Thursday, January 12, 2006

Forsyth: Day of the Jackal

I keep thinking that I'll read something current and post about it, but my books-in-progress don't point that way. Setting aside the Walter Scott novel, my other current read, just finished, was Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal. It looks as thought it's still available in mass-market paperback. At least two movie versions have been made; I've seen the earlier one.

Although the book has been classified as a spy novel, it's not about espionage but rather about counter-terrorism. I can see why Hollywood wanted to make a movie out of this, and I enjoyed the film OK. But a screen version misses out on the marvellous effect of what I can only call an "intelligence procedural"--the painstaking, methodical methods of both the terrorists and the government services trying to stop them. Some of these methods are pretty rough on occasion, but the mass of detail moves the novel along, due in part to Forsyth's clean prose. It certainly pulled me along, and if some of the other reviews up on Amazon are at all accurate, it changed the shape of intelligence fiction. The emphases on detail and on the paper-chase that ensues as French police try to protect Charles DeGaulle from the assassin known only as the Jackal both serve as forerunners to LeCarre's classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (published in 1974; Jackal first came out in 1971). I assume that Robert Ludlum's Carlos the Jackal, the villain in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Ultimatum, also tips the hat to Forsyth's book.

I would like to question the comment in one of the Amazon reviews that the only funny part of the book comes with the assassin's visit to a gay bar. The humor is very dry and could be missed, but it's there. Describing the shop of a M. Groossens, a gundealer who custom-fits weapons for underworld characters, Forsyth writes:

"[The Belgian police] were aware of and highly suspicious of the small but superbly equipped forge and workshop in his converted garage, but repeated visits had revealed nothing more than the paraphernalia for the manufacture of wrought-metal medallions and souvenirs of the statues of Brussels. On their last visit he had solemnly presented the Chief Inspector with a figurine of the Manneken-Pis as a token of his esteem for the forces of law and order."

If you don't know what the Manneken-Pis is, you'll miss the sly humor on the part of M. Groossens and Forsyth.

Jackal is a fun read and a classic intelligence novel; if you like that sort of book, pick it up.


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