Title: The Day of the Jackal
Author: Frederick Forsyth
Forsyth, Frederick (1971). The Day of the Jackal. New York: Viking Press
- Gaulle, Charles de, 1890-1970–Assassination attempts–Fiction.
- Attempted assassination–Fiction.
Date Updated: January 20, 2017
This book is from a list I obtained from Nigel West. Nigel West is an author specializing in security, intelligence, secret service and espionage issues. He is the European Editor of the World Intelligence Review, published in Washington DC, and the editorial director of The St Ermin’s Press. In 1989 he was voted “The Experts’ Expert” by The Observer. He writes regularly for SpearsWealth Management Survey and works with The Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies. He judges this book as one of the best spy novels
Nigel describes the book: An assassin hired to kill President Charles de Gaulle is chased across Europe, constantly switching is identity to elude his hunters.
The Jackal is the code name of a hired killer whose anonymity will be all that’s left to him in an unmarked grave at Pete Lachaise. Before he gets there–and it’s a helluva before–he’s been promised a half a million dollars by the OAS to bring off the assassination of De Gaulle. It would seem that he couldn’t miss with the special rifle he has made for him down to the last crossed hair–or with three sets of false papers (Danish, American and French) and three sets of contact lenses to conceal his normally expressionless eyes. This then is a tracer to get him before he gets to De Gaulle and it’s quite exciting. The Jackal is a nerveless type who kills all along the route. The book is written as a paraprocedural documentary that you can read at 140 kilometers per hour. It has been highly successful, has been republished, and made into two movies.
Reviewed by Charles Cumming
In 1969, a young British journalist returned to London after spending 18 months reporting on the Biafran war. His name was Frederick Forsyth. He was 31 years old and, by his own account, flat broke. Needing money quickly, he did what any self-respecting hack would have done: he wrote a thriller.
Initially entitled The Jackal, it told the story of an unnamed assassin hired to kill President de Gaulle. The novel took Forsyth just 35 days to write. He had no great literary aspirations and certainly no intention of revolutionizing an entire genre. Forsyth’s heroes were John Buchan and Rider Haggard: he simply wanted to tell a riveting story.
This month [June 2011] marks the 40th anniversary of the novel’s publication. It is no exaggeration to say The Day of the Jackal has influenced a generation of thriller writers, from Jack Higgins to Ken Follett, from Tom Clancy to Andy McNab. Before, thrillers were self-evidently works of the imagination. Forsyth changed all that; never before had a popular novelist created a world that seemed indistinguishable from real life. His debut had a documentary sense of realism that all but convinced the public they were reading a work of non-fiction. “Sweeping the country,” exclaims the flyleaf of my dog-eared copy from 1971–“the novel that may not be one!”
How Forsyth managed to achieve all this is a story worth telling. In his mid-20s, he had been posted as a journalist to Paris. De Gaulle had granted Algeria its independence, incurring the wrath of the ultra-right: militants in the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) had vowed to assassinate him. “We were all waiting for the mega-story,” Forsyth recalled in a recent interview, “the moment when a sniper got him through the forehead.” Of course, the sniper never did, but it gave Forsyth an idea. What if the OAS hired a professional hitman, who was able to penetrate the rings of security around De Gaulle? Forsyth had befriended several of the president’s bodyguards; he had even reported from the scene of a failed assassination attempt–an account of this real-life incident opens the novel.
Forsyth had something else in his favor. In Biafra, he’d met many mercenaries, who had taught him about the European underworld: how to obtain a false passport; where to buy a custom-made rifle; how to break a man’s neck. All of this knowledge was poured in. Yet the novel was still a risk, not least because the ending was already known–De Gaulle had died in his bed in 1970.
The first four publishers Forsyth sent the manuscript turned it down. A thriller set in France with an unnamed anti-hero who fails in his mission? Forget it. Eventually, one man took a chance. Harold Harris, of Hutchinson, agreed to a modest initial print run of 8,000 copies. “It might just work,” he said. Well, it worked. The Day of the Jackal became a word-of-mouth sensation. Within two years, Fred Zinnemann had made a superb film adaptation, with Edward Fox as the Jackal. Hutchinson has lost count of how many millions of copies the book has sold.
“It is a perfect example of the adventure story,” says Robert Harris, whose own impeccably researched political thrillers belong in the same tradition. “It is very well written, entirely believable, with this intriguing, enigmatic character at its centre.”
The Jackal is the obverse of that other great English assassin–James Bond. Alas, he has also influenced some of society’s less attractive elements. A Hebrew translation was found in possession of Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, while Ilich Ramírez Sánchez was nicknamed Carlos the Jackal after a copy of the novel was discovered at his flat. That The Day of the Jackal has become a handbook for maniacs should not be the book’s lasting legacy. Few writers can claim to have changed the literary landscape. Forty years ago, a penniless British journalist, unwittingly or not, did just that.