I had bought this book in a bargain bin at Walmart a number of years ago
because it caught my attention. From there it went into the "read soon" bin, then to the read now bin, and still sat for quite a while. With all the
horrible things that have happened lately, and the fact that I've had to slow down my work on my website, I thought it would be the perfect choice when the
mystery/crime/espionage slot came around on my Home Page rotation.
It was. Oh, goodness! What a phenomenal book, in so many ways, so I hope I am able to express and impress upon everyone. Written by the English novelist and journalist, Frederick Forsyth in 1971, a former member of the RAF, he explains in a brief Author's Note that he wrote it because he needed the money! Well, thank goodness for that need!
It begins in March, 1963, Paris, where Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry, age 35 prepares for the firing squad for his role in the plot to assassinate President General Charles de Gaulle. He is a member of the Secret Army Organisation, known as the OAS, that had formed since de Gaulle returned to France as their leader and abandoned the hopes of many for a French Algiers. They saw him as a traitor and wanted him permanently removed.
I groaned. All those French names. Again. I had just finished the Daphne du Maurier novel, The Glassblowers. And I had no idea of what the OAS was or French Algiers and I thought I would have to do tons of research to get caught up. So I looked up OAS, (Organisation armée secrète) and got a bit of the idea.
None of this was necessary. As I discovered, to my delight, that Forsyth carefully and meticulously explains all we need to know in the first two chapters, as he introduces the characters. By reading slowly, taking notes and paying careful attention, by the end of those two chapters, I completely understood all I needed to know about the OAS—who they were and why they were so hateful toward de Gaulle. After that, reading was a breeze and a total delight. That was my first impression of Forsyth's skill in spinning out a tale. There was much more to follow.
It was not until I began this review that I actually looked up the book itself on Wikipedia. It immediately answered one question I had throughout the novel, and that was, did any of this actually happen? The plot to kill de Gaulle, led by Bastien-Thiry—yes, that part was true, but the rest was pure fiction. Supposedly. With Forsyth being a former military man, I still wonder, because in the story, the fact that a killer-for hire was being employed as a last ditch attempt to get rid of de Gaulle, was never made known to the public. And so, perhaps . . . perhaps it really did happen. The hatred, as spelled out by Forsyth that these radicals had for the President would certainly warrant the possibility that they would go to such lengths.
As is my usual practice for mysteries and thrillers, I will limit what I share in this review, beginning with some basic information. But truly, the most fascinating aspect of the novel is the steps the Jackal takes to prepare for his assignment. Oh, my, was he ever thorough! But first, here's a link to Goodreads, so you can see what their Good Readers had to say about this book. Lots of five-star ratings! The book, by the way, is divided into three main sections: Part One: Anatomy of a Plot; Part Two: Anatomy of a Manhunt; Part Three: Anatomy of a Kill. Let us begin with Part One.
Three attempts on de Gaulle's life have failed, and he wants to put an end to these threats. Forsyth gives us an interesting overview of the French Secret Service, the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionage, SDECE. Within that are seven "Services," and it is Service Five that concerns us the most here. Known as Action Service, these men are in peak physical fitness and trained in destruction. They are trained in fighting with small arms and unarmed combat, such as Karate and Judo. "They underwent courses in radio communication, demolition and sabotage, interrogation with and without the use of torture, kidnapping, arson, and assassination." These were not nice men, and many were just short of thugs. Or were former thugs. Their mission, of course, was to completely render the OAS permanently ineffective. Soon they had infiltrated it at all levels as spies, and thought their job was nearly accomplished. With the capture of Colonel Antoine Argoud, they came closer to their goal. What they did not expect was that the leadership would be turned over to Colonel Marc Rodin, "tall and spare, with a cadaverous face hollowed by the hatred within." That hatred began early in his life, but the culmination was de Gaulle's decision to abandon the hopes of so many people for a French Algiers. There is nothing Rodin will not do to see this "Judas" permanently removed. And so he begins planning.
Hiding out in an obscure Austrian hotel, he laid out his plans for two hours, chain-smoking as he puts each plan to the test, only to have it fail. But just before noon, the answer became clear. He sent telegrams to key people, saying he would be unavailable for a few weeks because he was going on a mission. He ate, checked out, and departed. His mission? To engage a professional assassin who had no connection to France or the OAS, no ideals or hidden agendas, and no chance of being a spy, because he no longer trusted the people within the OAS because Action Service had infiltrated them so thoroughly. This man was to be a killer for hire, interested only in making money. And he had to be the best. And he had to be unknown, with no history, secret files, or arrests.
He settles upon three, although two really are questionable. But the third . . . . It took him ninety days, then he returns to Austria and checks into a boardinghouse, the Pension Kleist in Vienna. He summons only two other men, whom he is positive he can trust. Both were in Italy, and travelled under false names. André Casson arrives first, then René Montclair. Rodin has his friend Viktor Kowalski, a gorilla of a man from the Polish Foreign Legion, as his bodyguard. He tells them his plans, and hands them files of the three possibilities. They agree that it is the only way to fulfill their plans of assassinating de Gaulle, and all three agree on the tall, blond Englishman. They also agree that no one else in the OAS will be in on this agenda until it is carried out. However, they do have certain contacts they will need to use, but details will be withheld. The big problem is money, of which they now have little, and they know a professional killer will not be cheap. Still, they are determined to find ways of getting whatever they need.
