The Day of the Jackal and the Continental Op
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.)
"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