Frederick Forsyth's first novel, _The Day of the Jackal_, was immensely popular from the moment it hit the American markets, having been noticed and given a favorable review in Publisher's Weekly a few weeks before its debut in the United States. Once it became available to the book buying public, _The Day of the Jackal_ quickly climbed American best seller lists. Its popularity was attributed to several factors, including its realism and attention to detail. Forsyth was able to create such an authentic picture owing to his previous experiences as a journalist. Before he became a novelist, Forsyth had worked as a foreign correspondent for both Reuters and the BBC, giving him first hand knowledge of his subject matter. Although _The Day of the Jackal_ was about a professional assassin, rather than espionage, Forsyth's first novel was often included in discussions of the genre known as the "spy novel," which was incredibly popular during the 1960-70's. Spy novels in general were popular especially because the Cold War stirred the public's interest in the world of under cover agents, and also because the figure of the professional gentleman spy was one to be admired. _The Day of the Jackal_ did not perfectly fit that category, but its plot did involve many of the same elements of the spy novel, such as conspiracy, two clearly opposed forces, and suspense.
Before _The Day of the Jackal_ was published in America, it had already been released in both England and France. The rights to its publication had already been bought by houses in Italy, Germany, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Israel and Holland, and were under negotiation in Japan. The whole world was interested in Forsyth's first novel. Forsyth had even already drafted a screenplay for a planned movie production (Bannon). Before it entered the American market, _The Day of the Jackal_ was widely talked about. Eventually, it was translated into almost 20 different languages (World Cat), showing the universality of Forsyth's story. Bantam Books' President Oscar Dystel added to the buzz about the book, when, after his company had procured the American paperback rights, he ordered 800 advance copies from Viking Press and sent letters to friends asking them each to name ten other personal friends to receive a copy. The Book of the Month Club named it their selection for mid-summer heightening the anticipation for the book (Bannon). This excitement led to _The Day of the Jackal_ breaking into Publisher's Weekly's best seller list on 23 Aug. 1971, one week after its official publication. It started off at number seven, but climbed steadily, reaching number one on 18 Oct, having sold more than 6,000 copies by that time. It stayed at the top for seven weeks after that.
Most critics gave _The Day of the Jackal_ a variation on the same review. They applauded Forsyth's ability to make suspenseful an assassination attempt that, from the beginning, readers knew couldn't possibly occur, because it was widely known that Charles DeGaulle had died of natural causes, not a bullet wound, and to set the scene as realistically as possible by using copious detail and mingling fact with fiction. In fact, some American reviewers were unsure, at first, whether to review the novel as fiction or non-fiction (Bannon). But from there, they then went on to critique his bland writing style, lame dialogue and flat characterizations. Forsyth himself admitted that he had not authored any work of fine literature, he focused on the plot more than anything else (1986 Current Biography Yearbook). The pattern of praising Forsyth's credibility and strength as a creator of a realistic, thrilling plot while putting down his writing style was repeated in review after review. Still, most critics leaned towards the good side in their reviews. John Coyne expressed a typical sentiment when he wrote that the novel was "a taut if occasionally long-winded thriller in which the assassin's beat the clock planning meshed excitingly with the book's action."
Some critics even appreciated Forsyth's straightforward style. It was said that "the prose style perfectly mirrors the meticulous precision and professional detachment of the hired killer (Jones 165)," and "it's fitting that the Jackal should remain an anonymous character. He is, after all, a person without a name who nobody ever gets really close to (181)." Forsyth's journalistic tone also adds credibility to the plot (Merry 47). Critics may not have agreed on Forsyth's writing style, but in the end, most concurred that his first attempt at fiction resulted in a "relentlessly readable book (Crichton 68)."
