The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

The Day of the JackalThe Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A slow-burning thriller with a first-class cast of characters, with the focus on the eponymous Jackal and the police detective tasked with tracking him down before he completes his assignment to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle.

The book is divided in three parts. The first charts the preparations by the Jackal–whose actual name we don’t ever quite know for sure–to do the assassination, after having been engaged by a French terrorist organisation (the OAS, which really did exist) in high secrecy. This involves a range of trips across Europe to gather false identities, and, crucially, to find a weapon capable of being hidden and to do the job at range.

In the second part, the plot is uncovered but the French police have no idea where to begin to look for the Jackal. After intensive investigations, Paris police detective Claude Lebel, gradually pieces together enough information to get on his trail. The Jackal however, seems always to be a step ahead. The narrative, jumping to the perspective of both the detective and the assassin, intensifies the flavour of the manhunt and shows the two men almost sparring at a distance.

In the third and final part, the Jackal closes in on Paris and prepares to do the killing. The police know that he is in the capital under a false identity but lose track of him as the Jackal goes to ground in the Paris underworld. Much to the frustration of his superiors, Claude Lebel can do no more than keep his ‘eyes and ears open’–he has an idea of the day the Jackal will strike, and the opportunities he will have. But will he get to him in time?

A first-rate thriller that not only entertains but gives historical flavour with a host of practical details about people, places, and how things work, done in a way that really adds to the story.

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The Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth

The Fourth ProtocolThe Fourth Protocol by Frederick Forsyth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first of the Frederick Forsyth books that I read during the Covid-19 lockdown period. A fascinating ensemble of characters from across the British and Soviet secret services, including the real-life traitor Kim Philby. Apparently, when this book was first published in the 80s, a copy was actually requested by Philby, who still lived in Moscow at the time.

Without giving too much away, the plot centres around a dangerous yet audacious covert attempt by the USSR to swing the result of the 1987 British General Election in favour of the Labour Party. This, given the right circumstances, they believe, will enable the hard-left to take over swiftly from the then party leader Neil Kinnock, and usher in Britain’s first Marxist-Leninist government. Their template was the takeover by Ken Livingstone of the Greater London Council earlier in the decade.

How will they do it? Will they succeed? Personally, I thought the tenets of the conspiracy were ever so slightly implausible, given that it would be difficult in practice to dislodge a national party leader who has just won a general election in the very circumstances the conspiracy demanded. Also, the legislative programme apparently intended for this new government, primarily the change in British foreign policy to withdrawal from Nato, would likely require votes in Parliament. A split Labour parliamentary party (which it would be), would by no means simply acquiesce.

However, none of this detracts in the slightest from a gripping drama that goes spans Moscow to London to Johannesburg, all the way to small English towns. One of the great aspects about Forsyth’s writing is that even the most minor of characters is as rounded as possible–hearing the mini background stories of, for example, the Glasgow police officers or a KGB driver, is one of the most enjoyable parts of reading his novels. Because of all the real-life characters mentioned or alluded to, the Fourth Protocol makes you feel like you have stepped into an alternate reality and brings to life the dangers and suspicions of the Cold War, many of which continue to persist today.

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The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth

The Odessa FileThe Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d previously watched documentaries on YouTube about the Odessa, the supposed covert organisation that assisted former SS officers to escape detection. It seems that in real life, it didn’t necessarily exist in the single coherent form described in the book, but variants of it, smaller groups around Europe and South America, almost certainly did. The presence of high-ranking Nazis in South America, particularly in Argentina under the Peron regime, is well known. I approached the book with anticipation, then, wondering how these topics would be dealt with.

The main character, Peter Miller, is a young journalist enjoying life in 1963 Hamburg, out at night on the day of John F Kennedy’s assassination, doing a spot of ambulance-chasing, when he encounters the apparent suicide of a middle-aged Holocaust survivor. Upon obtaining this man’s diary, Miller is drawn, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear at first, on a manhunt to apprehend a certain SS officer called Eduard Roschmann, the ‘Butcher of Riga’ (who really did exist).

The story adds a strong plot thread in the form of the involvement of the Israeli Mossad who want to prevent the Egyptian regime under Nasser from obtaining rockets that could be used to attack Israel. As Miller is drawn into infiltrating the Odessa to track down Roschmann, the Mossad are keen to use him, as a non-Jewish German, to find out about German scientists helping the Egyptian regime.

Excellent, gripping storytelling and good characterisation–I certainly enjoyed it, while learning a great deal of post-war political history poignantly combined with the tragic and horrific realities of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

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