BOOK (1971)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 May, 2010, 12:00am

The Day of the Jackal
by Frederick Forsyth

Widely seen as the best thriller ever, The Day of the Jackal exerts perpetual cutting-edge appeal, with Frederick Forsyth's gripping classic charting the fortunes of a political killer code-named the Jackal.

As should apply to a thriller, the book's greatest strength is the taut plot. The correspondingly laconic titular killer is hired by the OAS French terrorist group of the early 1960s to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle. Unknown to any secret service, the Jackal appears unstoppable.

But, through a twist, the French authorities discover his plot then task their finest detective, Claude Lebel, to find the blond killer with the opaque grey eyes and bolt-action sniper rifle. On a mission defined by deception, luck and betrayal, Lebel shadows his predatory prey around Europe.

Events come to a head at a ceremony commemorating the second world war liberation of Paris. On the day, lodged in a building opposite the podium, the Jackal gets de Gaulle in his crosshairs. Success appears certain, but the Jackal fails to account for the continental custom of kissing on both cheeks; he expects the towering statesman to shake hands with the medal recipient sharing the podium.

The Jackal fires. At the same second, de Gaulle bends to carry out the Gallic ritual. In a captivating snapshot that reminds the reader how easily plans can go awry, the bullet misses.

In the ensuing showdown, Lebel gets his man, but the thriller ends on a note of mystery. The Jackal's real identity remains a riddle.

The thriller owes much of its intriguing impact to Forsyth's training. During the time evoked, Forsyth was a reporter for Reuters in France and borrowed much of his detail from incidents he covered.

His true life-based classic spawned an arsenal of real-world ramifications. Several terrorism events have become intertwined with Forsyth's Machiavellian myth.

For a start, a copy of the Hebrew translation of The Day of the Jackal was found in the possession of Yigal Amir, the right-wing militant who assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. In another twist, Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez was nicknamed 'Carlos the Jackal' after a Guardian newspaper reporter wrongly said the novel was found among his possessions. In still another Jackal mania incident, would-be assassin Vladimir Arutinian, who tried to kill US president George W. Bush during his 2005 visit to the country of Georgia, studied the novel.

The novel was so keenly conceived that it merged with reality. 'The Day of the Jackal makes such comparable books as The Manchurian Candidate and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold seem like Hardy Boy mysteries,' The New York Times raved.