Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

Title: The Day of the Jackal
Author: Frederick Forsyth
Publisher:  Viking Press (1971)

Michael, he of the mighty memory, suggested this title because it's the book's 40th anniversary this month. It was a title that was on my list but hadn't worked it's way to the top so I was happy to give it a go. After reading it, I have decided I am not at all the right person to review it. As any reader of our joint posts can tell you, Michael has a wonderful way of keeping the time frame of a work very much in the forefront. This is something I can almost never do. I am very much a reviewer in the moment with much of my attention going to the experience I am having with a title at that time. I am pretty sure The Day of the Jackal is meant for its time or meant to be read at a certain point in one's reading experience. Sadly, I am past both those possibilities and so I feel I missed much of what makes this such an enduring novel. However, this doesn't mean I'm not impressed with the novel (or its origin story, click on the linked title above for a very nice article) or sorry I read it. Continue below for more book thoughts and follow the link for the review of its film adaptation.

The plot of The Day of the Jackal is very simple: an organization opposed to French President Charles de Gaulle hires an assassin, code named the Jackal, to kill the president. The book is divided into three parts which comprise the various angles of the story. The first is the assassin's prep, the second is the response of law enforcement when they are tipped to the plot, and the third is the assassination day. When I told my neighbor I had just started the book his response was (loosely) oh, yeah, that's the book that started the whole dates, times, documentary-like style for thrillers. I tucked this into the back of my mind and as I got going in the story I realized what he meant. Since this was published 40 years ago it was not, for me, the first documentary-style thriller I read but it may be the most detail oriented one I have ever experienced. As a matter of fact, I didn't get that into the book until Part II and that started on p. 177!!! Oi! Right there we've got a mark against it. If it had not been a joint post my Hundred Page Rule would have meant that I would have put the book down and never finished it. Parts II and III are so much fun, though, that I'm glad I didn't miss out. So, here's your warning, if you do not like blow-by-blow detail-laden thrillers you will not like this title (I'm convinced you can stick with the plot easily enough even if you skip Part I though so you can always give that a try:). Another warning:

***the rest of this review contains mild SPOILERS***

Since the style of the book mimics documentary it's not surprising that the end is "given away" in the beginning. That being the case, the details can become even more tedious. The dry presentation coupled with the absence of suspense really cut into my interest. It's why I liked the second half so much; the manhunt held a lot of interest for me. The Jackal's talents and the talents of his hunter, Lebel, are a pleasure for any fan of thrillers to read. I found the manhunt doubly interesting for its historical value. One forgets just how slow the transmission of information was before the internet and other modes of modern communication. Despite the "slowing" of the action due to historical limitations, I found the tension did not suffer at all. That's partly due to the novel's buildup but it's also to do with, as is mentioned in the book, good old-fashioned detective work. The top brass of French government and military were on this problem but it was police detection that was needed and what made for such an interesting chase. Also, the Jackal was not one of those stupid villains wherein one can predict their downfall. He was damn good and it was hard to know who to root for at times! That leg brace for gun smuggling was just too freakin' awesome. And the disguises! Very well done. My favorite quote stemmed from these:
The other passengers took elaborate pains not to knock against the plastered foot as they took their seats, while the Jackal lay back in his seat and smiled bravely.

It's the "smiled bravely" that just slays me. It's a quintessential moment for our villain as he hoodwinks those around him and shows his acting chops by playing the martyr. He's working for a dodgy organization to assassinate a political figure but damn if you just don't want him to succeed most of the time if for nothing more than his moxy.

Just as a protagonist is boring without a good antagonist so would our Jackal be quite dull without Lebel. Lebel is the unassuming but dogged investigator in this case and he knows how to get the job done. This is not a stupid man counting on plot conveniences and coincidences to advance his case (thankfully this is not one of those books) but an astute detective who uses every resource to his advantage. What I can't figure is why I was still rooting for the Jackal when Lebel was just as worthy (well, moreso, actually because he wins). I guess it might have something to do with my love of villains but I'm also suspecting it's because I am a sucker for disguises. In any event, I'd be interested to know if anyone else got sucked in by the Jackal. (Apologies to de Gaulle, etc for being so fictionally mean.)

I found the time jumping to be slightly disconcerting at first (Forsyth played fast and loose with hopping back and forth in a character's timeline) but soon settled into the style. I also had a bunch of notes on what I felt was a huge hole in the Jackal's character but found at the end that Forsyth had this one pretty tightly written. I won't spoil it for those who haven't read it but I was pleasantly surprised at the end. I ought not to make it sound like there's a character arc or anything because this book is 98% plot. It's a series of events peopled with characters who serve or instigate those events, character-driven it is not.

There was so much that I liked but none of it can make me forget that I was bored for almost the entirety of the book's first 177 pages! I know the Jackal was making plans, getting those cool disguises ready, and ordering his gun but it was only marginally more interesting than a detailed description of a grocery shopping trip. The style might not be a problem for a reader new to it but to one, such as myself, who is very familiar with it (I spent my teens buried in Tom Clancy novels, after all) that's a very high hurdle to cross.

So, have I unforgivably maligned a much beloved classic? Wait, don't answer that! Instead, join me at It Rains... You Get Wet for the film review.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Source Code's (2011) Big Red Button

Ok, I'll admit, I had a set-back. I took on too much "assigned" reading and then had a fit of impulse Kindle buying that led to a Heyer glom. So, um, goals? What goals? My horse and I continue to progress in our training but I've pretty much been ignoring all else.... But now let's dust off those goals again and get going... but first...

Since we know I'll watch Jake Gyllenhaal pretty much no matter what it should come as no surprise that I gave Source Code another try after not liking it in the theatre. Even with the lowered expectations I lost interest at about the same spot and had all the same questions at the end. I think the most disappointing aspect of the movie is how well it starts off and how badly it ends. But, whatever, we're here to talk about the Big Red Button.

**If you haven't seen Source Code here's your SPOILER warning. Also, if you haven't seen The Matrix Revolutions here's your SPOILER warning (yeah, I get that that seems weird but it's going to come up).**

The Big Red Button in Source Code is located on a control panel that is positioned at about waist height in a room with a poorly guarded (from humans and bacteria) soldier whose brain is linked with a computer, or similar. The entire operation is, it can be inferred, the source of several people's livelihood and quite an expensive endeavor. I'm talking millions of dollars and wo/man-hours here. Big bucks!!! So much money! Please understand how much money is at stake here. Now that you have envisioned a big pile of money, let's think about the Big Red Button again. It's on a control panel. The panel is about waist high. It is not shielded by a plastic cover. From this information you might think to yourself, Oh this must be a button that calls emergency personnel. Well, that's a good idea! It should be easily accessible and obvious to the eye. Yes, very good design here of an emergency button. But wait! It's actually a kill switch. Yeah! It kills the only fucking soldier that has been found to be compatible with source code. Besides the fact that it exists AT ALL it exists in a locale that an untimely stumble might lead to its being depressed! What????? Are you kidding me?

Apropos of nothing, I was thinking of the final battle in The Matrix Revolutions earlier today.  Much like the Big Red Button, the design of the fighting machines the soldiers controlled for shooting lots of bullets was nonsensical. I could make a list but it's mostly the 15th Century Coal Delivery-like technology that always struck me. If you've seen The Matrix you know the kinds of technology available to our rebel fighters (if you haven't seen it then this will make no sense anyway), and yet they chose to employ unarmored youth and hand carts to supply ammo to the fighting machines. The carts, by the way, had to pushed across a platform riddled with cords, spent casings, fighting machines, detritus, flexible piping, etc. What???? Are you kidding me???