The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth is a political thriller focused on a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, President of France. The Jackal, a professional assassin is hired by the OAS, a French dissident paramilitary organisation to complete the task.
If I’m honest I don’t think I’d have ever chosen to read this book. Although I do read a lot of thrillers I tend to sway towards religious historical thrillers, hunts for lost libraries, scrolls, treasures and gospels. I also, prior to this, had little knowledge and active interest in the politics of France of the 1960s. But, it is a favourite of my other half and we’re trying to broaden our reading by taking recommendations from each other.
In setting the scene for the assassination plot Forsyth begins with detailing a failed attempt on de Gaulle’s life by Col. Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry followed quickly by the capturing of Antoine Argoud, the OAS Chief of Operations. Whilst I understand the need to give background and context to the rest of the book I struggled with these first few chapters. The organisational structure of the OAS and the history of their involvement and disagreement with the making of an independent Algeria confused me and I began to doubt whether I would a) be able to keep track of the plot and b) be interested in what happened next.
From the moment Argoud’s deputy Lt Col. Marc Rodin sets his plan in motion to hire a professional assassin the pieces came together and Forsyth’s storytelling came into its own. Most people reading this book they will know from the outset that the Jackal will fail as Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated but died at home from a ruptured blood vessel weeks before his 80th birthday. I did not know this and had to seek guidance from my other half as to what was true to reality and what was fiction! I have since learnt that Forsyth was to influence a generation of thriller writers with this new documentary style of realism. In reading The Day of the Jackal you could easily be led to believe you are reading the real life account of one of those involved with the investigation.
It is a credit to Forsyth’s style, depth and narrative talent that the book was publish in the first place. Published in 1971 de Gaulle had already died and I’m sure many publishers doubted the success of a book which focuses on the movements of one man, with one mission, which the reader knows he is going to fail at.
So why was it such a success? I think this is simple, Forsyth had written a spectacular and detailed Cat and Mouse adventure. The slow and methodical preparation we are taken through with the Jackal is captivating. We are given snippets of information, identities he is perfecting, schematics of weapons and carry cases to disguise them but never enough to fully understand his plan. All too often in thrillers we are given a plethora of information, we are allowed to know more than the principle investigator allowing us to look to the future and attempt to solve the puzzle ourselves. That is not the case with The Day of the Jackal. We are kept in the dark about many aspects of the Jackal’s character, his true identity, his history and his plans for how and when the assassination will take place.
Without spoiling the book for anyone who hasn’t already read it, the French secret service discovers information about the plot and takes it to de Gaulle. Notoriously stubborn the President refuses to cancel any public appearances, change his routines, or allow any public investigation. Instead Roger Frey, the French Minister of the Interior, convenes a special board made up of the heads of French security forces at which they appoint the Deputy Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire, and best detective in France, Claude Lebel to establish the Jackal’s identity.
So begins the ticking of the clock, can the Jackal stay one step ahead of the police? Ingenious acts on the Jackal’s part and quick thinking of the Lebel’s side makes for an edge of the seat read with suspense increasing page by page, chapter by chapter as the moment to assassination moves from weeks, to days, to hours, to minutes. Unlike most thrillers which balance on the question of “Will they succeed?” the hook of The Day of the Jackal is the how – how will he evade the police? How will he get a weapon into France? How will he get close enough to make an attempt? How will he escape?
The Day of the Jackal is a well written page turner, constantly leaving you thinking “What will happen next?” A testament to the standard of this book is the test of time. It’s over 40 years since Forsyth wrote the book and yet it is as compelling and addictive today as I’m sure it was at the time. Don’t worry if you don’t know about French politics of the 1960’s that’s not what this book is about, it’s about one merciless methodical man with a job to do.