The Day of the Jackal revisited

By U.B. Acharya

In December 1971, at the height of India-Pakistan war, I was stuck in Mumbai on a prolonged project for my oil company in Assam. As the work had to be carried out on a computer located in Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) at Colaba, the company had very kindly provided me with an accommodation in a posh hotel near the Gateway of India.

Life in Mumbai during daytime was normal but there was a total blackout at night. One evening as dusk was falling, after an early dinner at an Udupi restaurant, I was hurrying back to my hotel when I noticed a corner book shop still open. The kind Parsee owner sold me a new paperback and while collecting the price of Rs. 7.50, he said “It is a best-seller.” To me it turned out to be an “unputdownable” book.

The book, “The Day of the Jackal” was authored by a British named Frederick Forsyth.  This was his first novel and a historical thriller.

Historical background

The story line is of early 1960s in France. After the Second World War, France had not only lost Indochina (present day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), Lebanon and Syria but was fighting a bitter war against the Algerian National Liberation Front (NLF). At that time, General Charles de Gaulle came to power promising to retain Algeria but when it became untenable, he backed out from his promise.

The remnants of the French Foreign Legion based in Algeria formed an aborted “Organisation Armee Secrete” (OAS) and they were bitter against de Gaulle. With the financial support of 3,000,000 rich French civilians who had made the coast of Algeria as their home but were forced to vacate them, the OAS vowed to assassinate the President. Several attempts on his life were made between 1960 and 1962 but all of them failed. The prominent was a 22nd August 1962 ambush in Paris and the mastermind was captured and summarily executed in March 1963. This much is fact and the rest is fiction.

Planning by OAS

As a desperate measure, the truncated OAS leadership hiding in an obscure Austrian mountain village finds a British contract killer who agrees to do the job for half a million US dollars! As the rich Frenchmen had lost faith in OAS and stopped giving them money, this “Supari” money was raised by looting banks through hired criminals.

During the only meeting of the killer with the OAS leaders at a hotel in Vienna, the deal was struck. The contract killer desired that in order to maintain absolute secrecy, he would carry out the job independently and no contact would be maintained with the leaders. He gave a secret Swiss Bank account number where half the amount would have to be deposited even before he could undertake the job.

Only thing that the killer needed was a telephone number in Paris from where he could get information on the security situation surrounding the President. OAS therefore planted a mole, a mistress who obtained latest intelligence information from a very senior official of “Elysee Palace” in exchange of sexual favours. She would then pass on this information to the killer via this secret telephone number.

Further, the OAS leaders asked him what code name he should identify to the contact number and the killer said “JACKAL”. As he was leaving the room, at the door, one of the leaders said “Goodbye, Mr. Jackal”. Unfortunately this word was heard by the OAS bodyguard and at the end this turned out to be fatal.

As advised by Jackal, the leaders with their bodyguards then moved to a safe hotel in Rome owned by a Frenchman sympathetic to the OAS.

Planning by the killer

Back in London, firstly Jackal obtained a British passport in a false name using a copy of the genuine birth certificate but the person had died some 30 years earlier as a child! Also, in London Airport, he stole legitimate passports of a Danish school teacher and an American student who both had the same height and looked like him. He then studied thoroughly the routine of President de Gaulle from recent French newspapers and decided on the place, time and the method of assassination! He then waited.

Once he got the message that a quarter of a million dollars has been credited to his account, he made his move in the first week of August 1963. Using his new British passport, he went to Brussels to an expert gun-maker and ordered a specific handmade rifle. He gave the gun-maker 15 days time and also paid a handsome advance. He then visited a photographer in Genoa who was also an expert fake ID maker and ordered a French driver’s license and a French army veteran’s ID. For each of them, he had photographs taken with different coloured hairs and facial shades. Again, he asked the photographer to keep these documents and negatives ready in two weeks time.

