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.


  1. I love your fresh eyes on these old classics, Rachel. I may (or may not) keep the time-frame in play when we examine these novel/films, but it's always good to know what new readers capture from the experience of their first look at them. For this duo post, I re-read (this time deploying the splendid most recent audiobook production by Blackstone Audio) the book. And it's true, the first 177 pages offer an in-depth preparation for what's to come in the next two parts. You have to be patient with it. Although, Forsyth really did break new ground, and the mold, with this, his first, novel. Interesting that we both, in our separate reviews, cite Tom Clancy and his work. I'd be surprised as hell if Mr. Forsyth's book hadn't been in TC's reading stack when he was young.

    Still, even the author makes clear early (as we all know it true) that The Jackal will fail. That should have been a show-stopper right there, but it was a challenge thrown at the reader by Forsyth. And damn, didn't he still have us by the throat by that hot August date as the novel climaxed? It was remarkable plotting on his part. Now looking back on this decades later, it almost plays as a historical novel, of sorts. I mean between the rotary phones, the card indexes (and manual hand searches), and the like made for quite a contrast. Almost in the way of reading about horse drawn carriages and six-shooters.

    And you're so right about the fact that even with the political aspects and intrigue, it all comes down to a very basic detective story (just one with an unlimited budget and desperation by the French directorate). Equally, I guess I shouldn't be surprised you'd side with the assassin on your initial read of this old bestseller. It was my take, too, back then. Yet, when I re-read and re-watched the pair, I found myself drawn to Lebel now. Perhaps, given my age, his stead is one that is very much familiar to me.

    Modern book thrillers have since pared down the key aspects in this genre, almost to the point of being formulaic. Yet, I think any of those writers worth their salt have to pay homage to the one that started it all. Yes, Alistair MacLean must be given credit here, too. But, it was Forsyth that brought the genre up in sophistication and craft instantly when The Day of The Jackal hit bookstands in '71. And it would take another 13 years before that category took another leap (technologically) with the introduction of Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, in my opinion.

    As usual, an excellent book review, Rachel. My thanks for allowing me to chose this one for the 40th Anniversary. What would you like to do next?

  2. Too bad my fresh eyes were so dismissive of the innovation that is a part of this classic. :) I'd be interested to see how an excellent audio version of the book might lend some spice to the first bit. Now that I have experienced a good reader I know how much it can do for a book (I'm currently suffering through a poor reader and it's quite obvious how it can bring down a work).

    I also noted our unplanned but matching mention of Clancy. And I look forward to one of his being our next choice. I haven't read a Clancy in a long time so it should be fun.

    Another note on the "details" style: I would think its impact is also lessened by how much access we have to information now. It's hard for me to rewind the clock to a time when I didn't know about political assassinations, crime underworlds, and the various ways in which you can kill someone. Again, it's a thing that was very innovative but not as much anymore.

    I agree about it reading like a historical novel and I agree with how brave it is to have a novel such as this with a foregone conclusion. I thought it was interesting, in that article I linked to, how many publishing houses passed on it because of all these things we list. I bet Viking gave themselves a big pat on the back. :)

    There is definitely a thriller formula these days and you can find many of the aspects of this novel in that formula. However, the best thrillers use the formula to turn readers' assumptions against them. I think we can all enjoy the run of the mill formulas every once in a while but the ones that endure are the ones that use the formula to write a better book, not the ones that use the formula due to lack of creativity.

    Thanks for giving me an excuse to finally read this classic thriller. It didn't have quite the impact on me that I would have wished for but I still enjoyed it alot and am glad to have read it. Looking forward to the next one!

  3. I found the book enjoyable, but the movie was awful. The Jackal in the movie was a public school prat. Total miscasting. The character in the Jackal was more or less anonymous, which seemed much of the point. Don't know how you'd do this in movies that tend to center on an identifiable character.

  4. I completely agree, Jed! Very hard to do a faithful adaptation of this novel.