Their meeting with the Englishman is uncomfortable. He, of course, knows he was being investigated, and also knows who the people are who have summoned him, and why. It was his eyes that bothered Rodin—they "were open and stared back with frank candor," and "had no expression at all." The three, of course, expected his fee to be large, but not astronomical, which is was, at least for the early 1960s: half a million—dollars, of course. He says that he will be forced to go permanently into retirement because of the magnitude of this assignment, and so his fee must be one to last him the rest of his life. Though the three OAS members cringe, they agree. Rodin suggests lots of bank robberies, and assures his cohorts that once the job is done, those organizations who have recently pulled back will be more than happy to once again give freely of their funds.
The Jackal also insists that no one but those three must know about this plot, and that if the word leaks out, the game is off. He also makes it clear that he works alone, and even they will not know his plans. Ultimately, they set up a very small group of contacts who will not know who or what the Jackal is, but will gather information from Paris and convey it to him. Half of the fee must be deposited to his bank account before he will set his plans into motion. Soon after, France is plagued with an onslaught of robberies which are never solved. This is in June and July of 1963. Nevertheless, these robberies become one of the clues, eventually, for those who are assigned to protect General de Gaulle.
The rest of Part One gives us the most minute details of the Jackal's preparations, and some background on other players that will in some way assist him, unwittingly or not, with his plans. Let me also point out that the Jackal is extraordinarily skilled in every area required of his profession, which includes firearms, theft, strangulation, or simply killing someone with the strength of his body, and especially, he is a master of disguise and false identification. Add to that, he is a very intelligent man, and skilled in a number of languages. As I said, he is a most fascinating character, who, though the epitome of evil, also commands a sense of awe. Of course, it is really Forsyth who is the awesome one, and one must wonder just how he was able to create such a perfect criminal. Hm? Just, whom did he know?
After the contract is complete with the Jackal, Rodin and his two cohorts hide out in a hotel in Rome. They have the entire top floor and their bodyguards have the floor beneath. Kowalski, operating under a false name, retrieves the mail each day. No one in Rome messes with them, nor will they allow the surveillance team from Paris to mess with them either. And so they watch. And watch and watch. What even the hotel doesn't realize is that they have the steps and fire escapes booby-trapped and other little changes made to the structure, to ensure that they are left alone. The general opinion from the police and security forces in Paris is that the capture of Argoud has them running scared. This is not entirely believable, knowing Rodin's loathing of de Gaulle, and when certain other clues are discovered as to the activities at hand, cowardice become entirely unbelievable, and their hiding out only serves to confirm their hunches. By August of 1963, the authorities have a pretty good idea of Rodin's operation. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
For a month, the Jackal haunts libraries and bookshops, finding and reading everything ever written about de Gaulle. Most is useless information, however, bits and pieces begin to come together. Soon he knows exactly a date and place where he is certain de Gaulle will be, no matter what. He then must determine how to infiltrate that particular place at the given time. But that comes later. He must now concentrate on his numerous false identities and seek out those who can supply his needs. His next step is to place himself somewhere where he can, unobserved, examine passengers alighting from planes. He is looking for people who resemble him in build and features. He finds a Danish priest descending from a plane out of Copenhagen. Though Per Jensen is much older, hair can be died and eye-color can be changed with contact lenses. He follows him to his hotel, then does a quick break-in to his room to steal his passport. When Jensen returns, since nothing else is stolen, security convinces him he lost his passport and it is not reported as stolen. He is issued another.
This is repeated with a New York student Marty Schulberg, however, in this case, there is no doubt of theft. A report is filed, he is issued a new passport, and all is soon forgotten. The Jackal then begins to acquire the necessary clothing. Meanwhile, an important event occurs in Paris. The Deputy Chief of the Brigade Criminelle of the Police Judiciaire dies of a stroke. Commissaire Claude Lebel, Chief of the Homicide Division is named to replace him.
As if these new identities aren't enough, they are only back-ups for the Jackal, if needed. (They were.) He must now establish a complete identity, including birth certificate. To do that, he begins nosing around a country graveyard, where he sees that Alexander James Quentin Duggan was born in 1929, and died in an accident at age two-and-a-half. Had he lived, he would be nearly the same age as the Jackal.
The Jackal enlists the help of the parish vicar, saying he is a solicitor attempting to trace a family tree for a client. The vicar happily accommodates him. Next, the Jackal is off to Belgium, where Paul Goosens, a hero turned criminal, has been recommended to build him a custom firearm. As expected, the Jackal has thought this out meticulously, and here are some of the needed specifications.
