Murder mysteries are my usual "light reading" choice. Spy thrillers are not my cup of tea; too much political intrigue as a rule to keep my interest. But when we went to McKay's at the beginning of spring break a couple of weeks ago, I picked up Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, thinking I ought to give it a try since it is such a well-regarded classic of the genre. I began reading just a chapter a day when I could get to it, enjoying it much more than I'd thought I would . . . then yesterday, with about the last half to go, I couldn't put it down till I finished. It's a truly excellent work.
Perhaps "spy" is a bit of a misnomer; it's about an assassin who is hired by resistance forces to kill Charles deGaulle, and the hunt for him when the plot is discovered. But Forsyth skillfully weaves in the political background of the story and the rationale of the rebels, remaining true to history as he creates his own characters and plot to place within its bounds. No one knows who the Jackal is, except that he is a tall, blonde Englishman who has never been connected with any name or any crime. Forsyth first introduces us to the rebels and their decision to hire a foreign assassin after their sixth attempt to kill deGaulle goes astray and one of their leaders is executed; then he follows the Jackal's meticulous planning, including the various disguises he prepares (along with passports and papers for each), leaving us no doubt of his cool and merciless character. Finally, the government forces discover the plot and the hunt is on -- Commissaire Ledel versus the Jackal in a battle of wits, the stakes literally life or death.
Forsyth kept my attention with every* word. He writes with much detail, but every* detail essential. His style is not mannered in any way; it is an excellent example of realist writing which keeps the writer out of the text through any obvious mannerisms or commentary. The structure is perfect as he moves back and forth between simultaneous events without losing the thread of the narrative, neither giving away too much too soon nor holding back needed information to follow the complex plot. We never learn who the Jackal is, and he is portrayed as a mysterious and unknowable man with no conscience but a taste for the good life, which he plans to live after completing this last job for enough money to "retire" on. Many of the other characters are well-rounded, not overly stereotyped (some of the more minor ones are, of course; one can't have such a huge cast as he does without some shorthand characterization); he is particularly good at creating the tensions of conversation in which there are competing personal and professional interests.
Ironies of all sorts abound, and the hypocrisies and ambitions of the politicians (and the hubris of deGaulle) are interestingly contrasted with Ledel's single-minded pursuit of criminals who would destroy the peace. When the government men following the investigation complain of his contacting heads of police in other states, Ledel says mildly, "all countries, whatever their political outlook, are opposed to crime. So we are not involved in the same rivalries as the more political branches of international relations." They needn't worry about the discretion of police in other countries, he assures them: "The political assassin is the world's outlaw." After receiving the assignment, the narrator tells us that Ledel might have been thinking of the immense power given him or the honors that might come if he succeeded or the repercussions of failure -- but "[b]ecause he was what he was, he thought of none of these things. He was puzzling as to how he would explain over the phone to Amelie [his wife] that he was not coming home until further notice."
The contrast of the small, henpecked detective with the confident, handsome, physically strong Jackal works excellently. The Jackal knows his job and pursues it single-mindedly, certain of his success because certain of his own abilities, and driven by his selfish desires. But the detective, whose appearance works against him in the government briefing room, is no less single-minded and at least as brilliant. He, however, places his confidence in his method and his colleagues, not in his personal brilliance, and is driven by his ideal of justice. And Forsyth develops their battle in a novel I highly recommend.
*My one caveat: I did feel that the few scenes of sexual intimacy were overdone and gratuitous; one doesn't need the detail there either to follow the plot or to understand the characters. These are not frequent, but I found them disturbing.