The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (Best Novel; 1972)

Aim down the sights at 1972's Best Novel winner, The Day of the Jackal, as Pritpaul Bains reviews the meticulously crafted political thriller by ex-journalist/MI6 spy, Frederick Forsyth.

It is cold at 6:40 in the morning of a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.

So opens Frederick Forsyth‘s The Day of the Jackal, on the entirely non-fictional 1963 execution of Lieutenant-Colonel Jean Bastien-Thiry, a key cog of the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS), the linchpin behind a failed 1962 OAS attempt to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle, and the last person ever to be executed by firing squad in France.

The Day of the Jackal is set in the troubled throes of Gaullist France in the early 60s, a time of significant political turbulence and upheaval. As de Gaulle rose to power in 1959, one of the pressing issues his presidency faced was navigating an end to the Algerian War, fought between France and Algeria’s National Liberation Front, or FLN. At this time, Algeria was still a French colony; the FLN was fighting to assert Algerian independence, while France fought to maintain Algeria’s colonization. In his initial rise to power, de Gaulle promised to maintain the French presence in Algeria. In 1959, he reversed this policy and came out in support of Algerian independence. This shift angered and ostracized many of his initial supporters, including a significant subsection of the French military, many of whom would go on to join the OAS.

All these facets (the OAS, France’s political climate, Thiry’s assassination attempt and subsequent execution, President de Gaulle himself) are grounded in historical fact—characters that actually existed and events that actually occurred. Situating the introduction within this context accomplishes several things at once. First, the manner in which Forsyth painstakingly details the beats of the failed OAS assassination attempt on de Gaulle (an event the writer is especially familiar with, as he covered it extensively as a reporter when it occurred) and expounds upon the cat-and-mouse dynamic between the OAS and the government’s various security forces gives immediate authority to the book’s journalistic, detail-oriented voice, which effortlessly pulls readers through the rest of a tension-filled tale—no small feat, as the nature of the plot dictates that its ending is already known at the outset. Second, the first chapter establishes France as the political powder keg it was in the 60s—a country rife with tension, a veneer of civility barely covering the turmoil seething away underneath. Finally, the historically accurate introduction enables Forsyth to create an immersive, effective launching point within reality for the moment when the book finally delves into the fictional main thrust of its story—the introduction of the Jackal.

The aftermath of Thiry’s execution finds the OAS in shambles, demoralized, financially hamstrung, and infiltrated by government forces at every level. The highest remaining OAS official, Marc Rodin, assesses his remaining options and determines, along with two other deputies, that the best course of action by which to continue the mission of the OAS is to hire a contract killer from outside France, unknown both to French authorities and to the OAS itself. It is here, finally, that we encounter the Jackal.

When we first meet Forsyth’s titular antagonist, the “tall, blond English” assassin is returning home from his latest job:
Far behind him in the sandy soil of Egypt, long since buried by the baffled and furious Egyptian police, each with a neat bullet hole through the spine, were the bodies of two German missile engineers. Their departure from life had set back the development of Nasser’s Al Goumhouria rocket by several years, and a Zionist millionaire in New York felt his money had been well spent.
The Jackal is the consummate professional in all facets of his work. He is objective, coldly calculating, patient, and logical—traits all reflected in his plans and actions. His motivations are not political in nature, nor emotional. His targets are purely transactional—nothing more, nothing less. When he is approached about the de Gaulle job, he takes it on knowing full well the degree of difficulty it entailed, nevertheless maintaining confidence in his process and realizing that a successful hit will ensure his financial future for the rest of his life. He agrees to a contract with the OAS, with the understanding that after the agreement is made, he will once more become a ghost, disclosing no parts of his plan to his employer and dropping contact (and the means by which to have the job called off) as entirely as possible to maintain secrecy.

Thus is the path paved for deputy commissioner Claude Lebel, anointed to a special investigation to track down the Jackal after a fluke of circumstance leads to the French secret service being alerted to the OAS’s latest plot. Nominated by his boss as the best police detective in France, Lebel at first (and quite rightly) feels he is embarked on a fool’s errand. Upon hearing the initial briefing, he’s painfully aware of the situation he’s being placed in:

They were asking, no, demanding the impossible. He had nothing to go on. There was no crime—yet. There were no clues. There were no witnesses, except three whom he could not talk to. Just a name, a code-name, and the whole world to search in.

