Literature / The Day of the Jackal
The plot.
The day of the Jackal was over.

Frederick Forsyth's most famous novel, by some margin.

In 1963, after a deeply divisive and costly Civil War, French President Charles De Gaulle has granted independence to Algeria. His decision is seen as a betrayal by many of his former supporters. A disenchanted paramilitary group, the Organisation de L'Armée Secrète (OAS), has vowed to kill de Gaulle in revenge but each plot has failed. In desperation, the OAS turn to a mysterious foreign assassin, known only as "The Jackal", to carry out the job. The government learns of the plot, but know nothing of the would-be assassin besides his code name. So they call upon the best detective in France: Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel, who is given unlimited authority to capture or kill The Jackal, with only two requirements: no publicity, and do not fail.

The 1973 film adaptation holds us for nearly two and a half hours as we watch as the Jackal's plans proceed with inexorable precision, as Lebel struggles to thwart a man of whom he knows nothing: no name, no picture, no nationality. He isn't even sure if the plot is real or simply the ravings of a tortured terrorist. To make matters worse, the terrorists have infiltrated the French Cabinet, and the Jackal is being passed valuable information about the pursuit. After the members of the cabinet tire of Lebel using the authority they granted him to find the cabinet member who is leaking information, they essentially fire him, thinking they can find the Jackal easily enough. When that doesn't work, they reluctantly call Lebel back, in desperation, because the Jackal has eventually disappeared, and they need to find him before he carries out the assassination.

Has been adapted twice — in the famous 1973 film The Day of the Jackal starring Edward Fox (of the Fox acting dynasty), while the second, just called The Jackal is a far looser 1997 adaptation.

