English born author Frederick Forsyth burst on to the novel writing scene in the early seventies with his first two novels, "Day of The Jackal", and "The Odessa File." In this essay we are going to look specifica
lly at the latter of the two, "The Odessa File." We'll look back on its nearly year-long siege on the Publisher's Weekly and New York Times bestsellers lists, as well as exploring in depth some of the factors that may have caused this book's extreme p
opularity at the time. We will also take some time to look at other novels that bear remarkable similarities in many ways to Mr. Forsyth's "Odessa File."
I believe that his unique and fresh style of novel writing, what many people have called the "documentary thriller," worked to endear him to the majority of the American reading public. But there were many things at work here. I also believe that the wo
rld at the time was prime for a story of government espionage and covert operations due to recent and continuing political events of the surrounding years. These two topics and several others we will discuss as we move along, and see how they all came to
gether to propel "The Odessa File" to its highest popularity.
First of all, let's look back at the book's run on the bestseller list. Originally released on November 1, 1972, the book did well enough in its first two months to land it in a spot on the bestseller list for that year. Not only did it make the list
in its first year, it made the third spot for the year of 1972 (80 Years).
This immediate jump to the bestseller list begs closer inspection. There seems to be no more logical explanation for this book's immediate popularity than some kind of considerable anticipation for this book's release. This seems clear. So where is t
his anticipation coming from? Two factors jump out at us. First, and most importantly, the release of "The Odessa File" follows close on the heels of Forsyth's first novel, "Day of the Jackal." "Day of the Jackal was the public's first look at Forsyt
h's distinctive style, a style that blends true to life facts seamlessly with enthralling fiction. Forsyth's practice of extensive research into real-life people and events and then weaving an interesting and suspenseful semi-fictional narrative was ne
w to the public, and very well received. "Day of the Jackal" achieved terrific success, finding a spot on the bestseller lists of 1971 and '72. Any follow up to a success like that was bound to be watched for by newly-born Forsyth fans. This phenomena
is echoed in 1974 when Forsyth's third book, "Dogs of War," is released to a waiting public and immediately finds itself in the sixth spot on the'74 bestseller list.
Another interesting thing to look at is the rising popularity of thriller type books. Following 1970, a year in which the bestseller list was dominated by the more traditional novels, including romance and stories about life, 1971 was quite a change. 19
71 was the year of the suspense novel, finding four of the top ten bestsellers squarely in that category. William Blatty's "The Exorcist" was wildly popular that year and came in at #2. The book was later made into the very popular movie of the same na
me. Forsyth's "Day of the Jackal" came in fourth that year, with Thomas Tryon's "The Other" and Helen MacInnes' "Message From Malaga" thrill rides finding their way onto the yearly list as well (80 Years). The larger audience that this genre was begi
nning to have, added to the recent success of Forsyth's first novel made for the prime conditions that led to the immediate success of "The Odessa File."
"The Odessa File" debuted at #3 that year, one spot ahead of "Day of the Jackal," whose success carried over from the previous year. The success of every other book published was dwarfed that year (and for the next couple) by the unparalleled success of
Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," an inspirational story of a seagull's search for enlightenment (Contemporary Authors). However, suspense continued to enjoy a surge in popularity through 1972 and 1973. "The Odessa File" reached it's peak
sales in March of 1973, during which time the book would sell around 6000 copies a week (PW, Apr. 9, 1973).
One other interesting thing to look at in "The Odessa File's" bestseller run is near the end of its fourty-eight week stay. In late June - early July, the book began to slide down the weekly bestseller list. It is right at this time that the movie vers
ion of "Day of the Jackal" is released. The movie does well and "The Odessa File" immediately hops up the list from # 9 to # 6, adding a couple more weeks to its presence on the list (PW, July 23, 1973).
