Nigie's Reviews > The Day of the Jackal

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
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Sep 20, 13

Read in May, 2012

A pang of teenage nostalgia led me to the shelf where a faded gold Corgi edition of this calmly sensational first novel awaited its inevitable reopening. Not since the pages were once unyellowed had its long-dry ink been exposed to air. A bestseller in its day, this thriller's publication made a young, impoverished British ex-journalist, formerly posted to Paris after a short string of other foreign billets, an overnight millionaire for a mere six weeks' work. His inspiration? To divulge the never-revealed plot on the life of President Charles de Gaulle in the summer of 1963, and France's secret race against the clock to thwart the lone, unknown assassin. All totally fictitious of course.

This is not exactly what they call a literary piece, written in the style of Ian Fleming with a coolly limited macho vocabulary comprising words like 'meticulous', 'attaché', 'clandestine' and (inevitably) 'inevitable', and a couple of amusingly lurid sex scenes - one, refreshingly, intentionally funny. The qualities that distinguish the story, and they are strong, are its originality, its plausibility, its erudition (it was an informative political history lesson for me on the French colonisation of Algeria), its atmosphere (yes it has some) and, that most vital of bestselling ingredients, its suspense. This is really one of those books you should find hard to put down.

As far as its author's gifts and the conventions of the genre allow, it's a dual character-study of an assassin and his pursuer within the combined generic formats of The Heist and The Chase, 'inexorably' gathering the two to their 'inevitable' meeting, but in fact the book is replete with small portrait sketches, since not a scene is set up, not a thread begun, that isn't expressed through a character's eyes. Forsyth's not shy either: we meet M le Président himself in one well-written central scene, perhaps even at the book's 'precise' mid-point where it would most satisfyingly belong. Since the story is a highly convincing fake documentary and traverses a swathe of glamorous settings across western Europe, the technique serves it well. And the author, though sparsely, draws his atmospheres 'adroitly' too: you feel the Paris of the 60s (well, more the 70s actually, when the book was written) in his descriptions of both summer and scenery. It's poignantly pre-digital. People smoke, quite a lot. They have to wait for telephone calls, for information to cover physical distances, they can get anything through airport security and they can create a false identity with the simplest and cleverest techniques which would be impossible now. As you read, an occasional flash of originality in turn of phrase and a couple of surprise sparks of wit may add spice to your relish at being drawn into this 'meticulously' clever web of a plot.

The Fred Zinnemann movie, if you've seen it, was actually a really good adaptation (whose quasi-doco style, incidentally, influenced Spielberg's characteristically homage-based approach to his film Munich, as evidenced by firstly the casting of Michel Lonsdale, who here beautifully plays the Jackal's humble hunter, and secondly a rare and liberal use of Zinneman's mock-verité zooms). But there were a few minor and a couple of major changes in certain details of the novel which make the latter yet well worth a read, even if you know the turns of the film's plot. For a start, Edward Fox, while he does a creditable job, was in my opinion miscast in the title role, and the book's portrait is more interesting -- his brother Edward's refined stolidity might have served the character better. While they improved perhaps on the recreation of Lebel, the detective chasing him, he's not the way Forsyth saw the character either (but the book's chemistry also works). A couple of small but tasty moments involving both Lebel and the Jackal were unaccountably omitted from the adaptation, perhaps dismissed as cliche but no less enjoyable for that. And the book has a gay segment that's highly politically incorrect by today's standards but cringingly diverting in its casual bigotry. (The film, to its credit, while the book takes pains to make clear that the Jackal doesn't 'go there', adopts the opposite approach and implies that he does, adding a delicious layer to the spirit of the cool and exploitative killer.) But above all, a knowledge of the film should do nothing to diminish the pleasure of the story's suspense, as from the outset, since de Gaulle died in his bed at home, every reader should know that the Jackal's unsinkable plot must hit its iceberg. The suspense for us comes from wondering how: it's all in the detail.

This book ain't Dickens, but it's fantastic nevertheless. Fred Forsyth never matched his first novel's success, proving really, I guess, as elusive as the definition of one may be, that you can't beat a brilliant story. Dive in if you come across a copy on your Grandma's shelf. The Day of the Jackal is the type of book you wish wouldn't end.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Lewis Weinstein great review of a great book.

Nigie :)

Robin Cool review!

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