Secrets of the Jackal
Forty years since The Day of the Jackal transformed the thriller, author Frederick Forsyth talks to Helen Brown about the lasting allure of his cold-blooded assassin
There's a bullet mark on the case of the typewriter that Frederick Forsyth used to write The Day of the Jackal. The damage was done during the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s, which Forsyth covered first for the BBC and then as a freelance reporter.
"I was in my bungalow and I think it was a MiG that came over, strafing," he says. "The window went in and bang, churrrunk. I hit the floor and the plane went overhead."
The bufferish, 72-year-old author simply shrugs and gently scoops a Burmese cat, called Swish, off his desk. "It happens. Being a foreign correspondent is a job that might involve being shot at."
But when he got back to London, weighing just eight stone, Forsyth was flat broke, kipping on a friend's sofa and tired of the freelance life. So in January 1970, he sat down at the rickety fold-out table in his friend's kitchen with his battle-scarred Empire Aristocrat typewriter and, in just 35 days, wrote the thriller that broke the mould.
The idea for The Jackal first dawned on him years earlier, while he was working for Reuters in Paris. Between 1961 and 1963 there was a series of assassination attempts on Charles de Gaulle by a French terrorist group, the Organisation de l'Armee Secrete (OAS), fighting to prevent Algerian independence.
"Most of the OAS were ex-army -- which meant they were on file. Or they were white colonists from Algeria -- neo-fascists."
If the terrorists really wanted the job done, Forsyth figured, they should hire an outsider: a professional hitman.
The thought simmered away. "I would come back to it in airport lounges," he says, "but I never thought I'd do anything with it." Then, in Biafra, he met hired guns for the first time. "Some of the mercenaries were psychopaths, sociopaths, sadists. Others were just ex-soldiers, down on their luck. Well, I would tag along behind them on raids behind Nigerian lines because that was the story. The other half of the story, of course, was the camps where the children were dying."
Why would such men allow Forsyth to "tag along"? He offers me a grim smile. "There was one man, a German called Steiner," he explains. "He'd been in the Hitler Youth, missed the Second World War by a few months, joined the Foreign Legion, took a bullet in the lung in China and been invalided out. He was nutty as a fruitcake -- styled himself 'Colonel' Steiner. He only spoke German and French and needed an interpreter. That got me in.
So I was sitting around campfires in the jungle and listening to the scuttlebutt and the gossip. I heard some pretty miserable life stories, out of which came how to get a false passport, how to get a gun, how to break a neck." All the tricks that Forysth's fictional assassin would need to get to de Gaulle.
Back at the typewriter in London, Forsyth had almost all the material he needed. "I went to the British Library and read copies of Le Monde and Figaro from the period. And I bought a street map of Paris.
"I'd never wanted to be a writer. Growing up, all I wanted to be was a pilot (at 19, he became one of the youngest-ever Royal Air Force pilots by lying about his age) and when I left the RAF in my early 20s all I wanted to do was travel, which is what motivated me to go into journalism. I just saw writing a novel -- stupidly -- as a way of making a bit of money. A means to get me out of a jam."
He hawked his book around from February to September 1970, when it was finally accepted by a publisher, who told Forsyth he could see why The Jackal had been so roundly rejected. "They told me I'd broken all the rules," he says. For starters, de Gaulle was still alive (he died in November 1970) so readers knew a fictional assassination plot (set in 1963) couldn't succeed. The publishers were also wary of a book whose central character has no name.
A small print run was planned. Then, to the surprise of Forsyth and his publishers, buyers at bookshops began reordering copies before publication. "The run went up to 8,000 copies," he says, "and that was felt to be one hell of a risk. There were no reviews. The book slithered out through the summer of '71. Slowly, the orders began to move faster. It was all word of mouth. Then my publisher phoned me at 4am in my bedsit. He'd sold the book to an American publisher for $365,000, which was roughly £100,000. And I got half of that. I'd never seen money like it and never thought I would. My family were disbelieving."
What shocked Forsyth was the public admiration for his fictional hitman. "I thought Lebel (the assiduous French detective) was the hero. Jackal was the villain. I was very surprised when readers said they loved him."
The book has been described as "an assassin's manual". A copy of the Hebrew translation was found in possession of Yigal Amir, the extreme-right militant who killed Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
"In fact," says Forsyth, "there hasn't been an assassination using a rifle since the Seventies." Pause. "No, there hasn't. Indira Gandhi, Rajiv, Olof Palme, Benazir Bhutto ... Yitzhak Rabin was shot with a handgun."
Forsyth says his second novel, The Odessa File, helped identify Eduard Roschmann, the runaway Nazi concentration camp commander it described. "They made it into a film, which was screened in a little fleapit cinema south of Buenos Aires, where a man stood up and said, 'I know that man', and denounced him. He decided to make a run for it to Paraguay and died of a heart attack on the river crossing."
He also claims one of his later books, The Dogs of War, was used as a guide to the invasion of the Comoros Islands by the French mercenary Bob Denard in 1978: "The mercenaries all had a copy of Les Chiens de Guerre. They were coming up the beach thinking, 'What do we do next?'" -- he mimes taking a copy of the book from a pocket and flipping the pages. "Ah yes, we take the radio station."
Forysth has admitted being party to a plot to topple the leader of Equatorial Guinea in 1973. "I was chewing the fat and shooting the breeze with the others involved," he has said. "But as far as I was concerned any money I gave was for information and I pulled out before the plan was put into practice."
The book Forsyth is proudest of is The Fist of God, about the first Gulf War. "The research was revelatory," he says. "That extraordinary cannon, the Babylon Gun, with its vast barrel 100m long, which was half assembled when we got in (to Iraq). And the assassination of the man who invented it. That's all true."
So his pride in his work is essentially journalistic? It's still about digging for the truth? "Yep," nods Forysth. "There's a moment in research where you start to think, 'I'm pretty certain that happened.' Then you write it. Then you find out it's true. Gotcha!"
Forysth had more journalistic thrills while researching his latest novel, The Cobra, about the drug cartels. "I nearly bought it in Guineau-Bissau (West Africa). I picked up an infection that nearly cost me my left leg." While he was flying into the country, the army's chief of staff was assassinated, then he was woken in his hotel room by the army's revenge: a bomb was thrown through the window of the presidential villa. The president was then shot and finally hacked to death. "The borders were closed so I was reporting from the spot. It is a bit drug-like, journalism. I don't think that instinct ever dies. But my wife worries all the time. She rails at me."