So now we've seen how "The Odessa File" did on the bestseller lists. What factors contributed to its great success? We mentioned the "coat-tail" effect that this book benefited from with the success of its predecessor, "Day of the Jackal," and also the
popularity increase that the suspense genre was experiencing at the same time. Were there other factors that contributed as well? Why was the suspense thriller becoming popular? I believe that these questions are ones that can be answered by pulling b
ack and looking at some of the events that had shaped the world's mindset at that period.
The world as a whole, but especially the United States was in a state of rapid change in the late 60's and early 70's. People were finally beginning to recover from the cloud of mystery surrounding the assassination of one of the most popular president
s in U.S. history, John F. Kennedy. The influence that this event had on the whole country and the world can be seen in the very first paragraph of this book:
Everyone seems to remember with great clarity what they were doing on November 22nd, 1963, at the precise moment they heard that President Kennedy was dead. He was hit at 12:22 in the afternoon, Dallas time, and the announcement that he was dead came at
half past one? It was 2:30 in New York, 7:30 in the evening in London, and 8:30? in Hamburg (1).
Some of the worldwide events that were affected by his death make up an important part of the plot of this story as well. That leaves no doubt that the death of President Kennedy had a major impact on the lives and was still fresh in the minds of our cou
ntry and the world. By 1970, our government was once again reaching a level of stability (though short lived), while the youth of America were going through one of the most widespread cultural growing pains ever experienced in this country. There was wi
despread rebellion against the older generation of America and the younger generation began to get involved in American politics in unheard-of numbers. The widely renounced Vietnam War was going on, much to the dismay of American soldiers and the public.
And then came June 17th, 1972. That was the day that burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic Campaign Headquarters in the Watergate complex, setting off the sequence of events that would eventually lead to the implication and resignation of s
itting President Richard Nixon.
All of these forces acted together to make people search for ways to explain the chaos that was going on every day around them. It's no surprise then, that around this time in U.S. history, we see the beginnings of "conspiracy theory" thinking. The bas
ic premise of conspiracy theory was that if people could just find out the people behind these events and the reason they were doing it that all the problems and changes that were being experienced by all could be properly dealt with. The Kennedy assassi
nation served as the match to light the gases of public apprehension, and conspiracy theory became a widespread phenomenon, even reaching into literature. That's where our book comes in. "The Odessa File" and "Day of the Jackal" both served up rich, in
tricate tales of espionage and conspiracy, with "Odessa File" planting an all-american hero in the center of it all, and eventually following the plot back to it's source and setting everything right. It's interesting to note that although the main cha
racter is German, he seems to fit the all-american tag (speaking in easy american slang for most of the book and even have a decidedly non-native name, Peter Miller). This is the sort of hero that our country would be looking for at this point in our his
tory. Obviously, having a hero the public could relate to contributed greatly to the success of this book.
Comparisons to other novels can also yield some interesting insight. One glaringly similar book is Don DeLillo's 1988 offering, "Libra," which dealt with, what else, the Kennedy assassination. This book is similar in the way it uses real life people an
d events, and then is filled in with interesting fictional narrative, then twisted to relive the suspense and intrigue of the planning and carrying out of the plot. Another of these other similar novels was the # 6 book on the 1972 bestseller list, up on
e slot from 1971 (80 Years), "The Winds of War," by Herman Wouk. Like Forsyth, Wouk spent many years researching for "Winds of War," and its sequel "War and Rememberance," the story of Commander Victor "Pug" Henry and his family from the invasion of Pola
nd to the bombing of Hiroshima. While much the same in research and the way that the authors attacked the novel, "Winds of War" failed to create the suspense and excitement that made "The Odessa File" so popular. The obvious comparison with "Day of the
Jackal" reveals a little something as well. Forsyth's formula for success remains the same in both novels: intense effort focused on the suspense of the plot and in technical description, and heavy use of cliché and coincidence in plot and character dev
elopment. Incidentally, the comparison with "Winds of War" continues here. Wouk's novels on the war used a lot of the same novel creating tools that Forsyth put to use in his pieces, and came under the same criticism (Contemporary Authors).
