On a whim a few weeks ago I picked up some spy novels. In short, I decided that I needed a change of pace from my usually run of heavy literature and wanted something that could be both exhilarating and also read at a different rate from my usual. At the same time I didn’t want to read just any junk, so I used the internet to find some lists of excellent spy thrillers, which is where I found Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal. I was not disappointed.
The year is 1963 and there is a secret war being waged on the government of France by disaffected groups of citizens and soldiers calling themselves the Secret Army Organization (OAS) who believe that Charles de Gaulle, the President of France, has betrayed the country by agreeing to withdraw from Algeria. Opposing them is the Action Service, a violent secret police organization that has thwarted the OAS and neutered its operations, including kidnapping one of the leaders from another country. Out of desperation, the remaining leaders of the OAS have decided to hire an assassin, codename Jackal. Catching just the hint of the plot, the French ministers have appointed an unassuming detective named Claude Lebel to catch the Jackal—-a professional killer whose identity, let alone plan, is a mystery to them.
In his author’s note, Forsyth calls himself a storyteller and that much is clear from the narrative. The Day of the Jackal is divided into three sections: “Anatomy of a Plot,” “Anatomy of a Manhunt,” and “Anatomy of a Kill,” with each ratcheting up the tension. The first section works methodically through the plots to kill de Gaulle, first the earlier OAS plots, then the hiring of an assassin, and finally the Jackal’s plot. The second continues to followed the Jackal, while also following Lebel’s process of uncovering the assassin and his plan, and the third shoots up toward the explosive finish. The pacing is excellent and I particularly enjoyed how Forsyth offers just enough detail to trace the story through the lives of people who exist outside the book. For instance, the reader never gets to meet Lebel’s wife, but, other than his job, that is his primary concern in life. What this quickly explain motivations for all of the people involved. The only exception to this rule is the Jackal himself, who remains a mystery as he adopts identity after identity. At least his motivation is clear. He wants to get paid and retire.
As is true of most good spy fiction, The Day of the Jackal is a very limited story that follows one clear arc that takes place parallel to the real world and sinking back into oblivion by the end. The stakes are important, but not global. What stood out about this one in particular was the particular limited information available to the detectives. There were no microchips or internet or computer programs, so when they decide to check all recent passports they must do so by hand. This is, of course, a feature of hindsight, but the specifics of this sort of story must change with the times.
Next up, I just finished Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission and intend to read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale next. I am also working my way through Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history.
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