Frederick Forsyth started his writing career as a journalist, first for Reuters and then later for the BBC. However, after his highly publicized views on the 1969 Biafran revolt in Nigeria got him blackballed by the news industry, he decided to try his hand at writing books. His first work, _The Biafra Story_, was a non-fiction account of what he had seen in Nigeria during his coverage of the revolt for the BBC. Then, in 1971, he turned to fiction and produced _The Day of the Jackal_(1986 Current Biography Yearbook). This was not a total departure from his beginnings as a newsman; his first novel relied very heavily on his experiences with the OAS, a French terrorist group, as a Reuters correspondent stationed in Paris. As with many of his later novels, the writing of _The Day of the Jackal_ had been preceded by exhaustive research (Contemporary Authors). This enabled him to load his novel with authentic detail, creating a realistic "melding [of] fact and fiction in an absorbing, ingenious narrative (1986 Current Biography Yearbook)" that Forsyth was so often praised for.
Spy novels were incredibly popular during the late 1960's / early 1970's, especially due to the Cold War. They are a bit of escapist entertainment which lets the reader place his feet in the shoes of an agent of espionage (Merry 42). The spy novel is essentially a mystery story, with a definite solution, as opposed to the conflict between the Soviet and American powers, so spy novels imposed a sense of stability on a highly volatile issue (Atkins 15). Also, the spy is often a man like James Bond, who can come up with witty retorts to any enemy and is incredibly successful with women (53). These qualities are often admired or envied by the reader. The reader can identify with the suave spy character and get a self esteem boost from the novel.
The late 1960's was a time in America when there was an increased appreciation of professionalism in every field. The post-industrial economy placed a value on the service industry, and the American audience respected and admired those workers. Perry Mason was esteemed on tv, because he did his job in the courtroom well. The Godfather glamourously displayed a group of intensely loyal "co-workers" who performed their duties efficiently (Jones 160). Forsyth, like most spy novelists, creates no-nonsense professionals (161), in a romantic portrayal of the lives of men under cover (Merry 65). Forsyth's characters also displayed a "professionalism [which] cuts absolutely across class barriers." Lebel and the Jackal didn't come from wealthy families or attend fancy prep schools to get where they were. They worked hard for their positions, which is a very American ideal (60). Clearly, Lebel, the chief of the French police force is the "good guy," and the reader admires him and wants to see him solve the case. But, one is also inclined to root for the Jackal as well (Crichton 68). Throughout the novel, "functional efficiency and technological supremacy are both primary values and ends in themselves (Jones 178)." This is why the reader can cheer for both Lebel and the Jackal, although they are opposed to each other. The Jackal does his job with a minimum of fuss, emotionlessly and efficiently killing those who obstruct his goal (Merry 70). He is a skilled man, demonstrating "thoroughness, attention to detail, a capacity for absorbing information, quick decision making and technical expertise (Jones 169)."
Although Forsyth does not write specifically about espionage, it was said that Forsyth's _The Day of the Jackal_ was very similar to many other spy novels of its time. He was discussed on the same page as such authors as Ian Fleming, John LeCarré, Len Deighton and Arthur Hailey. Bruce Merry's _Anatomy of the Spy Thriller_ uses _The Day of the Jackal_ to analyze the aspects of the spy novel which make it so popular. In fact, Merry claims that Forsyth "may have constructed the model example of the spy novel ( 59)." He uses all of the formulaic elements of the genre, but gives it a new twist (65), which is one of "the rules" followed by novels excelling in their own genre (70).
For a spy novel to be successful, according to Merry, it above all has to posses the quality of "unputdownability (43)." The reader has to feel like it is necessary to read the book in one sitting. "The book fails if it can be read gradually and without interruptions (49)." Also, for a spy novel to work, the author has to make it easy for the reader to suspend all disbelief (47). Like most spy novels, _The Day of the Jackal_ is intriguing because it deals with "paraphernalia of death," and "planned murder, which the average sedentary middle-class reader does not do himself (57)."
Forsyth achieves these goals through his use of detail and historical fact, which adds to the realism and suspense, and his pacing of the story. The point of a spy novel is that the reader wants to answer the question: "Something is going on ? but what (Atkins 15)?" Forsyth attention to details interests the reader in answering this question and lets him step directly into the action to do it. The reader feels as if he was right next to the Jackal, examining the new rifle or forged passports. Moreover, it feels like the author is sharing "insider knowledge," and the reader is a recipient of privileged information (Jones 166). In addition to his detailed descriptions, the inclusion of current events helps to create a novel which causes the reader to wonder, "[Am I] reading a documentary account or a work of fiction (164)?" These factors work to get the reader involved with the story, and hopefully make him reluctant to put the book down.
