomes genuinely gripping at the end.
2015 The Outsider – At age 76 Forsyth writes his autobiography in the form of a series of vignettes, anecdotes and tall tales displaying his characteristic briskness and dry humour. What an extraordinary life he’s led, and what simple, boyish fun this book is.

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