Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Frederick Forsyth might have very well written one of the absolute best criminal espionage novels when he published The Day of the Jackal back in 1971. Following a nameless English hitman known only as The Jackal, the story focuses on his methodical preparation to carry out what might be the most ambitious assassination of all time: killing Charles de Gaulle.
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Frederick Forsyth Claims a Genre
Assassination is a tale as old as Cain and Abel, and is one of the few things we’ve very much managed to accomplish consistently over the course of our civilization’s development. At this stage, it’s probably too deeply ingrained in all our cultures and societies to be completely rejected… the alternative is to accept and study it.
Novels about hitmen, killers and assassins are about a dime a dozen these days, and I’m sad to say many of them seem to be low-effort attempts at cashing in on trends and shock values. In my opinion though, there was a novel published in 1971 which set the bar so high it takes a bit of a miracle for it to be reached again: Frederick Forsyth‘s The Day of the Jackal.
I should mention the book was turned into movies, and I believe Fred Zinnemann‘s 1973 adaptation, starring Edward Fox, is by far the best and most faithful to the story. I will only acknowledge the 1997 adaptation starring Bruce Willis to tell you to avoid it, if you value your IQ points.
In any case, this espionage thriller begins with a historical failed assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle by the OAS, a right-wing terrorist group who weren’t happy with Algeria being granted its independence. After some deliberations, the OAS leaders decide to hire a mercenary unknown to both their own group and the French authorities to get the job done: the Jackal.
After agreeing to a sum equivalent to about $4.2 million USD today, the Jackal begins the long and painstaking process of preparing himself for the assassination, from acquiring a fake identity to obtaining a custom-made suppressed sniper rifle and scouting out the ideal location. However, the French secret service aren’t sleeping, and deputy commissioner Claude Lebel isn’t far behind.
The Impeccable Details in The Day of the Jackal
When I’m reading any average modern novel about a hitman (or watching a movie about one), there are inevitably moments where my immersion is broken because I have to ask myself how such and such things were made possible, only to have it all completely glossed over. More often than not, story writers admit defeat in the face of their own plot complications a little easily and simply move on.
In this novel, Forsyth takes care to explore pretty much every single little detail imaginable about the Jackal’s preparation. Virtually any question you might have about how he managed to do something or learn a bit of information is answered clearly and succinctly, to the point where it feels as if the Jackal has no secrets from us, apart from his true identity of course.
While I’m certain some people who yearn for more action might find this pace a little slow and dreary, I was absolutely in love with this approach to examining the hitman profession. I think it’s quite fascinating to see how a normal person with no superpowers of any kind could in theory plot the assassination of a country’s most powerful and protected figure.
Moonlight turns even the most civilised man into a primitive.― Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal
Additionally, even though the Jackal himself doesn’t do much talking or really anything other than focus on the task at hand, we get to learn quite a fair bit about him as a person. His methodical, confident and observant nature is slowly fleshed out, and I don’t know about others, but by the end of it I somehow found myself rooting for him to get the job done, despite being the actual villain in this.
There are few authors I could think of who are capable of matching Forsyth in the minute precision and depth of detail he offered in this novel… and virtually none from our modern stable of writers.
The Competent Manhunters
In fiction, when we generally see a country’s secret service pitted against a nearly-impossibly formidable adversary, it’s almost a convention now to have them all act like complete amateurs whose successes rest solely on their technology. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but the depictions we see today of secret services make me believe even I could do the job.
In The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth made the French Secret Service an equally-formidable opponent for the hitman from nowhere. Our main character on this front is deputy commissioner Claude Lebel, and I found his segments just as interesting, largely focused on rooting out OAS agents and finding the Jackal.
The game of cat and mouse between the two is actually quite intense, and though they only meet briefly at the end, by this point they feel intricately connected to one another. Lebel is far from being a slouch, and just like with his nemesis, we are treated to all the fine details of his investigation; it’s quite amazing to watch him logically turn the smallest hints and clues to his advantage.
Though the novel does hold a relatively slow and calm pace overall, this constant chase between Lebel and the Jackal adds a certain frantic element to the story which makes it feel quite lively in a very realistic manner; the stakes are always clear and as high as they can be.
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I certainly won’t spoil the ending here, but I do want to see it might be one of the more personally-satisfying conclusions I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. It gives just the right amount of resolution while still maintaining an air of mystery about certain elements, and mixed with a tiny but welcome but of humour.
The Final Verdict
The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth is a one-of-a-kind espionage thriller novel centred on a hired assassin and the secret service chasing after him. It combines an amazing amount of detail, superb characters on all fronts, as well as a story so original and finely-tuned it will definitely stay with you.
I can only recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys methodical espionage and assassination novels and wants to see what they can offer at their very best. Whatever you do, don’t watch the Bruce Willis adaptation.
Frederick Forsyth is an author and political commentator hailing from England who concentrates his writing around crime and political thrillers, bringing a number of suspenseful stories to us, including The Day of the Jackal, The Dogs of War and Fourth Protocol.