The Day of the Jackal
is Frederick Forsyth’s
first novel, published in 1972
. Prior to writing novels he served in the RAF
becoming one of their youngest fighter pilots at the age of 19. He finished his military duties in 1958
and quickly found a job as a newspaper reporter and then moved on to the Reuters
, where he was their foreign correspondent
first in Paris
, then in East Germany
. Knowing Forsyth’s background it is easy to understand the way he writes.
Forsyth’s writing falls within the political thriller genre, but his past as a reporter is shown in the way he builds his stories. While many mystery/thriller authors place a premium on action and close calls between their protagonists and antagonists, Forsyth instead builds up the story carefully outlining each movement of each character. While this can be a bit dull, he writes in a way that keeps things moving even as a character spends time, for example, talking about stealing passports or buying things to set up a false identity.
The Day of the Jackal, set in the summer of 1963, is about the OAS and Charles De Gaulle.* In the early sixties De Gaulle angered the French military when he decided to pull out of Algeria, even though there were still three million Frenchmen living there. In response the military set up a secret network called the OAS (or Algerian Secret Army) whose goal was the death of De Gaulle and the over-throw of the Fifth Republic. The problem for the OAS is they kept failing in the assassination attempts – six in all. Their difficulties stemmed from the fact that the French government had informers all through out the organization and France’s “action service” (secret police) was just as ruthless as the OAS. In response to this the head of the OAS decides to side step the rest of the organization and hire a foreign contract killer himself who would take out the president without any assistance from people the French authorities would have on file.
French intelligence feels that something is in the wind, because the heads of the OAS decide to steel themselves away in Italy. With only a few bits of information, the French police try to find a foreigner, without a picture or name to go on. I don’t want to give away any more, but the assassin uses an ingenious way to smuggle his weapon into the country and the police get lucky with some creative thinking of their own.
It is worth noting that the first third of the book almost exclusively revolves around the motives and motions of the killer. I was left actually rooting for the killer at certain points simply because I had spent so much time reading about him preparing, and also because De Gaulle is painted as somewhat of a jerk by Forsyth.
I should also point out that the book was made into a movie directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1973. The movie works pretty well as it stays true to the novel for the most part. However, as is often the case, the novel is much better than the movie adaptation. This is mainly because Forsyth paints a more complete picture because he takes the time to talk about the political biases between different governments, different agencies and even the mafia. I whole-heartily suggest you read The Day of the Jackal and see the film. However, skip “The Jackal” a 1997 remake set in the United States staring Bruce Willis. That film is a bunch of crap.
*Here is a link that gives some background on the OAS and DeGaulle: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/27/newsid_2515000/2515735.stm