The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

IMG_1583 I love Freddy Forsyth. Not his novels, but him: contrary, well-informed, opinionated, intelligent, hard to pigeonhole politically (Margaret Thatcher adored him but that’s not really his fault) and good value on TV. Anyway, a question: can a novel be over-researched? The answer, in the case of The Day Of The Jackal, is sometimes. I don’t really care if there are five steps or six up to the Elysée Palace, but Forsyth much prefers research – a lot about rifles and false identities in this case – to writing: he dashed Jackal off in 35 days and it sometimes shows. When describing women and their motivations, or in random decisions to leave some French words untranslated (‘Eh, bien, mon petit Claude. So that’s the way it is, hein?’), it clunks a little. Yet the manhunt section is thrilling and believable (okay, the sheer weight of research works here). Interestingly, apart from a single paragraph hinting at childhood poverty, the Jackal’s past remains unreadable. We don’t know where he came from or much about what he is thinking – his motivation is simply to use his (huge in 1963) half-million pounds fee for killing the French president to retire in his mid-thirties. That’s a relief: many authors would feel obliged to add in some backstory, but then Forsyth is nobody’s poodle. There is marvellous, unconscious humour towards the climax, when the Jackal goes deep undercover in a gay bar and is approached by one of the patrons whose sleeves ‘showed a hint of lace at the cuffs’. This means he was obviously ‘something to do with the world of the arts, fashion or hair-styling, the Jackal thought’. Here the ruthless English hitman sounds a bit like Reggie Perrin’s boss, CJ, who felt that David Harris-Jones would be ‘better off running a hairdressing salon or boutique’ than in the cut-throat world of desserts. But it’s easy to smirk: Jackal is gripping – and writing a successful thriller whose ending (spoiler alert!) is already known is quite some trick. And for all the reliance on honest police work, the authorities’ success still relies on information received through torture and murder. This is probably par for the course as Forsyth, as a wearily pragmatic soul, knows.


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