From Genoa he went to Paris to make a final on the spot inspection of the assassination place. The killer had set the Liberation Day, 25th August 1963 as the day of the assassination and “Place Du 18 June 1940” as the location.

Handmade gun

The most interesting part of the novel is the making of a handmade rifle. The entire contraption had to be light weight that could easily be unscrewed into four parts, namely the short barrel with the silencer, telescopic sight, the bullet chamber including the bolt and the support rod (instead of the standard wooden stock).  The handle of the bolt could not stick outside but must slide backwards towards the shoulder. Also there must be no trigger guard and the detachable trigger which would be hidden inside the wooden butt would be screwed just before firing. He also ordered six explosive bullets. Most importantly, all the parts should slide inside light stainless tubes which then could be parts of a crutch of a one-legged war veteran!

 Anatomy of a manhunt

The killer’s preparations were so thorough that the readers wonder how he could possibly fail and yet the French Police and Intelligence were up to the task. With a series of bank robberies in France, they first surmised that OAS was surely behind it to finance its next assassination attempt. Hence they captured in Rome the bodyguard of OAS leaders who was on an errand to the post office and smuggled him to Paris. On severe torture, he revealed that only one foreigner who looked like an Englishman whose name possibly was Jackal had visited the leaders in Vienna. The investigation of the French Intelligence and the Scotland Yard was so thorough that they identified the killer and the fake passport he was now using in less than 48 hours. However, thanks to the mole, the killer was always a step ahead of the investigators.

During the next three weeks, Jackal disguised himself as four different persons using fake IDs and travelled by air, by road and finally by train to Paris. During these tense days, he unintentionally killed five persons, including the forger of false IDs (who refused to part with the negatives) and a baroness in whose chateau he stayed for two nights incognito and seduced her every night (because she found out who he was). Yet again he gets the latest information and disappears before being caught. The way the Police eventually unmask the mole is a classic detective work.

On the Liberation Day Jackal did get a shot at the President’s large face! One has to read the book to know the ending but from the biography of President de Gaulle, the end is obvious.

Publication history

Forsyth wrote this book in 35 days in early 1970 but could not find a publisher only because Charles de Gaulle though retired was still alive. After his death in November 1970, the author persuaded a publisher and the book got printed in June 1971. Initially only 8,000 copies were printed but by mid-October there were several reprints and also was the “best-seller.”

While the book was initially priced at only half-a-pound in UK, it was priced at eight dollars in USA! Eventually, the book got translated into more than a dozen languages. According to Forsyth, who admitted that he was “flat-broke” before the publication of the book but after the publication “had never seen that kind of money before and never thought I ever would.”

The Film

A film based on this novel was released in 1973. It was directed by Fred Zinnemann starring Edward Fox. On the whole it is an ‘edge of the seat’ movie.

Conclusion

Like me, I hope many readers who love thrillers would enjoy reading this book as well watching the movie. The making of the gun might enthuse the gun-loving Kodavas.

The author has worked in the production section of oil industry for 37 years. Now settled in Mysuru, he  occasionally writes for ‘SOM.’

View Comments (4)

  • Freddie Forsyth wrote this book after visiting Paris, where he took a break, after losing his job. It is said, he wrote this novel without a break, and tbat turned out to be a best seller. What needs to be appreciated is that Forsyth's meticulous research which was a hallmark in all his novels. Readers of this novel, need to do a bit more background research in to President de Gaulle, and why he placed such importance to the Liberation Day. His other best seller , The Odessa File, which was also made into a film with then the young Jon Voight and the Austrian actor Maximilian Schell is also immensely readable. Forsyth research again showing here.

    • Just to add, the British Government learning from this book and seeing how easy the application for a British Passport was, tightened the process for the application of the passport.

  • I still rate The Day of the Jackal as the best thriller ever. One of few books I finished reading the book at a stretch. Both the book and the movie are gripping.

  • have read this. excellent . k v Iyers book Roopadarshi is another i had finished in one go..