Lebel realizes that to some extent, he’s being set up for failure by being assigned this post. From the perspective of de Gaulle’s cabinet, Lebel’s purpose is in equal measures to track down the Jackal, but just as importantly, to act as a sacrificial lamb—should circumstances go awry, he serves as a layer of political cover (it should be noted, at this point, that the author’s disdain for bureaucracy is clearly on display throughout most of the book.) Forsyth makes an active choice to play Lebel against type. His stature is slight and unimposing; his personality, mild and timid. However, he uses his appearance and mannerisms to his advantage. His demurring response to challenges belies a shrewd mind and a dogged determination to fulfill the task at hand. Though he acts the part when it suits him, he refuses to be intimated and won’t back down from a task, no matter how impossible it might seem. He’s been underestimated all his life.

It is, perhaps, a further testament to Forsyth’s journalistic background that he manages to navigate the narrative of such a politically charged book in a largely neutral voice — while he does not shy away from describing personalities, characters, and events, he manages to do largely do so in an objective way. His descriptions of the OAS and its personnel and mission statements do not pass judgment, but merely observe. This is also true of his depictions of France’s governmental forces, although he does seem to have a certain respect for de Gaulle’s mettle, evidenced by the president’s reaction in the midst of his own assassination attempt:

The General [de Gaulle] gave vent to a frosty “What, again?” and turned to look out of the back window. . . [afterward he] finally gave the Air Force staff his verdict on the OAS: “They can’t shoot straight.”

The president certainly doesn’t make life any easier for his cabinet, or for Lebel. He refuses to alter his event schedule or his security presence, lest it be construed as kowtowing to a potential threat, implying national vulnerability. It is never entirely clear whether this is stubbornness, courage, arrogance, or some combination of the three, but his willingness to pay a price for his country cannot be doubted.

Though we’ve made frequent note of Forsyth’s journalistic voice, his broader talent as a writer is never in question — the man can turn a phrase with the best of them.

The cellar was silent except for the sound of breathing, heavy but controlled, from the five men behind the table, a rasping rattle from the man strapped to the heavy oaken chair in front of it. . . There was only one pool of light in the whole place, and it encircled the oak chair and the prisoner. . . Part of the circle of light swept across the stained wood of the table, illuminating here and there the tips of a set of fingers, a hand and wrist, a clipped cigarette sending a thin stream of blue smoke upwards.

Stark, deftly concise, and downright noir-ish, no? But don’t be left with the impression that the author can only deal in the dark and sinister prose of interrogations and assassinations — Forsyth takes frequent opportunity to dabble in the poetic, often as a counterpoint to the former. Consider the passage below, immediately following the conclusion of above prisoner’s interrogation.

The brilliant afternoon that had warmed the friendly pavements of Paris throughout the day faded to golden dusk, and at nine the streetlights came on. Along the banks of the Seine the couples strolled as always on summer nights, hand in hand, slowly as if drinking in the wine of dusk and love and youth that will never, however hard they try, be quite the same again.

This type of juxtaposition occurs throughout the book, each passage serving to underscore and accentuate the other, working in tandem to emphasize and counterpunch as required.

The Day of the Jackal was an unexpected success for both author and publisher — so successful, in fact, that it spawned a pair of film adaptations of markedly differently quality from one another — one in 1973, the other in 1997.

