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Our PickThe Jackal: Forsyth’s cool killer turns 50  

The Jackal: Forsyth’s cool killer turns 50  

Published: 29th Aug 2021 12:54 am

By Pramod K Nayar

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A cold, highly trained blue-eyed killer. A group of desperate politicians and officials unhappy with the ruling regime. Disguised identities. A clueless law enforcement team. A chase across countries. The ingredients of a thriller are all in place. And it is not, oddly, Jason Bourne, Robert Ludlum’s unforgettable hero whom Matt Damon-Paul Greengrass immortalised.

We are speaking of the most suave, ruthless, brilliant assassin the popular novel has ever known. We are speaking of a character whose real identity, even at the end of the tale, is never known.

We are speaking of The Jackal. The first truly pulse-raising, page-turning thriller of the 20th century, alongside The Maltese Falcon, the various Alistair MacLeans and, of course, even earlier, the Agatha Christies, Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal appeared 50 years ago, in 1971. It was made into a film in 1973.

Before the cult Jason Bourne, accomplished killer with no memories, The Jackal, the consummate disguise artist and ruthless assassin, ruled the roost as the object of the largest manhunt in French history


It has to be remembered that The Day of the Jackal was written before the age of cell phones, electronic surveillance, extreme passport controls and all those computer-chip implants in any and every device, document and environments. It is a matter of speculation as to how this same novel could be rewritten for the age of Pegasus and tracking. (The Bourne films do try and relocate Ludlum’s thriller into the contemporary electronic age.)

The Plot That Thickens

A group of French dissidents wish to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. Having failed on previous attempts, they now want a fool-proof method. Their solution is an assassin who does not figure on any country’s police record, a rank outsider, unknown and unknowable. They find such a person in an Englishman who agrees — for a huge sum of money.

He zeroes in on a day when de Gaulle, one of the most guarded men in the world, cannot but be in public, and, therefore, a possible assassin’s target:

“Starting with the germ of an idea triggered by a columnist writing in 1962, cross-checking back through the files covering every year of De Gaulle’s presidency since 1945, the assassin managed to answer his own question. He decided within that time precisely on what day, come illness or bad weather, totally regardless of any considerations of personal danger, Charles de Gaulle would stand up publicly and show himself.”

For this day, the Jackal needs a particular costume and identity, to enter the venue where de Gaulle will be present — and he has to smuggle a special rifle into the scene.

He spends a lot of time on the kind of rifle he will need. Acquiring, testing, dismantling and disguising it takes planning, but the Jackal is a patient man. He then procures multiple identities (killing the fake passport and document maker after he receives the documents). He marks his routes.

The Frenchmen who hired him have no contact with him. The Jackal has one phone number he calls for any updates on the law enforcement front. Parallelly, the French police come to guess a plot. They kidnap the dissident group’s assistant, Viktor Kowalski, and torture him for information. Kowalski reveals the only thing he knows: a name, “Jackal”, and a description: a tall blond foreigner. With this rudimentary description begins the most extensive manhunt France has ever launched.

The Jackal has one chance to abort the mission when he learns that Kowalski had “sung before dying”, that is, confessed to the hiring of a contract killer. But weighing his pros and cons, the Jackal realises that nobody knew his real name, and so the chances of being traced were remote. He stays on his mission.

An assassination plot merges two lines of action: the Jackal’s and that of the French police and their manhunt. Together, these two lines of action produce the tension of the novel


There occur crucial twists in the tale. The first is the leak of the assassin’s hiring by Kowalski. The second is the informant, a mistress to the French minister, who leaves the message that the “Jackal is blown”. The third is a clever red herring. This is, interestingly, due to an act of translation. Kowalski has only one name “Jackal” to offer before he dies of his torture. The French police and the English are caught between the French “Chacal” and the English “Jackal”. The English police force interprets this as a code and begins to hunt for Charles Calthrop. The English top cop thinks:

“He must be as thick as five posts to pick a name, even in French, that’s made up of the first three letters of his Christian name and the first three letters of his second”.

As the French police led by the unlikely Lebel chases the Jackal across France, uncovering one fake identity after another, the Jackal, on the appointed day, arrives in Paris. He has managed to smuggle in his deadly weapon, through the tightest security ring in the world at that point. In an absolutely stunning climax, the Jackal actually fires at the President, and misses — entirely due to an unexpected gesture on the part of de Gaulle. As the Jackal reloads his rifle, Lebel arrives.

Portrait of a Killer

That the assassination is a political one, Forsyth makes clear from the very beginning. But what roots us to the spot is not the politics — including the manoeuvring within the French government — but the process. And in this aspect, Forsyth is masterly. What grips us is not the pace of the narrative alone but also the portrait of the killer.

