In April 1961, a group of four generals launched a coup d’état in an attempt to overthrow the elected government of France. Their plan was only thwarted by quick action on the part of President Charles de Gaulle. He used newly issued transistor radios to call on all servicemen to defy the orders of their commanding officers. France was on the brink of becoming a military dictatorship like her neighbour Spain, which at the time was still languishing under the oppressive regime of Francisco Franco.
Those are the real-life events that inspired The Day of the Jackal, a 1971 thriller by Frederick Forsyth. The story is told in brisk, brilliantly plotted chapters. Even knowing how real-life events played out makes no difference to enjoying the outcome of this novel (de Gaulle had died even before the book was published), which becomes an all-consuming obsession as the action builds to its conclusion.
The prose is more Ian Fleming than John le Carré but it suits the muscular world inhabited by the assassin, known only the Jackal. An Englishman recruited by renegade French officers, the Jackal is hired to slay de Gaulle, exploiting the fact that as a foreigner and a mercenary, his existence will be unknown to the French secret service.
The Jackal, with his powers of disguise, mechanical prowess, near psychopathic detachment from other people and suave dress sense is basically a reverse James Bond. Instead of acting on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he is a lone operative who works undercover for terrorists. The drama in The Day of the Jackal comes from the fact that we know so little about this hired killer and what he is capable of achieving.
It is also a desperate chase, for the Jackal’s cover is blown before he even enters France. Nevertheless, fearful of revenge from his paymasters should be fail in his mission, he heads towards Paris. Meanwhile, a covert nationwide police hunt slowly homes in on his whereabouts.
The Jackal’s main opponent is Commissionaire Claude Lebel. An assuming police officer and ‘henpecked husband’, Lebel is reminiscent of George Smiley. His quiet cunning allows him both to anticipate the Jackal’s movements and trace his actions back into the past. Alas, Lebel’s efforts are constantly thwarted by leaks within his own organisation.
In part, the novel is dated due to its 1970s machismo. Women are generally around to sleep with people to betray them or be betrayed in turn. However, the historical nature of the pre-IT revolution setting also adds an element of drama that would be missing from a modern version.
Set in the early 1960s, long-distance phone calls are only possible through booths in public post offices, which need to be arranged by the staff. All records are kept on cards which take ages to collate and sort. Passports and driving licenses can be faked with a bit of glue and cunning photography, although the Jackal has a bewildering array of other methods of keeping his identity secret.
A complex plot, expertly constructed with a back story that is written with incredible simplicity, The Day of the Jackal is a racing tale of high drama which sets vertebrae-crunching violence alongside desperate police work. At times it is impossible to know who to root for. Eventually, though, the Jackal’s icy ruthlessness rises to the fore as we learn more about the lengths that this terrifying man will go to to get his hands on half a million dollars. It’s not just Charles de Gaulle who is in the firing line.