The pacing, too, heightens the reader's curiosity. As the reader gets further and further into the book, events happen more and more quickly, resulting in an accelerated "speed of consumption" because the need to figure out what is going on increases greatly.(Merry 49). Forsyth adds to the excitement through the use of "global simultaneity," or the jump between action happening in two distinct locations at the same moment (53). This makes it seem as if the action is worldwide.
However, _The Day of the Jackal_ also broke from the "spy novel" mold in a couple of different ways. The most obvious departure is that none of the characters are actually spies; Forsyth writes about a terrorist group, a hit man, and a detective. Forsyth also removed the elements of too witty humor and implausible last-minute escapes that were often found elsewhere, as in Fleming's Bond novels, creating a more serious situation (70). Furthermore, his characters to the reader on a more classless level because, "unlike Fleming, he can tell us the Jackal smokes without mentioning a brand only obtainable in Bond Street (Atkins 17)."
Two movies were made based on the book, one in 1973 and another in 1997. Both movies generated interest in the book, as many of the reviews mentioned it. The first production was in the works before the novel was even published in the United States. Frederick Forsyth himself wrote a first draft of the screenplay (Bannon), so the movie of 1973, also titled _The Day of the Jackal_, followed the book's plot pretty closely (O'Brien). Movie reviews for this version were pretty much positive. However, the other adaptation, 1997's _The Jackal_, with Bruce Wilis, did not receive such stellar reviews. Critics universally panned the movie, noting that the plot of the movie had almost nothing to do with the book (Tatara). The resemblance between the book and this movie is so slight that the credits don't even mention the book, it attributes its roots to the first screenplay (The Self- Made Critic). "Magnificently dispensing with such trite irritants as logic, narrative cohesion, pacing and suspense," all qualities Forsyth book was praised for, this new adaptation did justice to neither novel nor the 1973 screenplay (Major).
The spy novel during the 1960-70's was an extremely popular genre due to several social factors, among them, the Cold War. Frederick Forsyth, with his _The Day of the Jackal_, provided the world with a novel cleverly incorporating all of those elements which made the spy novel so popular. Forsyth crafted an exciting, realistic suspenseful story which was universally enjoyed. Due to its acclaim in Europe before its American release, there was a tremendous build up in the United States. Once it hit the American markets, it performed very well, immediately becoming a best seller. Forsyth's first attempt at fiction was undeniably a success.
1986 Current Biography Yearbook.
Atkins, John. The British Spy Novel London: John Calder, 1984.
Bannon, Barbara. "The Story Behind the Book." Vol 200, No. 6. Publisher's Weekly 9 Aug 1971.
Best Sellers Lists. Publisher's Weekly 16 Aug. 1971 - 20 Dec. 1971.
Contemporary Authors - Virgo.
Coyne, John R. The National Review 2 Aug 1974.
Crichton, Michael. "The Anatomy of Suspense." The Saturday Review 9 Sep 1972: 68+.
Ellin, Stanley. "The Day of the Jackal." The New York Times Book Review 15 Aug 1971: 3.
Jones, Dudley. "Professionalism and Pop-fiction: The Novels of Arthur Hailey and Frederick Forsyth." Spy Thrillers, From Buchan to LeCarré Macmillan, 1990: 165+.
Major, Wade. "The Jackal." Boxoffice Magazine Review. Online. Internet. 10 Dec 1999.
Merry, Bruce. Anatomy of a Spy Thriller London: Gill and Macmillan, 1977.
O'Brien, Harvey. "The Day of the Jackal." (1998). Online. Internet. 10 Dec 1999.
The Self-Made Critic. "You Don't Know Jackal." The Brunching Shuttlecocks. Online. Internet. 10 Dec 1999.
Tatara, Paul. "'Jackal' a lame imitation of '73 thriller." CNN Interactive (19 Nov 1997). Online. Internet. 10 Dec 1999.