Edward Fox ties a ball to a branch in a scene from the film 'The Day Of The Jackal', 1973. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

The Day of the Jackal: fifty years on

Alexander Larman remembers one of the most exciting, page-turning novels ever written

Artillery Row

Everyone likes to read about assassination plots. They have all the elements of a truly cracking story, whether they are true, fictitious, successful or failed. There is usually a high-profile target, a brilliant and methodical assassin, a dogged detective or secret agent on his or her trail and a range of exotic locations. From Killing Eve to John Wick, the genre remains endlessly popular in television and film thrillers, with their race-against-time narratives, jaw-dropping twists and, of course, the “will they, won’t they” dynamic as one balances desire to see good prevail with a more twisted wish to see the assassin do away with their quarry.

The most famous of all fictional assassination sagas is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal

Perhaps the most famous of all fictional assassination sagas is Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, first published fifty years ago and now reissued by Penguin with a suitably laudatory introduction by Lee Child, himself the doyen of bestselling brainy thrillers. Child praises Forsyth’s novel as “magnificent…effortless, propulsive, immersive and involving”. Acknowledging how fresh and surprising it felt upon its first appearance in 1971, Child writes “Forsyth knew what he was doing, and he knew he knew, from the first line onward…thrillers were never the same again.”

If you have never been fortunate enough to read The Day of the Jackal, then please stop reading this article, obtain a copy of the fiftieth anniversary edition, and then immerse yourself in one of the most exciting, page-turning novels ever written. But for those of you who have previously encountered it, but have forgotten some of the finer details, allow me to offer the most basic of refresher courses. Forsyth was inspired by the 1962 assassination attempt on the French President Charles de Gaulle by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry. It was unsuccessful, but it gave Forsyth, then a freelance journalist who had reported on the original news story, an idea. What if the dissident paramilitary institution the OAS had not accepted Bastien-Thiry’s failure as final, but had instead hired the eponymous Jackal, an English hitman, to carry out the assassination thereafter, for a fee of $500,000? And what if the ruthless Jackal was prepared to kill anyone who stood in his way in order to achieve his aim? 

Much of the appeal of The Day of the Jackal lies in the two parallel narrative strands that Forsyth so skilfully dovetails together. There is the main one, in which he follows the progress of the Jackal across Europe as he makes his painstaking preparations to assassinate de Gaulle, turning murder into a kind of twisted art form. And then there is the other, in which Forsyth moves the French commissioner Claude Lebel, the finest detective in France, to centre stage. The cat-and-mouse dynamic that develops from afar between Lebel and the Jackal, as the assassin stays two steps ahead of his would-be pursuer and the dogged policeman finds himself drawn into the political intrigue that ripples outwards from his preparations, is as psychologically fascinating as the relationship between Valjean and Javert from Les Misérables, and considerably more fun to read. 

Forsyth began writing The Day of the Jackal in early 1970, with the explicit purpose of making money. His previous book, the non-fiction title The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend, had not been a commercial success, and he was frustrated and disappointed that his once-promising journalistic career had gone nowhere. Yet his previous experience with both the de Gaulle assassination attempt and wider political intrigue had given him the ability to both spot and tell a good story. He sat down and wrote 4000 words a day for just over a month, and ended up with a manuscript of 140,000 words. It was superbly written and used Forsyth’s literary nous to tell its story exceptionally well, but it immediately ran into a major problem as far as publishers were concerned. De Gaulle had not been assassinated in 1962, and, at the beginning of 1970, he roamed France alive and well. Therefore, what possible suspense could be extracted from a saga where the ending was obvious already?

The Jackal is neither a flamboyant villain nor a misunderstood anti-hero

Yet, as Child accurately notes in his introduction, “the absence of an overarching suspense arc didn’t matter…instead sharp focus was thrown on a hundred variants of the question how?” The great appeal of the book, for all of its race-against-time suspense and elegantly portrayed political shenanigans, is in the way that it presents the mindset of a man who plans to enrich himself by using his extraordinary skills to murder another. The Jackal is neither a flamboyant villain nor a misunderstood anti-hero, operating out of misguided but noble political sympathies. Instead, he is a pragmatist, and the reader finds themselves following his deadly exploits with fascination. 

Forsyth’s novel was good enough to persuade the publishing house Hutchinson to offer him a £500 advance and a commitment to two further books by him, although it received a relatively small first edition printing of eight thousand copies and limited advance publicity, given the author’s virtual anonymity. Yet before long, it became clear that this was not merely a success, but a phenomenon. The American advance of $365,000 led Forsyth to say disbelievingly that “I had never seen money like it and I never thought I would”. In a couple of years, his book had sold millions of copies worldwide, accompanied by ecstatic reviews. It was that rarest of things, a first novel catapulted into the bestseller lists by word of mouth rather than marketing, and it remains hugely successful and influential to this day. 

It has been filmed twice, once faithfully and very well by the director Fred Zinnemann in 1973, with Edward Fox in what may well be his finest screen role as the Jackal, and once extremely unfaithfully and rather badly in 1997, starring Bruce Willis, of all people, as the ruthless assassin, with Richard Gere as a former IRA sniper on his tail. But its DNA has infiltrated countless series and novels since, without accreditation or thanks. Forsyth does not, I imagine, hold too much of a grudge against the imitators that have come in his wake. There have been, and will be, many attempts to take the basic premise of his book and do something different with it, but it is impossible to improve on its sinuous, endlessly addictive readability. As Child says, ‘we’re irresistibly and irrevocably in Forsyth’s own world.’ And have been, for the past half-century. Here’s to another fifty years, at least.

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