Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Day of the Jackal and the Continental Op

So, what does my recent Algeria obsession, in the form of having just read Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, have to do with crime fiction, anyhow?

For one thing, it reinforces how strongly Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal, for all its thriller trappings, is really a police procedural that has marked affinities with hard-boiled P.I. stories as well (No wonder it won the best-novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1972).

The villains of Forsyth's classic 1971 novel are the leaders of the OAS, the breakaway paramilitary organization that, enraged by French President Charles de Gaulle's concessions to Algeria, hires a hit man known as the Jackal to kill him. The OAS were (and perhaps still are) dissident military men who constituted themselves as a group in Francoist Spain, then turned self-destructive fanatics and terrorists both in Algeria and in France.

The OAS and their followers were a complex bunch, not least in that they explicitly adopted tactics and organization from their principal opponents, the Algerian FLN, or National Liberation Front. Some had fought in the French Resistance against Nazi Germany. Not all were racist. And there was ample anxiety, suspicion, and contempt on the anti-de Gaulle side between some in the OAS on the one hand, and the ultras among the civilian pieds noirs on the other.

Forsyth wisely sketches this background very lightly or not at all. Instead, after setting the stage with the story of a real-life plot against de Gaulle, he has a council of French ministers and other big shots bring in  Claude Lebel, "the best detective in France," and if that sounds like the leading citizens of a Wild West town desperately seeking a new sheriff — or like the Continental Op being called in to clean up Poisonville in Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest — there's more to come.

Lebel is an ordinary cop, and his belittling by pompous, condescending, artistocratic ministers with whom he meets nightly is a running motif of The Day of the Jackal. This may remind readers readers of a thousand stories about P.I.s or cops who have trouble with authority. One passage near novel's end even calls Lebel "the little detective," which would also work as a description of Hammett's squat little Op.

On the plot side of things, Forsyth alternates sections describing the Jackal's maneuvers all over Europe, and the authorities' efforts to catch him. The idea, of course, is to build suspense by getting the reader wondering if the cops will get to the Jackal before the Jackal gets to de Gaulle, and the chapters devoted to the authorities are an exciting, convincing story of a criminal investigation, only in this case of a criminal who plans to kill the president of France.

(Hear Frederick Forsyth talk about The Day of the Jackal in an interview with the BBC.)
A Savage War of Peace has one passage in particular that, whether or nor Alistair Horne intended so, may remind readers of a famous passage from Raymond Chandler. Take it away, Sir Alistair:
"Then, suddenly, with the least warning, the sky yellows and the Chergui blows from the Sahara, stinging the eyes and choking with its sandy, sticky breath. Men think, and behave, differently. It is a recurrent reminder that this is indeed Africa."
© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger Dana King said...

I remember seeing the movie version of JACKAL while in college, sitting on the edge of my seat while a little voice in the back of mind says, "You know he doesn't kill DeGaulle, right?" Didn't matter. brilliantly done.

Sounds like Mr. Home may have read RED WIND at some point. Still my favorite Chandler short, for how well it summarizes Marlowe's character, and Chandler's idea of a hero.

April 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, Forstyh talks about that in the interview, that the reader knows De Gaulle survives, but that the buildup was the thing. He suggested in the interview to which I link here, that the four publishers who rejected the book may not have got that point.

It's the "Men think, and behave, differently." line that reminds me most strongly of Chandler's passage. Not only that, but Horne uses another, similar line about the Chergui elsewhere in the book.

I wish I'd read the novel before I say Forsyth at Crimefest last year. I'd have asked him if had some of those hard-boiled crime-fiction precedents in mind.

April 24, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, I've just confirmed that this is the book on the Algerian War of Independence that I read - about 14 years ago; I still have it, in fact
(in storage).

And - speaking of 'Day of the Jackal' - watching Spielberg's 'Munich' for the first time recently, I was reminded of Fred Zinneman's film version of 'Jackal', which was similarly based around a historical event.
And I remember thinking that, while I was impressed by the Spielberg film, I had thought Zinneman did it better - and, despite its length, considerably tighter.

May 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember liking the movie Day of the Jackal, or at least the part of I saw years ago.

In re Algeria, I have just read a book on North African history that was a good introduction, though it got a bit wifty and tendentious on post-colonial theory, and the proofreader obviously lost interest in the last chapter or two,

May 05, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Ref. a previous discussion, I've just finished my first Richard Stark, 'The Hunter' (or 'Point Blank' as my paperback was titled).

I liked a lot of it - and I particularly liked the structure, and the way he alternated the POV, and in big chunks, and his use of flashbacks, but I thought it had two chapters to many: I would have ended it after he picked up the money, perhaps already planning what he would do next.

