The day of The Day of the Jackal may have been and gone but at a time when political thrillers are still widespread in fiction, TV and film, the 1971 best-seller still comes out on top.
In his second novel, Frederick Forsyth effortlessly infuses fact with fiction to tell a story of an assassin hired to take down one of the world’s leading heads of state in 1963.
French President Charles de Gaulle is the target, an English gentleman (codename: The Jackal) the assassin and deputy commissioner of the Police Judiciare, Claude Lebel the man tasked with thwarting the plot.
The novel’s own plot is carefully and painstakingly constructed by Forsyth. In a narrative that spans various countries and flits between a host of characters it would seem easy for the reader to lose themselves. But much care is taken to ensure the reader does not become mere lost luggage in Roissy Airport.
From the first word, Forsyth grounds his novel in reality. The cold and frosty morning of 11th March 1963 bites firmly on our senses as Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, one of the chief plotters in the real-life assassination of de Gaulle, is killed by firing squad.
“The death of the officer, leader of a gang of Secret Army Organisation (OAS) killers was to have been an end…By a quirk of fate it marked a beginning”, says Forsyth in the fourth paragraph, and he continues to lead us through a world of terrorist organisations, underworld killings and secret liaisons while delving into the depths of the French and British intelligence structures.
All of which have substance in reality which frame the imagined yet terrifically masterminded plot. From the workings and precautions taken by the real paramilitary OAS, to the hierarchy of power in French government starting at De Gaulle and passing through the French Minister of the Interior; the Prefect of Police; the intelligence agency SDECE; the chief of the Action Service; the director general of the Surete National (national crime force), the director of the Police Judiciare, the seventeen Services Regionaux headquarters; and right the way down to the 453 borough police forces which serve France’s cities, towns and villages.
It is this level of detail which helps to give Forsyth and his characters authority and it is backed up by the author’s career as a freelancing investigative journalist. Posted in Paris as a foreign correspondent, he was able to use his investigative techniques to produce a novel of such breath-taking detail and insight that the majority of thrillers can only drown in.
Part 2 occupies much of the book, appropriately named ‘Anatomy of a Manhunt’. For the novel is every bit an anatomy; a slicing open of a world we never see, an expose into the lives of people we’re not sure exist. This part concerns Lebel’s time-constrained yet methodical attempts to identify the assassin and stop him before he gets to de Gaulle.
His attempts rely on the vast network of police, security and armed personnel under his control as well as the co-operation of his British counterparts at Scotland Yard. The narrative freely splits itself between Bryn Thomas of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, Lebel in Paris and the Jackal, wherever he so happens to be.
Discoveries are made by Lebel and his team which are reported to his superiors every night. Just when it seems they’re on the coat-tails of the Jackal’s most recent location, the assassin throws off the scent just hours later with a disguise as cunning as the last.
Each step closer the French authorities take to pin-pointing him is another missed opportunity, and these nearly-moments bring fresh excitement the closer the Jackal gets to Paris. The driving force at work for all parties is time and Forsyth casts this character as enemy to all: the Jackal keen to see the deed done, while Lebel works sleeplessly through each night.
But neither can truly make time their master and Forsyth chooses to call time on his novel by referring back to the event that began it: “Sunday, 25th August, 1963 was scorching hot…as it had been just one year and three days previously when Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry and his men had tried to shoot Charles de Gaulle”.
There is a sense of destiny which Forsyth hints at by bringing the narrative full-circle in this way and a feeling of que sera, sera. As the novel’s thrilling conclusion bores down, he continues: “Although none of the plotters of that evening in 1962 realised it, their action has set off a chain of events that were only to terminate once and for all on the afternoon of the summer Sunday”.
This serves to re-affirm the authority of our narrator, who knows what we do not; who has secrets of which we know not and in whose intelligent craft we are eagerly at the mercy of.