The Day of the Jackal: Book Review
The Day of the Jackal was written by Frederick Forsyth and published in 1971. Widely regarded as a classic, it is often mentioned in lists of the top ten spy novels of all time. Although not strictly a spy novel, as neither of the protagonists is a spy, it does involve clandestine plots, and political assassination is a perennial spy-thriller theme.
Warning: Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
The Day of the Jackal: Logline
In 1960s France, die-hard imperialists hire a professional assassin to kill President de Gaulle. When the French discover the plot, the assassin must stay one step ahead of a brilliant French detective in order to complete his mission and change history.
The Day of the Jackal: Plot Summary
Anatomy of a Plot
The OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète, or in English, Secret Army Organisation) is a militant group that regards France’s president, General Charles de Gaulle, as a traitor because he has decided to grant Algeria independence. The Day of the Jackal opens with the OAS failing to kill de Gaulle in an ambush.
The OAS realise that they are compromised by the French secret service, and the only way to kill de Gaulle is to hire a professional assassin who is unknown to the French authorities. They find an assassin, codenamed ‘Jackal’. In return for completing the mission, the Jackal demands enough money to retire in luxury.
Having received payment, the Jackal prepares for the assassination. First he acquires false passports, then he travels to Belgium to commission a sniper rifle of unusual specification.
Anatomy of a Manhunt
The French secret service capture and torture an OAS bodyguard who knows a little about the plot, but not the identity of the assassin. President de Gaulle refuses to alter his routine and orders the Jackal must be stopped secretly, in order to avoid negative publicity.
The French Minister of the Interior assigns the best detective in France, Claude Lebel, to hunt the Jackal down.
Lebel contacts the British Special Branch, who theorise that the Jackal may be the same man who assassinated the Dominican President, Rafael Trujillo. That assassin was rumoured to be named Charles Calthrop, which sounds a bit like the French for Jackal, ‘chacal’. They find that a Charles Calthrop is living in London, although he is thought to be on holiday in Scotland.
The Jackal enters France by car, with his gun hidden in the chassis. He gets word from the OAS that the French Police are looking for him but continues anyway.
Special Branch raid Calthrop’s flat, find his passport, and deduce that he must be using a false identity. Lebel and the police come close to apprehending the Jackal in the south of France, but thanks to his OAS contact, the Jackal evades them.
With the police on the lookout for him, the Jackal takes refuge in the château of a woman whom he seduces. When she finds his gun, he kills her and, assuming one of his two emergency identities, boards the train for Paris…
Anatomy of a Kill
Lebel [blackout]suspects someone is leaking information to the Jackal. He taps his superiors’ home phones and discovers the traitor. He also deduces that the Jackal has decided to target de Gaulle on 25 August, the day Paris was liberated from the Nazis, and the one day the president can be guaranteed to be seen in public.[/blackout]
The Jackal [blackout]eludes the desperate French manhunt by picking up a gay man, going back to his apartment, and then killing him.[/blackout]
On Liberation Day,[blackout] the Jackal disguises himself as a one-legged war veteran, carrying his rifle hidden in his crutch. He infiltrates the flats overlooking the area where De Gaulle is due to hand out medals.[/blackout]
Lebel [blackout]hears about the one-legged veteran and guesses the Jackal’s plan, seemingly too late. But the Jackal’s first shot misses when de Gaulle leans forward to kiss the veteran he has just given a medal. The Jackal scrambles to reload.[/blackout]
Lebel [blackout]arrives at the flat the Jackal is shooting from. The two men recognise each other. Lebel shoots the Jackal, killing him.[/blackout]
In London, the Special Branch [blackout]are examining Calthrop’s apartment when a man claiming to be Calthrop arrives. The Jackal wasn’t Calthrop. He is buried in an unmarked grave, anonymous forever.[/blackout]
The Day of the Jackal: Alternative Cover
Most covers for The Day of the Jackal the have used either jackals or views through sniper scopes. Instead, I took inspiration from the scene where the armourer lovingly describes to the Jackal how he filled the assassin’s bullets with mercury so they would explode inside the president’s head. I also quite liked the hint of the ‘bullet with your name on’ in the way Frederick Forsyth’s name is on the bullet.
The Day of the Jackal: Analysis
The Day of the Jackal has an archetypal Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots).
The ‘Mission’ Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the Mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance sub-plot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they meet them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes).
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The Illusion of Reality
This novel shouldn’t work. We all know Charles de Gaulle wasn’t assassinated. How can we have a thriller where we know the end before it starts? The Day of the Jackal must fail. But it doesn’t.
So how does the novel succeed? How can it generate any suspense? It’s not a short novel. The answer is, because, like Firefox, it is a ‘howdunit’, part of the sub-genre of spy fiction I call the spy-procedural.
The reader follows the Jackal as he, amongst other things, obtains a passport under a false name, buys forged identity cards, scouts Paris for a sniper’s nest, and buys a customised hunting rifle. He is with him as he murders and seduces, tricks and kills his way into France, to Paris and finally into position to kill de Gaulle.
We watch the heavies as they kidnap and torture their opponents to discover the plot. And we follow the detectives as they ransack flats, hunt through files and set up road blocks to try to stop the Jackal. Forsyth is almost a technothriller author, describing each action in great detail. In fact, the process of acquiring a false passport using the birth certificate of a dead child is described so intricately that it is now known as the ‘Day of the Jackal fraud’.
In short, Forsyth in his cool, detached style sets up the illusion of reality, that the reader is learning about a real killer, a real plot and a real manhunt. It’s that illusion of non-fiction that makes the novel work.
The Ticking Clock
Many of the chapters of The Day of the Jackal end with the author mentioning what day it is and how long until the assassination attempt. Forsyth also frequently mentions exactly how far behind the Jackal the police are. The gap starts as days, then hours and finally comes down to minutes. It’s a skilful implementation of the ticking clock technique as discussed in my article Writing a Satisfying Ending to your Novel
There are two problems with the ending. First the Jackal, set up as a superb shot, constantly shown as precise and calm, an ice-cold killer who made an ‘impossible’ shot to kill President Trujillo, misses de Gaulle, for no good reason. To me this is an anti-climax. Forsyth does his best to hide it by switching to the police running up the stairs and then bringing the two protagonists together. But this is a weak denouement, because the only reason the Jackal fails and President de Gaulle survives is blind luck.
Second, the reappearance of Charles Calthrop seems like an ironic final twist, but on second thoughts it undercuts a lot of the plot. Did the police not look at the picture on Calthrop’s passport, the discovery of which was their breakthrough in the case, and compare it to the one on the fake passports? If they had, they would have been able to see they were not the same man.
The Day of the Jackal: My Verdict
One of the best assassin novels and ‘spy-procedurals’. A classic.
The Day of the Jackal: The Movie
A movie of The Day of the Jackal directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Edward Fox as the Jackal was released in 1973. It is a faithful copy of the novel and a good film in its own right, and Edward Fox makes a great Jackal, icy cool and deadly.
There are a few changes: the woman the Jackal seduces meets with Lebel before the Jackal arrives at her chateau, and the explicitly gay pick up that the Jackal uses to evade the Parisian police is only hinted at, with the Jackal meeting a man in a sauna who offers him a drink ‘back at his place’, with only subtle innuendo.
The Day of the Jackal was also remade in 1977, but The Jackal is such a travesty that it barely deserves mentioning.
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