I think the film is better, - and not just because of Lee Marvin.
It's tighter and I love the dream-like, mythic quality of it.
And the washed-out California colours
And then its got a great supporting cast, quite apart from Angie Dickinson: Keenan Wynn; John Vernon; Carroll O' Connor
(I kept hearing "you're a very bad man, Walker", each time Parker was talking to one of The Outfit's senior execs.).
That's a serious triumvirate of character actors

I loved that whole extended description at the end of the line subway station, and afterwards; it reminded me of a similar extended description in one the earliest of the Sjowall/Wahloo series.

Next up I'll be straight into a more recent Stark, 'Flashfire': it should be interesting to compare and contrast.
Plus I'm going to watch 'Point Blank' again; and perhaps 'The Outfit'

May 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've never seen the movie adaptation of The Outfit. I think my edition of the novel, in an omnibus issued by Allison and Busby, is the one that spells one character's name three different ways in three consecutive occurrences over the space of two pages. But I quite liked the book.

Interesting you found the ending weak. Westlake used to say he wrote the novel as one-off, I think with Parker dying in the end, until his publisher asked him to write a series featuring the character. Maybe Westlake did not have his heart in the ending he had to come up with.

As I've said before, if you persist with this Parker thing, my other favorites in the series include The Score and Butcher's Moon.

One good thing about being a Parker/Stark completist is that one grows to appreciate the unusual plot devices and character twists Westlake got up to even in the weaker books.

May 05, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Maybe those last two chapters were written following that publisher's request.

But the whole tone of the novel, - and of Parker's character - was of this super-resourceful, 'super-villain, who'd always be able to keep one step ahead of The Outfit.

It read like part of a series: kinda like 'The Prisoner'.
Or 'The Fugitive'.

I'll check out the Dublin library system to see what Starks they have: particularly with the reissues being so high-priced.
I'll also check out the second-hand 'Emporium' in Parnell Street to see do they have any at reasonable prices.

Interesting that the back-cover quotes include one by John Banville proclaiming Stark as "one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century". Perhaps now he realises that crime-writing is an art-form: not to be sniffed at; although I wonder what other crime writers he's read

May 05, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

this super-resourceful, 'super-villain

I love the rapid-fire way Westlake has Parker build up a bank account, assemble identification, and get himself equipped with clothes, money, and luggage.

That Banville interview was probably the same one where he similarly proclaimed Georges Simenon one of the great twentieth-century writers. I'm more than half-convinced that Banville makes some of his more inflammatory comments about crime writing more for the sake of being a shit than because he believes what he's saying. I take up his competence as a crime writer in several places on Detectives Beyond Borders, including here, where you’ll find a link to a review of one of his books that I wrote for my newspaper. Declan Burke’s discussion with him in Down These Green Streets makes Banville seem pretty human and even, if you can believe it, self-effacing when it comes to crime writing.

May 06, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I meant, of course, 'research', instead of 'rehearse', although maybe he 'rehearsed' it, also

May 06, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

seems this emailed reply hasn't passed the moderator

Banville made similarly inflammatory comments about movies; he's probably regretted that, also.
I've never read any of his 'serious' novels and probably never will. I read one of his crime novels: the first, I think, and have no reason to read another. As I recall it was well-written, and entertaining enough, but somewhat 'mechanical', besides being too derivative.

Obviously plot is important, and characters, and dialogue, and scenes, but style, and perhaps structure, and pacing matter most of all.
Which perhaps Banville doesn't get.
For instance Jim Thompson - and perhaps, especially, Cornell Woolrich - can be pretty sloppy in their plotting, but they frequently more than compensate for that.

I liked that opening chapter, also: particularly the way he smudged the licence. I wonder did Stark/Westlake rehearse that?

May 06, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The two people I know who have met Banville in a professional capacity swear that he's a pretty nice guy. I'll remain skeptical until I have the pleasure myself.

That bit about smudging the license is one of the great bits of detail in all crime writing. The Frederick Forsyth to which I link in this post has him talking about how he researched the details of the Jackal's false passports. You might enjoy what he has to say.

May 06, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Whether he researched/rehearsed that licence-smudging or not, it's one time where you don't mind too much detail, particularly because of what happens subsequently.

I recall reading an interview with Leon Uris where he said something along the lines of he read a 900 page book, in order to get a sentence that fitted. Which is the best kind of author-research : that isn't too evident in the end product.

The Internet is a God-send for research
(of course, it might lead you astray, on occasion)

May 06, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, the detail is just perfect because there is a reason for every bit of it. That's one reason Westlake was so good.

The InternetGod-given for research? I once said about my newspaper's archive system that it preserved the mistakes of the past for the researchers of the future. That goes double or more for the Internet.

May 06, 2013  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

So, as regards Parker: have you read any of the 'comeback' books?
And noted anything different about them, if so

May 06, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read all the Parker novels, some more than once. Some of the very latest books show empathy and social concern. on the author's part if not Parker's, a trait that also makes its way into some of Westlake's late standalones and Dortmunder stories. I write about the phenomenon here: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2007/12/converging-series.html

By the way, here's a post I made about John Banville's partiality to Westlake: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2011/04/if-he-likes-westlake-hes-all-right.html

May 06, 2013  

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