The Day of the Jackal novel provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Lampshaded by Lebel when witnesses talk of what a perfect gentleman the Jackal is.
    They were the worse ones. No-one ever suspected them.
  • Arms Dealer: The man who provides The Jackal with the take-down sniper rifle is one of these.
  • Asshole Victim: The colonel who is seduced into becoming a source of information for the OAS Honey Trap. He's an Obstructive Bureaucrat only concerned with his own ego and the sycophantic advancement of his career. No-one's sorry when he's exposed and has to resign in disgrace.
  • Bad Ass: The Jackal. Ruthless, intelligent, elusive and a cold-blooded killer.
    • Lebel, too. He alone finds the one man that the entire French security force couldn't. And kills him.
  • Bad Habits: One of the Jackal's disguises is as a Danish clergyman.
  • Bank Robbery: The Jackal suggests the OAS carry out some of these to fund his fees. A string of these eventually leads the Action Service to notice that something is up.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Lebel is calm, soft-spoken, and keeps his mouth shut until asked. He has also taken down some of France's most powerful and dangerous criminals.
  • Black and Gray Morality: The OAS are terrorists who tortured during the war in Algeria and are plotting to murder the President of France. The French security forces trying to thwart them employ brutal and illegal tactics, including kidnapping and torture.
  • Blackmail: A forger tries to blackmail the Jackal. It doesn't end well for him.
  • Blackmail Backfire: The documents forger tries to swindle more money out of The Jackal, and follows up by not bowing to the Jackal's one request (that they don't meet at the forger's apartment for payment) when the Jackal accepts. The Jackal breaks his neck and stuffs his body in a trunk in response.
  • Boring but Practical: Lebel eschews fancy espionage tradecraft in favor of simply looking at the case deeper than the other guys. In fact, this is exactly how he catches the Jackal: During the Liberation Day parade, he goes around the security cordon and asks the gendarmes one by one until he stumbles upon one guard who let in a guy who fits the Jackal's profile.
    • Similarly, he also doesn't rely on any fancy detective tricks to bust OAS's mole inside the French cabinet. He just bugs their phones, all of them.
    • The move by the French police of grabbing the guest records of all the hotels in the country and search through every single one of them for the signature of the aliases they know the Jackal could be using (and the search through all of the birth and death records in the countries they know the Jackal was in for said aliases). Brute-force (and in an era of pure paper records incredibly slow) but still provides them with all of the information they need to keep track of the Jackal.
  • Cannot Keep a Secret: Part of the reason the OAS hires an outsider to assassinate De Gaulle is because their own rank and file are littered with Action Service infiltrators, meaning almost nothing they plot is secret for long.
  • Cold Sniper: The Jackal himself, though occasionally he snaps.
  • Conspicuously Public Assassination: The Jackal plans to assassinate Charles DeGaulle at a public event, notably the award ceremony on Liberation Day, the one occasion he can be certain the President of France will turn up, no matter what threats have been made against his life.
  • Clock Discrepancy: The 1962 assassination attempt on De Gaulle failed because Bastien-Thiery was consulting the almanac for the wrong year and so misjudged when sunset was. This made it too dark for the gunmen to see his signal and they opened fire too late.
  • Dead Man's Chest: Done to a blackmailing photographer.
  • The Determinator: The Jackal carries out his plan despite his cover identities being blown and the massive manhunt for him. From this Lebel deduces that he not only has a foolproof plan of assassination, but that it must take place on a particular date (otherwise he'd simply lay low until the heat dies off).
  • Driving Question: The Day of the Jackal—when is it?
  • Electric Torture: With crocodile clips to the testicles. The subject dies.
  • Enemy Mine: Colonel Rolland of Action Services asks the Unione Corse, the Corsican Mafia, for help locating the Jackal in exchange for reduced police pressure.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Viktor Kowalski, the OAS courier, spends much of the novel fretting over his daughter, supposedly dying of leukemia. Ultimately he's captured by Action Services while trying to visit her in hospital. It turns out that she's perfectly healthy and they were using that as bait for a trap.
  • Evil Brit: The Jackal is British and a Professional Killer. Or is he? At the end of the novel, Her Majesty's Government point out there's no proof, given his multiple identities, that he was ever British in the first place. The Brit who originally came under suspicion, Charles Calthrop, turned out to be innocent.
  • Faux Yay: The Jackal pretends to be gay to sneak past a French manhunt, counting on the homophobia of the policemen to make them not bother to look closely.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The Jackal's mission will fail, as De Gaulle died peacefully of natural causes several years later; the reader is reminded of this early in the novel.
  • Game Changer: None of the OAS's efforts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle succeeded, because their ranks have been riddled with Action Service infiltrators. The Game Changer comes when the OAS leaders contract the services of a foreign assassin, about whom the French Secret Service know almost nothing.
  • Gentleman Adventurer: The Jackal is characterized as similar to this type, albeit an evil version.
  • Gray Eyes: The Jackal has them and fits the danger archetype.
  • Great Detective: Lebel.
  • Groin Attack: A would-be blackmailer gets this before the Jackal finishes him off. Of course, the Electric Torture to the penis and testicles...
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: Very subtly done. When the forger attempts to blackmail the Jackal, through his negotiations it gradually becomes clear that the Jackal is scoping out the possibility of anyone noticing if the forger simply disappeared.
  • Henpecked Husband: Lebel is one.
  • Hero Antagonist
  • Historical-Domain Character: Charles De Gaulle obviously; he's a constant presence, and has a scene where he's briefed about the Jackal's plot against him. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, DeGaulle's Interior Minister Roger Frey and Colonel Bastien-Thiery (leader of the Petit-Clamart assassination attempt) also appear.
  • Honey Trap: Denise, the girlfriend of a (now dead) OAS member, is paid to bed a high-ranking French official so the OAS can learn about developments in the investigation and aid the Jackal.
  • "How Did You Know?" "I Didn't.": Lebel taps all of the phones of the entire French Cabinet to identify the mole.
  • The Infiltration: The OAS has an insider close to a Government minister, who passes on information to the Jackal.
  • I Work Alone: The second reason why the Jackal is so hard to catch. Not only is he not on their files, the French intelligence agencies can't use their network of informants in the OAS either. The Jackal supplies his own weapon, false identities, and safe houses, only phoning a single contact who can pass on information from The Mole.
  • Jerkass: Colonel Saint-Clair de Villauban from De Gaulle's staff, a disdainful, snobby and nakedly ambitious careerist whose primary contributions to the Jackal crisis are pompous recitations of things that everyone present already knows or condescending skepticism towards Lebel's many efforts, which he frequently attempts to pick apart and undermine partly out of snobbery towards the low-born mid-ranking police officer and partly so that he can make sure he's seen to be on the right side should Lebel's efforts fail. He is also The Mole, albeit unwittingly, but his unthinking willingness to blurt out everything that's going on to his mistress doesn't help the reader's opinion of him or his competence.
