It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad
The Day of the Jackal has something in common with a couple of the other books I’ve read this year. Just like Casino Royale and The Bourne Identity, it belongs to a surprisingly large sub-genre of thrillers written by men who wanted a career change, decided to sit down and write a bestselling thriller, and then did exactly that. More recently, Lee Child’s Killing Floor is in the same group. I’m not sure there’s any other genre where there’s so many examples of first-time novelists consciously attempting to construct a commercial hit, and managing to pull it off. Perhaps it’s because thrillers and crime novels are perennial bestsellers, and therefore attract the more business-minded authors. Maybe there are similar examples in romance and chick-lit.
But all of that is just background to Frederick Forsyth’s debut thriller. The important thing, and the other thing is shares with the first outings of Bond and Bourne and Reacher, is that it’s awesome.
I’ve always been a sucker for ‘process’ scenes in thrillers. Not procedural, exactly, but process: i.e. the details and minutiae of how elite professionals go about their business. I love reading about all of the various obscure signs and tells James Bond looks out for to confirm how Goldfinger cheats at Canasta. I like to know exactly how Reacher manages to function with only an ATM card and a toothbrush, and what logistical issues he has to overcome to do so. I get really into the parts of Joseph Finder books where he talks about the various technological sleights of hand his hero uses to steal a password. I love all of that stuff just as much as I love the car chases and gunfights. Perhaps more than I love the car chases and gunfights. Maybe that’s just me, although judging by the success of books like these, I doubt it.
Anyway, The Day of the Jackal is a novel that’s pretty much entirely composed of stuff like this, so obviously I loved it.
The book is split into three parts: Anatomy of a Plot, Anatomy of a Manhunt and Anatomy of a Kill, and each part does exactly what it tells you it’s going to do. Opening with a nailbiting account of a true-life assassination attempt that fully exploits Forsyth’s background in journalism, part one takes you through every detail of a plot to kill French president Charles de Gaulle, from the dissidents coming up with a last-ditch plan, to the recruitment of a master assassin – The Jackal – and his meticulous preparations from then on.
Part two shifts focus to the attempts by the French authorities, and one dogged French cop in particular, to track the killer down and foil his plan. Again, it’s all about the process: chasing down leads, finding traces of the killer, second-guessing his plan. The final part, inevitably, is where the two halves of the book converge.
It’s the best-constructed thriller I can remember reading. It’s testament to how well-written and well-designed (odd to be describing a book as designed, but that's exactly what it is) the book is that you’re on the edge of the seat at all times, even though the reader starts the book with the knowledge that the Jackal will not succeed, because Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated in 1963. In some ways, it resembles James Ellroy’s American Tabloid: the outcome of the assassination attempt is never in doubt, but you keep reading for the characters and the twists and the intricate details of dangerous professions and lost worlds.
What I learned: how people do things can be every bit as engaging as what they do.