Crime Pays continues our salute to great beach reading with the classic thriller, Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal. This 1971 political page-turner follows the development and execution of a sophisticated plot to kill then-French president Charles de Gaulle, alongside the state's effort to thwart that plot.
There are those who say that The Day of the Jackal was, briefly, a how-to for hitmen, given it's extraordinary research and consequent deep plausibility. Every move that the Jackal makes, countered by equally precise movements from the authorities, makes perfect sense, thanks in large part to Forsyth's extraordinarily patient prose. The author carefully explains each step in the process, and while sometimes it seems maybe a little boring, the sum these detailed parts is a grippingly realistic tale of political mahyem. Forsyth has written plenty more books, there are those who feel this is by far the best. I haven't read them, so I can't say. But here, you never ever find yourself saying, OK, that's just ridiculous. Instead you say, of course!
Given all of this, it took me a little longer to get into the story than I expected. This is due mostly to Forsyth's need to provide background on the French-Algerian conflict, and the highly complex fallout of de Gaulle's decision to remove Algeria from French rule. Basically, Army officers, some enlisted men, and right-wingers generally felt betrayed by de Gaulle, whom they had seen as saving Algeria for France. But dG, more of a pragmatist than one might think, apparently decided that Algeria was not worth the struggle, and agreed to grant independence. This outraged the Algérie Française crowd, and terroristic chaos ensued with groups viciously battling for and against through targeted killings of political, social, and military leaders, bombings, kidnappings, and the like. Martin Walker's Black Diamond gave an entree to the topic, and I guess that wikipedia is as good a place as any to get an overview of this complex and nasty conflict, You can also scan a brief chronology here.
My god it is taking me forever to get this written. And I really enjoyed reading it!
The characters, while detailed with backstories, are not particularly inventive. The French are deeply patriotic even if their patriotism takes radically different forms, the assassin is smart and suave, the tracking detectives smart and dogged.
Which is good, because at heart, this is a detective story. There is a scene not quite half-way through, where the heads of all the security arms in France are sitting in an emergency meeting, having just been alerted to a plot to kill the president. They know only that someone has been hired to do this, but nothing else, and they must decide how to proceed.
This scene also provides an excellent example of the depth of research and detail deployed. About three pages are given over to describing the table, the fourteen men around it, the agencies that they represent and what those agencies do, before we even get to the discussion! Acronym Alert: don't even try to stay on top of them. The French make Harvard look totally bush-league in this respect. If you can keep track of the OAS, FLN (OK, those are easy, but just wait), SDECE, PJ, CRS, RG, BSP, DST, etc., etc., well you are a more careful reader than I.
Still, with all this firepower in one room, it becomes apparent than no one has a good way forward. The police commissioner, who has not spoken, is asked his opinion. "It seems to me, Minister, that the SDECE cannot disclose this man through their agents in the OAS, since not even the OAS know who he is; that the Action Service cannot destroy him since they do not know whom to destroy. The DST cannot pick him up at the border for they do not know whom to intercept, and the RG can give us no documentary information about him because they do not know what documents to search for. The Police cannot arrest him, for they do not know whom to arrest, and the CRS cannot pursue him, since they are unaware whom they are pursuing. The entire structure of the security forces of France is powerless for want of a name. With a name we get a face, with a face a passport, with a passport an arrest. But to find the name, and do it in secret, is a job for pure detective work." (194) Alors, mes amis, les jeux sont faits.
And so The Day of the Jackal comes down to a long slog through agencies and files and paperwork, with just a wee bit of intuition to leaven the process. Similar to Eye of the Needle, you see both sides unfolding at the same time - the rabbit and the chase.
I'll end by noting that as Lumiere said, after all, miss, this is France! And the French do drama and grandeur as well as anyone. There are lots of big black Citroen sweeping into courtyards, smartly uniformed guards slapping their rifle butts with white-gloved hands, flags snapping in the breeze, and the stately de Gaulle towering over it all, refusing to acknowledge any threats to his person. Wine is drunk, both fine and rough red, sex is had, and many, many cigarettes are smoked. But my favorite bit comes right after the Commissaire's speech, above.
"And who, Commissaire, is the best detective in France?" asked the Minister quietly. Bouvier considered for a few seconds before removing his pipe again.
"The best detective in France, messieurs, is my own deputy, Commissaire Claude Lebel."
"Summon him," said the Minister of the Interior.
Wouldn't you like to be known as the best detective in France? It has such a marvelously permanent sound to it, as if there could be no other finer detective in all the world than the best detective in France. Of course, it also puts one in mind of Inspector Clouseau, perhaps the second-best detective in France.