  • Lampshade Hanging: The Jackal points out that it would be far easier (and more practical) for the OAS to simply get a suicidal fanatic to jump de Gaulle than to spend a fortune on an assassin.
  • Last Stand: Kowalski, the huge Polish OAS member who is kidnapped by French security forces, goes down fighting and immobilizes three agents before the rest finally overpower him.
  • Mandatory Unretirement: Lebel is abruptly dismissed by the cabinet in the belief that they can now find the Jackal without his help, but within days they are forced to recall him, as they have been unable to find the Jackal.
  • Master of Disguise: The movie adaptation in turn depict The Jackal as a Master of Disguise, which Carlos was known for being.
    • In the book it's the forger who advises the Jackal how to disguise himself to fit the false passports he's created.
  • Meaningful Name (also Fun with Acronyms): The Jackal is suspected to be an Englishman named Charles Calthrop, ergo Chacal, French for "Jackal". He actually isn't.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: The OAS's spree of bank robberies draws the attention of French authority, who quickly realize something bigger's going on.
  • Murder Simulators: Several assassins/attempted assassins are fans of the book or at least rumored to be. Carlos the Jackal got his nickname because he was mistakenly believed to own a copy. Yitzhak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir was found to have a copy; while his assassination of Rabin was quite different than that the Jackal attempts on de Gaulle, it's easy to see parallels between Amir and Bastien-Thiry. Vladimir Arutyunian, who attempted to assassinate both George W. Bush and the President of Georgia, kept an annotated copy of the book as a how-to-guide.
  • Mysterious Past: Much of the Jackal's past is only hinted at. What country did he come from? How did he gain his deadly skills? Did he really take part in the assassination of President Trujillo, or was that also a Red Herring? We never find out.
  • Near Villain Victory: The Jackal actually manages one shot at de Gaulle before he gets killed.
  • Neck Snap: The Jackal does this a few times.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: When the Jackal commits a murder, it gives the authorities an opportunity to drop De Gaulle's secrecy provision and hunt him openly.
  • No Name Given: We never find out the real name of the Jackal.
  • Obfuscating Disability: The war veteran identity, which justifies the crutches in which he hides his Scaramanga Special.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat:
    • Lebel has to report to a committee full of them. Every day.
    • On the British side is the Foreign Office bureaucrat who interferes in the investigation simply out of pique.
  • One Last Job: One reason why The Jackal's fee is so high is that he knows that he will never be able to work again after such a high-profile assassination.
  • Police Are Useless: Averted by Lebel, who is very effective at his job. Though played straight as to the reasons why he was brought in to begin with: the authorities had nothing to go on regarding the Jackal's identity since they have no name or face.
  • Pressure Point: Action Service men once demonstrate their knowledge of this.
  • Pride: President de Gaulle's legendary pride poses a problem for the investigators when the plot against him is uncovered; he refuses to cancel his personal appearances, take any increased action to ensure his safety or allow the security services to engage in a public manhunt for the Jackal out of concern of the embarrassment to both him and France.
  • Professional Killer: The Jackal is one. His wages are so high that the OAS has to rob several banks to gather the money needed.
  • Red Herring: A man on British Intelligence's list of suspected assassins-for-hire has a name which suggests a Steven Ulysses Per Hero for the Jackal: Charles Calthrop ("Chacal" is French for "jackal"). He turns out to be a completely different person.
  • Reverse Mole: The OAS is so full of Action Service infiltrators that Rodin trusts only Montclair and Casson, and has to rely on an outsider, namely the title assassin, for the task.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: The OAS, as was Truth in Television.
  • Scaramanga Special: The Sniper Rifle is disguised as a crutch.
  • Sedgwick Speech: Bastien-Thiry gives one before his execution.
  • Shown Their Work
    • The opening assassination attempt really took place and is a very good re-creation. Not surprising, since Frederick Forsyth had covered the real-life events which inspired the film as a journalist for Reuters.
    • Perhaps most notably the method where the Jackal gets a fake passport, getting a birth certificate from a person who died as a child. Forsyth got some criticism for revealing that method. In his defense, Forsyth was trying to call attention to the loophole so it would be closed, and almost the entire criminal world was already aware of the trick and had been using it for years. See this article for more — amazingly, they only really started to close the loophole after almost 30 years(a year earlier, hippie author Abbie Hoffman had refused to publicize the method in Steal This Book!, out of fear of governments closing the loophole).
  • Shout-Out: A fairly subliminal one, but in one section of the book it's mentioned that the head of British Intelligence plays cards at a club called Blades. Blades is from the James Bond series.
  • Sniper Rifle: No surprise. The Jackal has one custom made in .22 Magnum and able to be disassembled and concealed in a crutch. He does need to sight-in the scope.
  • Spanner in the Works: Quite a few, but the most ironic one was Charles de Gaulle himself who's French, and therefore more likely to kiss a man on the cheeks instead of shaking his hand, thereby just dodging the Jackal's bullet.
    • The otherwise well-planned opening assassination failed because Bastien-Thiry looked at an almanac for the wrong year and so misjudged when the sun would go down. As a result it was too dark for the gunners to see his signal and they opened fire too late.
    • The leader of the OAS uses the Jackal's codename in front of his bodyguard, who is later captured by the Action Service. From this one mistake, the head of the Action Service deduces that the OAS have hired a Professional Killer and that De Gaulle must be the target.
  • Stephen Ulysses Perhero: About halfway through the story, Lebel deduces that the Jackal, or "le chacal" in French, is a Brit by the name of Charles Calthrop. A subversion, as Calthrop is entirely innocent and unrelated.
  • Title Drop: The last line of the book.
  • The Unsolved Mystery: The Jackal's true identity.
  • Villain Protagonist
  • Worthy Opponent: Lebel and the Jackal (Chacal in French) develop a grudging respect for each other, without ever meeting — with the Jackal again and again evading Lebel's clever traps and Lebel again and again penetrating the Jackal's clever disguises. Lebel certainly appreciates the Jackal far higher then he does the government officials he has to work with. When they at last meet face to face they look for a split second into each other's eyes, Lebel saying "Chacal" and the Jackal saying "Lebel" before they scramble to kill each other. Lebel having been a split second quicker, he on the following day attends the Jackal's burial in a nameless grave, saying nothing to the handful of other people present.
  • You Have No Idea Who You're Dealing With: Lebel remarks that the cabinet ministers he has to deal with think the Jackal is just some common criminal who keeps getting lucky. They have no idea how smart and dangerous he is. They learn this the hard way when they dismiss Lebel, thinking they can now catch the Jackal easily, only to find he has completely disappeared. They have to enlist Lebel's aid again.
  • Your Head A-Splode: Not 100%, but that's the Jackal's aim. Witness the watermelon scene.

