book review by Patrick H. Moore
A handsome new hardback edition of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal has recently been published by The Folio Society Ltd. In addition to being treated to the text itself, the reader will enjoy a series of tasteful black-and-white illustrations by noted illustrator Tatsuro Kiuchi, as well as an insightful introduction by Ken Follett, and a brief preface by the author himself.
Reading Mr. Forsyth’s preface, I was astounded to discover that he wrote this somewhat dense and exquisitely detailed work in a mere two months in 1971. ‘How is that possible?’ I asked myself, and my question is still unanswered. Let me merely state that it was a wonderfully productive two months.
Jackal is an iconoclastic work which does not hesitate to break new ground. The Jackal, the story’s villain/protagonist, is a thoroughly unlikeable yet deeply intriguing character, a gun-for-hire sans conscience, perhaps even sans personality. Or to state it more precisely, his personality is strangely muted; although he enjoys fine drink and fine cuisine and dresses with a keen appreciation for conservative good taste, his enjoyment is not really pleasure at all but something more closely approximating stoic endurance – he eats and drinks and dresses because he has no other choice; the most lethal gun-for-hire in the western world must keep up appearances if he is to move unencumbered from European capital to capital without drawing undue attention to himself. A master of disguises, his basic persona is also a kind of disguise, so “normal” that he is neither this nor that, which is entirely fitting because part of Mr. Forsyth’s genius is to present his villain/protagonist as a man completely stripped of any personal psychology; i.e., the reader is never given any clues as to what combination of fixtures and forces has molded this strange executioner. If he had qualities associated with the anti-hero, he would be far more recognizable, but he does not; he seems to have virtually no qualities whatsoever beyond the necessarily superficial.
Like any skilled writer, however, the author does provide the reader with a single symbol that exemplifies the Jackal’s curious lack of human qualities; his eyes are grey and strangely muted as if covered by an impenetrable curtain that removes him from all normal human feelings and interactions.
Of course, the Jackal does have two essential traits without which he could not operate. He is utterly selfish and absolutely lethal, and though he seems tightly wound and without spontaneity, as the plots proceeds, we discover that he is able to improvise when necessary with precision and ferocity.
Jackal is a political thriller set primarily in France, Belgium, Great Britain and Italy. The reader discovers that the French Prime Minister, Charles de Gaulle, is considered a traitor by French reactionaries (they would be called conservatives in America circa 2014) because he did not put up sufficient resistance when Algeria embarked upon the road to independence, which disenfranchised millions of French citizens who had settled there. Although any objective observer knows with certainty that the Algerian road to independence was inevitable, a foregone conclusion in a rapidly-changing world in which the old imperialist powers were losing their satellites, the French reactionaries consider it to be a shameful betrayal of French honor with only one possible solution. De Gaulle must die.
The problem is that although the reactionaries, who are almost entirely drawn from the old French Foreign Legion, were soldiers of fortune of the first rank, they are not very good assassins and have failed miserably in their attempts to assassinate De Gaulle on their own. In fact, the book begins with an abortive attempt to eliminate the French leader which is almost laughable in its incompetence.
The readers learns that the ubiquitous hit men of the French and Corsican underworld are equally useless; the only solution is to contract with the world’s most skilled professional hit man, the Jackal.
Because everyone knows that De Gaulle was not assassinated in real life, the reader is aware from the start that even the fearsome Jackal must inevitably fail, but nonetheless, Forsyth’s tale is so fascinating that this inconvenient little fact barely matters.
One of the compelling aspects of Jackal is the manner in which the author delineates a certain class of European criminals, the purveyors of made-to-order firearms and false passports. Both the gunsmith and the forger are Belgian and operate out of seedy locations in Brussels. There, however, their similarity ends; the gunsmith quickly recognizes that the Jackal is a force to be reckoned with and treats him with the utmost care and respect. The forger, on the other hand, misses the cues which costs him his life. This is the Jackal’s first actual onstage killing and, curiously, it is almost a relief to see his lethal nature manifest with deadly precision.