The Englishman’s preparation for the assassination is methodical. From the date and venue to the mode of arrival in France and the exit plan, the Jackal is precise, meticulous and patient.

“He set himself among other things to acquire and read almost every word written about or by Charles de Gaulle… The Jackal was neither a slow nor stupid man. He read voraciously and planned meticulously, and possessed the faculty to store in his mind an enormous amount of factual information.”

There is one paragraph devoted to his life before his assassin’s role:

 “This was what he had wanted for a long time, from the days when he had pressed his nose to the travel agent’s windows and gazed at the posters showing another life, another world, far from the drudgery of the commuter train and the forms in triplicate, the paper clips and tepid tea. Over the past three years he had almost made it; a glimpse here, a touch there. He had got used to good clothes, expensive meals, a smart flat, a sports car, elegant women. To go back meant to give it all up.”

A man who seeks better things in life, a man who is intelligent, handsome and ruthless, and bored of the desk job and a middleclass life. A man who is also amoral. This is the portrait Forsyth paints.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, the Jackal leaves to chance. He is a master of disguise, merges into crowds and has plenty of money at his disposal. He plays many roles, finds hideouts with consummate ease: playing a homosexual, he hides out in a young man’s house and kills him eventually. Later, he seduces a French Baroness and hides out in her chateau as her lover (and kills her too).

Professionalisation of Murder

Forsyth’s work is a tweak on the spy thriller genre. This genre had its own ideological basis, as the critic Sam Goodman argues about the genre in the 1945-1975 period:

Spy fiction, and indeed popular fiction more generally, has long been recognised as a cultural space in which to dramatize national concerns during periods of great social and political change.

The spy is a national hero attempting to secure the national space and identity, but in the novels, notes Goodman,

is instead responsible for a paradox in which his actions continually undermine the values he is supposed to preserve; instead of securing sovereignty, the spy undermines, destabilises and compromises sovereign space and power again and again.

That said, the professionalisation of the world of stealth, murder, political assassinations and espionage produced some of the best texts for popular consumption. It was also a reflection on the social order that produced such mercenaries.

One of the key conventions of the spy thriller which Forsyth adopts is the transformation of assassination and murder.  This involves not only an emphasis on the methods of operation of the profession — murder — but also the detailing.

The Day of the Jackal offers us some of the most meticulous details about the profession of contract killing, from weaponry to disguise. The realism that marks accounts of the rifle, the documentation, the scene of the crime, recalls Ken Follett’s fiction, and some of Alistair MacLean’s.

The professionalisation of murder in the novel is a unique phenomenon, and like the spy thriller, offers an insight into the functioning of a social order


In order to heighten the tension and the dramatics, the narrative has two components: the Jackal’s actions at one level and the manhunt at another. Keeping these two side by side, reveals two adjacent professions: crime and law enforcement.  We see this in spy thrillers by Len Deighton, Ian Fleming and, of course, John le Carre as well. Forsyth is credited with the reinvention of the thriller genre (the howdunit”) along with Tom Clancy and Lee Child.

The professionalisation of murder and assassination, cast as a thriller-adventure tale by Forsyth, is in fact a spectacle and a collective fantasy, as the critic Michael Denning would argue about the spy thriller in general. Terming them “cover stories”, Denning writes:

“Thrillers use cover stories about assumed identities and double agents, and take their plots from the cover stories of the daily news; and their tales of spies, moles, and the secret service have become a cover story, translating the political and cultural transformations of the twentieth century into the intrigues of a shadow world of secret agents.”

For Denning, such popular texts are commentaries on the contemporary, and documents of a social history, attesting to changes in society, the rise of professions, the state of families or communities, among others. Forsyth does not seek to do all of these, staying focused on the streamlined plot of the assassination and the attempts to thwart it.

The novel, of course, ends with no identities revealed. In its unforgettable ending, Forsyth offers a moral too:

“The following day the body of a man was buried in an unmarked grave at a suburban cemetery in Paris. The death certificate showed the body to be that of an unnamed foreign tourist, killed on Sunday August 25th, 1963, in a hit-and-run accident on the motorway outside the city. Present was a priest, a policeman, a registrar and two grave-diggers. Nobody present showed any interest as the plain deal coffin was lowered into the grave, except the single other person who attended. When it was all over he turned round, declined to give his name, and walked back down the cemetery path, a solitary little figure, to return home to his wife and children.”

The day of the Jackal was over.

As the popularity of the thriller, 50 years on attests, however, the day of the Jackal is not yet done.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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