The 1973 film provides examples of:

  • Bi the Way: The Jackal is certainly not averse to picking up a guy in a Turkish bath in order to get a bed for the night.
  • Blown Across the Room: To save himself from being shot, Lebel grabs a machine gun in desperation, and the bullets splash his target spread-eagle into the wall.
  • The Cameo: French actor/singer Philippe Leotard, as the ill-fated gendarme in the climactic scene.
  • Casting Gag: OAS adjutant Wolenski is played by Jean Martin, better-known as Colonel Mathieu from The Battle of Algiers.
  • Death by Adaptation: Colonel St. Clair, who simply resigns in the book after being exposed, commits suicide.
  • Gilligan Cut: Bastien-Thiry telling his lawyer "No French soldier will raise his rifle against me." Cut to him being executed by firing squad.
  • Hollywood Silencer
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: The English actors playing French characters, mostly noticeable when they play scenes opposite actual French actors.
  • Shirtless Scene: Quite a few.
  • Source Music: Opening narrative or at least the last part of it is apparently spoken by a newsman on the radio OAS members are listening to.
  • The Voiceless: De Gaulle, who's always seen in crowds or long distance (unlike the book where he's a more substantial presence).
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The gunsmith, who disappears after the Jackal picks up his rifle. The movie excises a scene from the novel where the Jackal visits the gunsmith a third time, possibly to silence him, and the latter reveals he's planted incriminating evidence should the Jackal murder him.

Alternative Title(s): The Day Of The Jackal