Because the Jackal lacks the essential qualities that we associate with “being human”, he is also imbued with an immense patience. This is a man who can “execute” both literally and figuratively. There are endless steps to his machinations – multiple disguises, multiples false identities, multiples flights and multiple excellent dinners; late in the game, there is even some “rough” sex thrown into the mix, but purely for plot purposes; Mr. Forsyth does not particularly aim to titillate.
Some modern readers could grow impatient as the author slowly and painstakingly follows the Jackal through the steps of his perfectly conceived plan. This, however, is more a function of time and history than literary style. Jackal was written more than 40 years ago, in an era when people were in less of a rush than they are today, and the typical attention span was longer than it is today. Personally, I found the close attention to detail to be riveting.
One of the justly famous scenes describes the Jackal driving deep into the Belgian forest to test the sight on his custom-made assassin’s rifle, which of course, must function perfectly if he is to succeed in killing De Gaulle. His target, at this juncture, is a ripe melon which he decorates to resemble a human face and hangs from a tree branch:
The silencer went on easily, swiveling round the end of the barrel until it was tight. The telescopic sight fitted snugly along the top of the barrel. He slipped back the bolt and inserted the first cartridge into the breech. Squinting down the sight, he scoured the far end of the clearing for his hanging target. When he found it, he was surprised to find how large and clear it looked. To all appearances, had it been the head of a living man, it would have been no more than 30 yards away. He could make out the criss-cross lines of the string of the shopping bag where it restrained the melon, his own finger smears denoting the main features of the face.
Truly, our Jackal is in no rush.
From early on, Mr. Forsyth makes it crystal clear that the French security forces are top-notch and that to get close enough to De Gaulle to assassinate him will be a formidable task. And, sure enough, at a certain point, the Jackal’s scheme is discovered and the French authorities must marshal their forces to stop him.
This means that a second protagonist must appear — a detective of such skill and determination that even the wily Jackal will not be able to evade him forever. At this point, Mr. Forsyth must make a decision. What manner of man should the detective be? Let us turn here to Ken Follett’s Introduction:
At last, after a prologue lasting 188 mind-boggling pages, Forsyth brings on stage the hero of the story, Commissaire Claude Lebel.
By contrast with the almost superhuman Jackal, Lebel is carefully underplayed. ‘A good cop’ is how he thinks of himself, ‘slow, precise, methodical, painstaking … he was known in the PJ as a bit of a plodder.’ His crumpled suit and raincoat must surely have inspired television’s Columbo. Like Columbo he is scorned, berated and jeered at by an upper- class antagonist, in this case Colonel Raoul Saint-Clair de Villauban (who just happens to be compromised by a sexy female agent working for the right-wing organization that has hired the Jackal). But we are specifically warned not to underestimate the quiet man with the soft brown eyes and toothbrush moustache.
So on the one hand, we have the Jackal, whose very lack of human qualities makes him, in a curious sense, “superhuman.” On the other hand we have our Mr. Everyman investigator, Commissaire “Do Not Sell Him Short” Claude Lebel. What these two have in common is the slow, painstaking method they both specialize in. Lebel is under pressure so intense it would break a lesser man, so what does he do? He puts on more coffee and proceeds slowly and carefully, knowing that with the stakes this high, any slip-up could be fatal.
From this point on, it’s “cat-and-mouse” to the bitter end as Lebel and his people slowly but surely strive to tighten the noose around the Jackal’s neck. The Jackal, meanwhile will need every ounce of cold cunning he possesses to not only shake the French gendarmerie but – and this is key – carry out his carefully designed plan to shoot and kill the French head of state, the courageous and implacable Charles De Gaulle.
The Day of the Jackal is a crime thriller that deserves to be read, pondered, and ultimately re-read. The fact that Mr. Forsyth wrote this intriguing and highly-innovative novel in a mere two months is surely one of the great mysteries of crime literature and suggests a single-mindedness of purpose that few can match, with the exception, perhaps, of the Jackal himself.
And here’s a link to The Folio Society: www.foliosociety.com
And we must not forget the handsome slipcase and cover design that makes this volume a strikingly handsome addition to your library:
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