“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.”
That’s the first sentence of Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal.” I ask you: If you like thrillers, wouldn’t you want to know what happened next? Did you say yes? You’d be in good company — since its publication in 1971, it has sold untold millions of copies, been translated into 30 languages and was the basis for a movie I’ll never get tired of.
Forsyth, a British journalist short of money, wrote the 140,000-word thriller in just 35 days.
It took 18 months for a publisher to offer him a small advance.
What, you may wonder, was the problem?
The first reason for the string of rejections: The novel chronicles a fictional account of a 1963 assassination attempt on French president Charles de Gaulle. There was considerable historical foundation for this plot: The OAS — the “Organisation armée secrete,” a French paramilitary group that opposed Algerian independence from French rule — tried six times to kill de Gaulle. Tried. Failed. And when Forsyth first submitted the book, de Gaulle was very much alive. Then he died — in bed. For publishers, this made the story even more improbable.
No drama? For those who color between the lines, that’s true. The novel doesn’t crackle with suspense — we “know” that de Gaulle lives — but no matter: this is a “howdunit.” Forsyth describes paramilitary fighters, forgers and cops. He takes us deep into a shadow world of disguises, identity changes and Swiss banking. He shows us what’s it like to form a secret organization.
Does he give us a hero? Not like James Bond or Clint Eastwood. Here we’re given a choice between a bright but dour investigator and a chilly assassin. And yet the novel turns out to be remarkably suspenseful — as vacation reads go, this can’t be topped. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. To buy or rent the film from Amazon, click here.]
The killer is so deliberately anonymous that he’s known only by his nickname, “The Jackal.” Right to the end — when we think we learn his name — all we know about him is that he’s “about six feet tall, apparently in his early thirties, and with a lean, athletic build. He looked fit, the face was sun-tanned with regular but not remarkable features, and the hands lay quietly along the arms of the chair.” The chief investigator for the French police concludes that “he looked like a man who retained control of himself.” To say the least…
The Jackal commands a high price: $500,000. (That’s in 1963 dollars; now that would be $3.9 million.) As he says, “Considering that I’m handing you France, I wouldn’t call that expensive.” Confident? Yes, and he’s worth it — even when the police penetrate the conspiracy, he keeps going. As will you.
Roger Ebert said of the film: “’The Day of the Jackal’ is two and a half hours long and seems over in about fifteen minutes.”
That’s just how I felt about the novel.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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