While it is certainly hard to escape the datedness today of the 1973 feature film, directed by the renowned Fred Zinneman, the movie does an admirable job of staying true to its source material. Much like the novel, the film opens with an almost documentary-style sensibility before moving on to the rest of the plot.  The cinematography, shot on-location throughout France, is at times stunning and occasionally evocative of the visual spectacle of Lawrence of Arabia. However, I do wish I had viewed this film without having read the book just prior, as much of what makes the novel so compellingly readable is lost in translation. There is considerable fast-forwarding of the plot, and it feels as though something is missed in the acceleration of the painstaking deliberations of the text, or of the piecing together of clues and mistakes, and in the methods of the Jackal himself. The movie doesn’t explain a lot of the events that occur, and at times almost feels like there is an unspoken assumption that the viewer has already read the book, and the film is simply checking boxes as it goes. It’s additionally a bit disorienting for a movie set in France and directly involving so many French bureaucrats and citizens to have no one actually speaking French, though I can understand why this choice was made. With all that said, my impression of the film may have been markedly different had I not read the source material directly before it, and better minds than mine label the film a masterpiece of its time, so if this is your genre of choice, the 1973 adaptation may be worth seeking out.

As for the 1997 film… well, the less said, the better, but I’m going to say some things anyways. Titled The Jackal because both Forsyth himself as well as Zinneman actively lobbied for the name change to disassociate the movie from the novel (is that bad? that seems bad), the film features a who’s who of past-and-present Hollywood, with Bruce Willis playing the Jackal, Richard Gere as a protagonist loosely inspired by Lebel, Sidney Poitier as the deputy director of the FBI, and J.K. Simmons and Jack Black as assassin fodder. You’ll note the phrase “loosely inspired by Lebel,” which was prompted by the fact that the producers, in their infinite wisdom, decided that American audiences wouldn’t care about an international cat-and-mouse thriller unless it directly involved America in some way — the Jackal’s new target is the director of the FBI, until it becomes the First Lady, for no particularly sensible reason. Gere plays an imprisoned IRA terrorist named Declan Mulqueen with an incredibly come-and-go accent, who is temporarily freed to work with the FBI, due to a prior history with the assassin. The sole redeeming quality of The Jackal is Bruce Willis’s performance as the title character — not because it’s good, mind you, but because it’s at least funny. From the Jackal’s many disguise changes, complete with dollar store wigs and Nutty Professor-esque fat suits, to watching Willis attempt to master the art of gay seduction (coquettish Bruce Willis is a Thing in this movie), to basically throwing every single one of the Jackal’s book traits out the window in favor of an assassin who makes mistakes, lets his emotions get the better of him, and prefers showmanship to subtlety… welp, this is 90s Hollywood. If your assassination attempt isn’t an absolute spectacle involving Gatling guns and explosions, was it really an assassination attempt? If you’re a fan of pure 90s action cheese, there’s some fun to be had here, but make no mistake. This is a bad movie.

Forsyth’s novel influenced the crime and political thriller genre in a few key ways — his journalistic tone and attention to detail would go on to be echoed by many, and his grounding of the fictional events of his book within the real confines of current events was revelatory. His writing holds up today as well as it did in the 70s — at once timeless, compelling, and relentless, when one thinks of iconic cat-and-mouse political thrillers, The Day of the Jackal nails down a well-deserved spot at the top of the list. 

Notes from the 1972 Edgar Awards:

  • Other nominees for Best Novel this year included G.F. Newman’s Sir, You Bastard (which may not have won Best Novel, but assuredly would’ve won Best Title),  Who Killed Enoch Powell? by Arthur Wise, Shroud for a Nightmare by the great P.D. James, and The Fly on the Wall by the equally-decorated Tony Hillerman, cutting his teeth here before finally going on to take home a Best Novel award in 1974.
  • Director William Friedkin’s The French Connection was feeling lucky, beating out Dirty Harry for Best Motion Picture.
  • Nightfall by Joan Aiken won Best Juvenile Mystery Fiction, beating out (among others) Natalie Babbitt’s Goody Hall, published by our friends at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Two years later, Babbitt would go on to write one of of the defining classics of children’s literature: Tuck Everlasting.
  • American thriller novelist John D. MacDonald, who sold over 70 million books and influenced generations of horror and mystery writers in the years to come, was named Grand Master.
  • A.H.Z. Carr won Best First Novel for his first (and only) novel, Finding Maubee, which Hollywood went on to adapt into The Mighty Quinn (1989), starring Denzel Washington.

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Join us again next Friday when Ellison Cooper reviews 1973’s Best Novel, The Lingala Code by Warren Kiefer. See you then!

A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.

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