The main limitation is size. It must be a bolt-action rifle without a handle that sticks out sideways. It must have a detachable trigger without a trigger guard, and must be able to pass into a tubular compartment for storage and carrying. It must be a single-shot rifle that breaks open at the back for loading like a shotgun, light-weight with a short barrel. It must have a silencer, telescopic sight and explosive bullets. By the description, those would be similar to hollow-point bullets. In addition, all woodwork and the entire stock needs to be removed, replaced by a frame stock, and must be able to be unscrewed and taken apart in three sections. The range needed is 130 metres. Goosens is delighted with the challenge and builds him an excellent firearm, and that's all I will say about the gun. The Jackal warns him if he breathes a word of this to anyone, he will die.
His next order of business is to find a reliable forger. The same person who supplied him with the gunsmith finds him one, who, em, proves to be extraordinarily skilled in forgeries and disguise, but not too wise in judging people. I'll let it go at that, saying merely that he creates excellent documents, does excellent photography, and enlightened the Jackal on ways to play and look his part effectively, including chewing cordite to temporarily develop the pallor of an elderly man.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Colonel Rolland, head of Action Service of the SDECE is creating a plan to lure Viktor Kowalski into their hands. The Jackal also arrives in Paris, this time to do some "sight-seeing," and stake out the exact area where he is certain de Gaulle will be on that certain day, which includes merely observing the area for days, then specifically investigating buildings, fire escapes, alleys, and every other minute detail to put his plans into action. Incidentally, not only is the Jackal fluent in French, but he is also fluent in being an Englishman with a bad French accent. Oh, my!
He was quietly courteous to the staff, spoke only a few words of French with the Englishman's habitual atrocious pronunciation of the French language, and smiled politely when addressed. He replied to the management's solicitous enquiries by assuring them that he was extremely comfortable and thank you.
"M. Duggan," the hotel proprietress told her desk clerk one day, "est extrêmement gentil. Un vrai gentleman." There was no dissent.
The OAS contacts are also preparing. We learn the history of Jacqueline Dumas and her hatred of de Gaulle. And how she also hates her "lover," to whom she has been assigned as a spy. It is not until the next section that we learn who it is, and we have to giggle at his foolishness, along with his inflated ego around other members of the team assigned to catch the Jackal. I guess Forsyth wouldn't be a true Englishman if he didn't find a way to make a Frenchman look stupid. The last thing the Jackal does is to find a shop that sells grubby clothes and old military medals, along with a guide book.
Clearly onto Rodin's plans, Rolland devises a means to capture the very loyal bodyguard of Rodin. A letter is written to him at the hotel, supposedly from his friend Grzybowski that his little daughter, Sylvie, is dying, quickly, of leukemia. We didn't even know he had a daughter, so Forsyth tells us the history. Kowalski falls for it, and nearly kills two of the Action Service fighters before they nearly kill him. The prison doctor forbids any interference until he recovers, but when he does, they torture him, which I won't elaborate upon, until he talks out of his mind. The transcripts are then sent off to Rolland, who pores over them, crossing out most of the ramblings of a man tortured to death, then curses the typist for misinterpreting two words, which he finally figures out are "blond killer." He also ponders over the word "secret," used twice. Is it an adjective? Everyone knows Rodin is hiding out in Rome. Or is it a noun? What is the secret?
Meanwhile, the Jackal has packed all his clothing and disguises and guns, including Plaster of Paris, which he will use to make a temporary cast for his leg. He takes every step to create confusion and difficulty in being identified. I will stop there, as we are nearing Part Two: Anatomy of a Manhunt. I will just make one comment about Claude Lebel, who is chosen to kill the killer. De Gaulle, by the way, refuses to cower. He also refuses to allow the public to know the extreme danger he is now in, making it even more difficult for the secret committee that has been carefully assembled by Rolland, comprising the most important organizations in Paris that should be privy to the extraordinary situation in which they find themselves. I will end this review with a brief quote about Lebel. Oh my goodness!! It's Columbo. Since both the TV show (in the U.S.), and the book came out in the same year, I don't know which character came first, but they sure are similar!
He had a knack of making simple people, the humble and the lowly who normally fear and dislike policemen, unbutton their thoughts and suspicions to him. The reason he could do this was his seeming air of helplessness, of being, like them, downtrodden and put-upon of this world.
It was partly because of his size; he was small, and resembled in many ways the cartoonist's image of a henpecked husband, which, although no one in the department knew it, was just what he was.
His dress was dowdy, a crumpled suit and a mackintosh. His manner was mild, almost apologetic, and in his request of a witness for information it contrasted so sharply with the attitude the witness had experienced from his first interview with the law that the witness tended to warm towards the detective as a refuge from the roughness of the subordinates.
And that's all I will say about this thriller, which receives my highest
recommendation. Two years after its publication, a movie based on it was made, in 1973. My readers know I average about 1.2 movies a year. In other words, I
am not a movie watcher. But I found it on YouTube for free, and I spent 2 hours and 22 minutes completely absorbed. No, of course it is nowhere near as
good as the book, but I have never seen a movie yet that is. But it is still really good. And, oh, my, the different countries and cities we get to visit, and the
Liberation Day celebration in France at the end, were all beyond awesome. Here is the link to the free YouTube, but you have to click on Full-Screen to avoid
the pop-up and to continue watching without signing in.
The Day of the Jackal.
Below is Edward Fox as The Jackal—wow, what a hunk and perfect for the role, and a real mean looking real jackal!!
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