We've seen now that "Odessa File" was quite popular in the novel reading public. Unfortunately, while gathering considerable public acclaim, critics were often a bit harsh on this book. While responses were mixed, most reviewers were critical of Forsyth
's lack of attention to characterization and hard-to believe coincidental plot. No where is this seen better that in the exchange between one of the books characters, Simon Wiesenthal, and the main character, Peter Miller:
"There is always a little doubt, Herr Miller," he said, "Yours is a very strange story. I still cannot follow your motive for wanting to track Roschmann [the Nazi villain] down."
"I'm a reporter. It's a good story (143)."
We get no deeper understanding of Miller that would explain his motive for engaging in such a dangerous undertaking besides, "I'm a reporter. It's a good story." This shallowness of character detracts greatly from the novel's believability, as do the
coincidence sprinkled throughout that keep the narrative moving. In several cases, not the least of which is the opening scene in which Miller follows an ambulance "on a hunch" and stumbles across the material for the rest of the novel, the plot's coin
cidences are too much to explain away and the book's rich fabric is scraped away, revealing a contrived storyline. It is these instances that have been singled out by critics as the literary shortcomings of this otherwise popular novel (Atlantic Monthly
, Dec. 1972). It's interesting to see that "Day of the Jackal" used a lot of the same plot and character tools with much better critical success. It's easy to see how these things could become considerably less believable (and enjoyable) the second tim
e around. Not all the critical response was bad, however. One common point of critical acclaim was his uncanny gift of technical description. The description of a home-made car bomb on page 245-46 received repeated critical praise (Library Jounal, Oct.
1, 1972; PW, Aug. 28, 1972) In general, while most critics enjoyed the suspense and intrigue, they were critical of the use of "Day of the Jackal's" successful formula again in this book.
We've seen that Forsyth's characterization and plot sometimes left a little something to be desired, but there's still no ignoring the fact that "The Odessa File" was incredibly popular despite never really escaping the shadow of its predecessor. It w
as loved for it's suspense, thrill, technical description, and it's uncanny ability to blend fact and fiction into a living, breathing tale of espionage. And I agree. To the degree that reality can be suspended and coincidences accepted, "The Odessa F
Journal Title Date Page
1.) America. Nov. 18, 1972 P.422 *
2.) Atlantic Monthly Dec. 1972 P.144 *
3.) Books & Bookmen Jan. 1973 P.105 *
4.) Booklist Oct. 1, 1972 P.126 *
5.) Booklist Dec. 15, 1972 P.402 *
6.) Horn Book Mag. Feb. 1973 P.75 *
7.) Library Journal Oct. 1, 1972 P.3180 *
8.) Library Journal Aug. 15, 1973 P.1402 *
9.) Library Journal May 15, 1973 P.1657 *
10.) Listener Sep. 19, 1972 P.416 *
11.) Publisher's Weekly Aug. 28, 1972 P.262 *
12.) Publisher's Weekly Nov. 19, 1972 P.63 *
13.) Saturday Review Dec. 9, 1972 P.68 *
14.) Publisher's Weekly Nov. 6, 1972 - Sept. 3, 1973 < just for bestseller rankings
15.) New York Times Book Review Nov. 5, 1972 - Sept. 30, 1973 < " "
16.) 80 Years of Bestsellers. Z1033.B3H 342 *
17.) Bestseller Index. Z1033.B3 J87
18.) "Inquire, Learn, Reflect." www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/8203 *
19.) "Mystery Guide." www.mysteryguide.com. search for Frederick Forsyth. *
20.) Contemporary Authors search for Odessa File, Winds of War, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. *
21.) www.amazon.com search for Odessa File. Customer reviews. *
22.) www.barnesandnoble.com search for Odessa File
23.) "Reviews by Author." www.geocities.com/Area51/1974/books/reviewf.htm *