Monday, November 08, 2021

the last book I read

The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

It's hard to let go, isn't it? Still harder to back down and admit you were wrong about something, whether it's a small dispute with your neighbour over who owns a hedge, or the occupation of an entire country. So while you might think that France's decision in 1962 to say: "yes, OK, you are right, we did technically invade and colonise your country (Algeria in this case, though it was by no means an isolated incident in French history) without your consent so we're just going to quietly give it back, no harm no foul, no hard feelings, let's move on", would be universally viewed as the right thing to do, not everyone sees it that way. Indeed there are those who view it as a grotesque betrayal of French history and of the sacrifice of those free-born Frenchmen who fought and died so that France could continue stealing something that didn't belong to them. All the more enraging that it's the hero of wartime France, Charles de Gaulle, whose signature was on the agreement that handed Algeria back to its people. 

Not satisfied with just being a pit pissed off about it for a while, or just shrugging Gallicly and sparking up a Gauloise, a small group of mostly ex-Army extremists decides that The President Must Die. After one botched attempt in August 1962 to fill the president's entire motorcade with hot lead from the side of the road has failed, and the ringleader has been executed, what remains of the OAS top brass gathers in secret to discuss how to have another crack at de Gaulle, and hopefully fuck it up less egregiously this time. They quickly conclude that trying to organise something within OAS is doomed to failure as the entire organisation is riddled with government informants, and that the only way of having a chance of success is to hire a contract killer from outside France and ensure that no-one except them and the assassin know about it.

These guys don't advertise themselves in the Yellow Pages, though, so it's some time before the OAS have their man, a suave thirtysomething Englishman who decides to go by the codename Jackal. His demands are simple: give me a great big wodge of cash and I will devise a plan for taking out de Gaulle and carry it out; no need for you to know the details, you'll know when I'm done because the general's head will suddenly explode at some point in the next few months.

Obviously organising this sort of thing so that one gets the opportunity to take a pot-shot at one of the most powerful men in the world is quite a task, and it's still more complicated if one also wants to escape afterwards to have the opportunity to enjoy a well-earned retirement, sitting on a beach earning twenty percent. Luckily the Jackal already has a few contacts, including a gunsmith who can make him a bespoke sniper rifle that can be dismantled and smuggled through security, and a forger who can get him some of the very specific French identity documents that his plan requires.

The Jackal is not such a fool as to imagine that the authorities won't be looking out for him though. But how will they even know such a plot exists? Well, thanks to their network of informers they've been keeping tabs on the senior OAS men's whereabouts - holed up on a couple of floors of a hotel in Rome - and when their bagman Kowalski goes to pick up the mail he finds himself bundled into the back of a van and wakes up in a chair with crocodile clips attached to various delicate parts of his anatomy and faced by a group of government men who have some urgent questions they'd like answers to.

Once they have extracted a garbled confession from Kowalski that gives them a broad outline of the plot (and disposed of his charred corpse), the Interior Ministry tell the police to get their top man on the case. No, not this guy, Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel. Lebel's brief is simple: there's this guy - no, we don't know his name - who's going to kill the President - no, we don't know how, where or when - and we'd like him stopped. So if you could sort that out, that'd be great, merci beaucoup.

Lebel starts by contacting the police chiefs of various neighbouring countries to see if they happen to have the details of any contract killers who are still at large. UK Special Branch don't have any of those, but there was this chap Calthrop, formerly employed by an arms company, who was suspected of involvement in a political assassination in the Caribbean a while back. And there is this recent passport application in the name of a person who would be roughly the right age had he not died at the age of two. Could this be our man?

Meanwhile the Jackal is having a high old time in Europe, collecting his gun from the gunsmith, casually murdering the forger when he tries to blackmail him for some extra cash, and occasionally phoning in to his Paris OAS contact for updates and instructions. After a relatively trouble-free border crossing into France the Jackal starts to feel the net closing in and is obliged to assume a series of alternative identities as the police start to circulate descriptions of the old ones. Sadly he is also obliged to regretfully murder the countess he hooked up with at a hotel and has been, hem hem, "holed up" with at her chateau for a few days. 

He arrives in Paris as Per Jensen, a Danish priest, and quickly assumes the identity of Marty Schulberg, an American student - in both cases using passports he has stolen at airports during his European travels - and finally AndrĂ© Martin, a disabled war veteran with one leg and an crutch. No ordinary crutch, though, this one is a ingeniously-tooled set of screwed-together sections concealing the component parts of the Jackal's sniper rifle, which he quickly assembles once he has found an unoccupied attic room - not too hard in Paris in August as everyone's gone on holiday. Can Lebel put together the final pieces of the jigsaw and foil the assassin in the nick of time?

Well, you will only not know the answer to this if you imagine that Forsyth might write a sort of Inglourious Basterds style alternate-history story where de Gaulle dies (rather than dying at home seven years later as he actually did) and if additionally you've never seen the celebrated 1973 Fred Zinnemann film starring Edward Fox as the Jackal. The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of the book with only a couple of minor differences: the Special Branch guy whose dogged persistence yields the initial link to the Jackal is a Welshman in the book, but not in the film, presumably because Brian Cant's father-in-law felt more comfortable doing a Birmingham accent, and the episode in the book where the Jackal hooks up with a gay man in order to spend the night in his apartment (and avoid leaving a traceable trail at a hotel) has an unpalatable whiff of homophobia as written - everyone is a predatory screaming queen whereas in the film the guy the Jackal hooks up with is quite a nice harmless beardy chap who nonetheless gets brutally neck-chopped for his generosity. A few name changes aside that's about it; the 1997 film The Jackal is a much looser adaptation of the book, and I have never seen it, nor do I ever intend to, although apparently Richard Gere's Irish accent is quite a thing. 

Forsyth himself in real life is a fairly unpalatable right-wing character who has a pretty regular gig writing columns for tabloid newspapers denouncing the EU, climate change, etc., the usual stuff, so it's hardly surprising that some of this bleeds through into the novels. The Jackal is a sort of paragon of a certain right-wing idea of manliness, able to handle a gun, fake an ID, respray a car and do various engineering design tasks all without crumpling his suit, not to mention in his leisure time ferociously diddling a buxom fortysomething countess to multiple thunderous climaxes. 

I bought my old Corgi paperback copy of The Day Of The Jackal probably in excess of twenty years ago but have never got around to reading it (until now, obviously). I did have a prime Forsyth-reading period probably in my early twenties which encompassed The Odessa File, The Dogs Of War, The Devil's Alternative and The Fourth Protocol, the first two of which were adapted for films which I have seen (The Fourth Protocol was adapted as well but I've never seen it). The Odessa File is probably the best one as it at least features some characters that one might care about among all the relentless machinery of the plot. The film is very good as well. 

Anyway, this is very thrilling and enjoyable and I scooted through it pretty quickly, though just occasionally the evident thoroughness of the research occasions admiration rather than rapt involvement. Not as much as in The Dogs Of War, whose middle section sags unforgivably under the weight of endless bank transfers between holding companies. The Jackal himself is an intriguing James Bond-esque villain who we never get under the skin of or get any insight into the motivations of, and indeed whose real name we never know. If you're going to read one Forsyth I'd recommend The Odessa File, but to be honest if you just watched the films of that one and The Day Of The Jackal that might be all you'd need. 

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