This is a book I really rated when I was a teenager, and I have always thought it was the gold standard for thrillers. Has it aged well, or have I outgrown it? It was time to find out…
The OAS is the Secret Army Organisation, a real-life terrorist group operating in 1960s France (despite sounding like something from The Man from UNCLE). The OAS felt that President Charles de Gaulle betrayed the Army in 1960 by submitting to the demands of the Algerian resistance, and the organisation has been the biggest single threat to the stability of France ever since. The French security forces have been waging a savagely effective underground war against them.
At the start of Jackal, the OAS, demoralised by a series of defeats, failed assassination attempts, impending bankruptcy and infiltration by the secret police, is on its last legs. Colonel Marc Rodin, their fanatical Operations Director, conceives of a last-ditch plan to reverse their fortunes. They will hire an outside man, a professional assassin. Only an outsider will be able to pass undetected through France and stands no risk of being betrayed by a stool-pigeon in the pay of the secret service. That outsider is the Jackal. His target is de Gaulle, one of the most heavily-guarded statesmen in Europe.
It is not revealed how Rodin manages to locate the Jackal. Certainly the police of several countries have found it difficult enough. Still, somehow he finds him. The Jackal’s price is high, but the OAS is playing for the future of France and Rodin considers him worth the gamble.
The Jackal is a ruthless professional killer who comes off a little like James Bond.
Just before eight the Jackal was enjoying the luxury of a shower and a shave in his room. Two of the suitcases were carefully locked into the wardrobe. The third, containing his own clothes, was open on the bed and the suit for the evening, a navy-blue wool-and-mohair summer ligthweight, was hanging from the wardrobe door. The dove-grey suit was in the hand’s of the hotel’s valet service for sponging and pressing. Ahead lay cocktails, dinner and an early night, for the next day, 13th August, would be extremely busy.
The Day of the Jackal follows his painstaking preparations for the kill. We see him stealing passports, preparing disguises, specifying a bespoke rifle from M. Goossens, Belgium’s finest dodgy gunsmith, and obtaining forged papers. He kills where necessary, with no emotion or enjoyment, but a lot of cool.
We also follow the French attempts to track him down. Forsyth has an understanding of the workings of the state, with all its compromises, in-fighting, dirty deals and questionable alliances. The French government is realistically authoritarian and doesn’t shy away from brutality. As an example: Kowalski is Rodin’s bodyguard, a stupid man who is tricked into France by a lie about his daughter’s health, and captured by the security forces. They casually torture him to death in order to find out what Colonel Rodin is up to.
(One trick that Forsyth uses is that almost everybody we encounter gets a few paragraphs of back story. We get to know a lot about Kowalski, even find him a little sympathetic, before his capture and death.)
The PR consequences of the Jackal plot being revealed would be disastrous, so only a select few are brought into the secret. Modest little Commissaire Claude Lebel is given sweeping authority to intercept the assassin before he strikes. Lebel is plodding, methodical, secretly hen-pecked, and ‘the best detective in France’ according to his pipe-smoking boss. He has nothing to go on beyond Kowalski’s largely incoherent confession, and no idea of the killer’s schedule. Lebel is helped along by Superintendent Bryn Thomas of Special Branch, who through an extensive network of connections in the British police manages to uncover many of the Jackal’s secrets.
Despite his worldliness, Forsyth occasionally betrays a touch of almost naive enjoyment in his story.
For the next three hours Lebel and Caron sat hunched over the telephone in the basement communications room talking to the world’s top crime busters. From the seemingly tangled porcupine of aerials on the roof of the building the high-frequency signals beamed out across three continents, streaming high beyond the stratosphere to bounce off the ionic layer above and home back to earth thousands of miles away to another stick of aluminium jutting from a tiled rooftop.
The wavelengths and scramblers were uninterceptable. Detective spoke to detective while the world drank its morning coffee or final nightcap.
The world’s top crime busters.
Clever as he is, the Jackal can’t evade capture for ever, but somehow he keeps wriggling out of Lebel’s grasp. Both men get increasingly desperate until their final confrontation.
Overall, Jackal is still an efficient thriller with a strong narrative drive. The Jackal himself is not as cool as he was when I was 15, but Lebel has probably gone up in my estimation as a result. It’s my fault, not Forsyth’s, that I no longer wanted to be an assassin by the time I’d finished it.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.