Forsyth’s classic thriller written in 1971 unfolds at a leisurely pace that makes it the perfect holiday read.
The main difficulty in choosing holiday reading is deciding whether to take a thriller or something more informative and non-fictional. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal allows the reader to cover both options in one. It has also acquired a rare sheen of international notoriety since it was published in 1971: linked to the killing of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, as well as a failed assassination attempt on George W Bush ten years later, it even earned the Venezuelan terrorist “Carlos the Jackal” his nickname after a copy of the book was reported to have been found among his possessions.
The Forsyth thriller typically involves a mysterious and often shady organisation hiring the services of an equally enigmatic outsider to accomplish a seemingly insurmountable task, describing how this is accomplished in minute detail. In Jackal the organisation is the French secret service, the OAS, and its objective is the assassination of Charles de Gaulle (a task made all the more difficult by several failed previous attempts and the subsequently heightened security measures around the French president). The outsider brought in to do the job is an Englishman, “about six feet tall, apparently in his early thirties, and with a lean, athletic build. He looked fit, the face was sun-tanned with regular but not remarkable features, and the hands lay quietly along the arms of the chair. To Rodin’s eye he looked like a man who retained control of himself.”
Always cool and professional, there is a sense of the Jackal’s controlled detachment in Forsyth’s writing style. The novel was completed in 35 days, for purely financial reasons (in 2010 he told the Telegraph he was “slightly mercenary … I write for money”), and employs the reporting style honed during his years as a foreign correspondent with Reuters. In the age of Internet research, where unusual trades can be looked up on Wikipedia and foreign streets travelled via Google Maps, Forsyth is refreshing in his advocacy of “first-hand experience”: the opening scene, depicting an attack on the presidential motorcade, is all the more compelling because Forsyth was actually there when it happened.
I first read The Day of the Jackal while on holiday in Spain, and so will always associate it with the scorching blue skies over the Platja de Torrenostra. Unlike the standard crop of breakneck thrillers, the story unfolds with a delicious slowness that makes for perfect under-the-sun reading. We follow the Jackal as he goes about his preparations for the final act, zipping back and forth between countries but taking plenty of breaks for fine meals or cocktails. In one chapter he simply wanders between cafés like some deadly flâneur, checking out potential vantage points and angles of fire before stopping off at another bistro for coffee and croissants.
The Jackal is a compelling individual, combining the brutality of Jack Reacher with the fastidiousness of 007 (right down to his preference of marmalade to blackcurrant jam at breakfast); but he is only one of a cast which includes a seemingly endless parade of administrative figures and seedy underworld characters that populate the unrelenting narrative, each one as realistically drawn as the next: the dim-witted human juggernaut Kowalski, the tragic femme fatale Jacqueline Dumas, and of course the shy and retiring Inspector Lebel, a George Smiley-esque character who appears in the second part and steals the show with his understated persistence.
I once read somewhere that when taking a book on holiday, you should read something set in a completely different area to where you are headed. Now, imagine lying on a sunny beach and reading the first line: “It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.” What better opening could you ask for than that?
• Daniel Gooding
Culled from The Guardian