Frederick Forsyth’s The Day Of The Jackal – turning 50 this month – was punched on a broken old typewriter in just 35 days with a bullet hole from his days as a war reporter and changed thriller writing forever.
It didn’t matter that everyone knew the ending before they read it; Set in the early 1960s, the plot revolves around a professional hitman’s attempt to assassinate Charles de Gaulle.
But the former French president had died at home a few months earlier, in November 1970.
It also didn’t matter that Forsyth’s first novel reads more like a documentary than fiction. Or that it became the go-to manual for an alarming number of real-life assassins.
The bottom line is that over the past half century, ‘Jackal’ has sold millions of copies in countless languages.
It has won numerous awards, inspired a 1973 hit that turned Edward Fox into a star (although Forsyth himself missed out on a significant chunk of profits) — and must have been read or watched by half the world’s population.
So in honor of a truly great story, Jane Fryer reveals 15 things you didn’t know about Forsyth’s global bestseller.
How it all started…
In late 1969, 31-year-old Forsyth was in trouble. A journalist who had just returned from reporting on a foreign war, had been fired by the BBC, discredited by the Foreign Office, broke and slept on a friend’s couch. On a desperate whim, he decided to try to pay off his debts by writing a novel.
“As a recipe for success, that’s as crazy as it gets,” he said in a recent podcast with The Spectator’s Sam Leith. “But I sat down on January 2, 1970 and just started typing. . . I had 500 sheets of A4 paper and an idea.’
The Day of the Jackal was precipitated in just 35 days on a broken-down old typewriter by then 31-year-old author Frederick Forsyth, with a bullet hole challenging as a war reporter
He knew nothing about structure or chapters, so, sticking to what he did know, he wrote it like a journalist would. “I went through 350 pages in 35 days and it’s never changed. I do not know why. Not a line, not a word, not a sentence has ever changed from that day to now.’
Birth of the Jackal
The jackal never had a name, and it even took Forsyth some time to settle for a suitable predator for its code name – the eagle, lion, wolf and bear were all considered and rejected. “I wanted something different,” Forsyth has said. ‘He is elusive. He comes in the night. He kills and disappears at dawn. And there he was – The Jackal!’
On target for success
Bestseller: The 140,000-word manuscript was picked up by Hutchinson & Co and sold two and a half million copies within five years
After only three rejections by publishers, the 140,000-word manuscript was acquired by Hutchinson & Co. Within five years two and a half million copies had been sold.
Today, Forsyth, 82, confesses that he is still a little baffled about how it happened. “It wasn’t the result of years of fighting, practicing, writing, rewriting and endless rejections. It shouldn’t have happened this way, but it did,” he said. “And it was downright unfair to other pushers.”
Blueprint for ‘how dunnits’
A ‘howdunnit’ rather than a ‘whodunnit’, The Day Of The Jackal inspired a generation of thriller writers, from Tom Clancy to Lee Child.
The blending of fact and fiction, and the emphasis on the details of the murder trial, combined to create the extraordinary level of suspense and suspense that was maintained throughout the book. ‘That was a very radical change, that had never been done before,’ says Child.
Art imitating life
Forsyth may have written it in less than six weeks, but the book was based on a wealth of personal experience and painstaking research—both in the British Library reading room and during Forsyth’s stay in Paris in the early 1960s as a Reuters correspondent.
He had witnessed numerous failed attempts by OAS (a French dissident paramilitary organization) on De Gaulle’s life, including one involving exploding flower vases.
“Luckily they weren’t good killers,” Forsyth said.
In the book, the Jackal must acquire a new identity to carry out his mission. He drags tombstones in graveyards to find the name of a boy who, if he had lived, would have been the same age as he is now.
The killer then buys a copy of the child’s birth certificate and applies for a new passport in that name.
Thriller writer Frederick Forsyth (pictured with his CBE medal) missed out on royalties by selling the rights to turn his book into a movie for £20,000 – the equivalent of £250,000 today
The method was a known loophole in security used by the underworld and the KGB at the time of writing. Today it is still known as ‘Day Of The Jackal Fraud’.
It wasn’t until the film was released that officials began to take seriously Forsyth’s own warnings that fraudsters could attempt copying crimes.
Later still, London’s public records and passports tightened their rules to make it more difficult to steal and use a dead person’s identity.
Forsyth visited a notorious forger to find out how to forge a British passport using a birth certificate from a dead citizen. Meanwhile, a friendly gunsmith told him how to design a sniper rifle so thin it could be hidden in a crank.
A terror handbook?
A copy in Hebrew was found in the possession of Yigal Amir, the Israeli who assassinated his prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995.
The infamous Venezuelan terrorist “Carlos” was also known as The Jackal after the novel was identified among his belongings.
And Vladimir Arutyunian, who tried to assassinate President George W. Bush, kept a heavily annotated copy on hand.
The 1973 film, directed by Fred Zinnemann, cost over £10 million at the box office.
Roger Moore, Robert Redford, Michael Caine and Jack Nicholson were all contenders to play The Jackal, but were picked up by the then-relatively unknown Edward Fox, who better suited Zinnemann’s desire for someone “dexterous and fickle.” (The less said about the 1997 remake, starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, the better.)
Edward Fox starred in the Hollywood movie of The Day of the Jackal directed by Fred Zinnemann
The killer movie deal
For the film contract to buy the rights to his book, Forsyth was given a choice of several deals; £17,500 plus a small percentage of the film’s profits; or £20,000 and no royalties.
He took the latter – still a huge sum and worth today the equivalent of £250,000 – but could have made much, much more had he chosen the former. Not that it mattered, as he wrote a slew of bestsellers, including The Odessa File and The Fourth Protocol.
During filming, Forsyth introduced Edward Fox to a real-life hit man he had met as a war reporter in Africa.
The physical resemblance between actor Adrien Cayla-Legrand and Charles de Gaulle himself was such that when the shooting took place – during a real parade – some Parisians were so convinced that they tried to help arrest the “suspects”.
And when ‘De Gaulle’ first got out of his limousine, an elderly extra who played one of the experienced soldiers fainted from the shock. The president had been dead for almost two years by then.
Forsyth rarely revisits his books once completed, so can remember very few details. But when, in a 2004 episode of Mastermind, a contestant chose Forsyth’s novels as his special subject, he tuned in out of interest and was thrashed. “He flattened me,” he said. “He might even name the chambermaid!”
A fruity faux pas?
Those readers with a real eye for detail can spot a small, potential flaw – on page 134 of the new 50th anniversary edition. To calibrate his rifle, The Jackal takes a “dark green” honeydew melon into the woods and starts firing at it, as if it were De Gaulle’s skull. Dark green? Aren’t honeydews rather golden?
Today the book is gaining a new audience. Recently, an avid fan approached Forsyth with the question, “How on earth did you come up with a character like Charles de Gaulle?”