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The Day of the Jackal (1971) is a thriller novel by English author Frederick Forsyth about a professional assassin who is contracted by the OAS, a French dissident paramilitary organisation, to kill Charles de Gaulle, the President of France.
The novel received admiring reviews and praise when first published in 1971, and it received a 1972 Best Novel Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The novel remains popular, and in 2003 it was listed on the BBC`s survey The Big Read.
The OAS, as described in the novel, did exist, and the book opens with an accurate depiction of the attempt to assassinate de Gaulle led by Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry on 22 August 1962. However, the subsequent plot is completely fictional.
The book begins in 1962 with the (historical) failed attempt on de Gaulle`s life planned by Col. Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry in the Paris suburb of Petit-Clamart: Operation Charlotte Corday. Following the arrest of Bastien-Thiry and remaining conspirators, the French security forces wage a short but extremely vicious `underground` war with the terrorists of the OAS, a militant right-wing group who have labelled de Gaulle a traitor to France after his grant of independence to Algeria.
The French secret service, particularly its covert operations directorate (the `Action Service`), is remarkably effective in infiltrating the terrorist organisation with their own informants, allowing them to seize and interrogate the terrorists` operations commander, Antoine Argoud. The failure of the Petit-Clamart assassination, and a subsequent unsuccessful attempt at the École Militaire, compounded by Bastien-Thiry`s eventual execution by firing squad, likewise demoralise the antagonists.
Argoud`s deputy, Lt-Col Marc Rodin, carefully examines their few remaining options and establishes that the only way to succeed in killing de Gaulle is to hire a professional assassin from outside the organisation, someone completely unknown to both the French authorities and the OAS itself. After inquiries, he contacts an Englishman (whose true name is never disclosed), who meets with Rodin and his two principal deputies in Vienna, and agrees to assassinate de Gaulle, but who demands a total of US$500,000 (approximately $4.2 million today). They also decide to call him a code name, `The Jackal`. The triumvirate of OAS commanders then take up residency on the top floor of a Rome hotel guarded by a group of ex-legionnaires to avoid the risk of being captured and subsequently revealing the assassination plot under interrogation.
The remainder of Part One describes the Jackal`s exhaustive preparations for the forthcoming assignment. He first acquires a legitimate British passport under a false name, under which he decides to operate for the majority of his mission. He then steals the passports of two foreign tourists visiting London who superficially resemble him for use as contingency identities. With his primary phony passport, the Jackal travels to Brussels, where he commissions a master gunsmith to build him a special suppressed sniper rifle of extreme slimness with a small supply of mercury-tipped explosive bullets. He also acquires a set of forged French identity papers from a professional forger. The latter makes the mistake of attempting to blackmail him, for which the Jackal kills him and locks his body in a large trunk where he determines it will not be found for a considerable time. After exhaustively researching a series of books and articles by, and about, de Gaulle, the Jackal travels to Paris to reconnoitre the most favourable spot and the best possible day for the assassination.
Upon orchestrating a series of armed robberies in France, the OAS is able to deposit the first half of the Jackal`s fee in his bank account in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the French secret service, curious about Rodin and his subordinates being holed up in the hotel, composes and despatches a false letter that lures Viktor Kowalski, one of Rodin`s bodyguards (and a hulking giant) to France, where he is caught and tortured to death. Interpreting his incoherent ramblings, the secret service is able to decipher Rodin`s plot, but knows nothing of the assassin himself bar his codename. When informed of the plan, de Gaulle (who was notoriously careless of his personal security) refuses to cancel any public appearances, modify his normal routines, or even allow any kind of public inquiry into the assassin`s whereabouts to be made: any investigation, he orders, must be done in absolute secrecy.
Roger Frey, the French Minister of the Interior, convenes a conference of the heads of the French security forces. Because Rodin and his men are in the hotel under heavy guard, they cannot be caught and interrogated about the assassin. The rest of the meeting is at a loss to suggest how to proceed, until a Commissioner of the Police Judiciaire reasons that their first and most essential step is to establish the Jackal`s true identity, which is a duty for a police detective. When asked to name the best detective in France, he volunteers his own deputy commissioner, Claude Lebel.
Granted special emergency powers to conduct his investigation, Lebel does everything possible to uncover the Jackal`s identity. He first calls upon his `old boy network` of foreign intelligence and police contacts to inquire if they have any records of a top-class political assassin. Most of the inquiries are fruitless, but in the United Kingdom, the inquiry is eventually passed on to the Special Branch of Scotland Yard, and another veteran detective, Superintendent Bryn Thomas.
A search through Special Branch`s records turns up nothing. However, one of Thomas`s subordinates suggests that if the assassin were an Englishman, but primarily operated abroad, he would most probably come to the attention of the Secret Intelligence Service. Thomas makes an informal inquiry with a friend of his on the SIS`s staff, who mentions hearing a rumour from an officer stationed in the Dominican Republic at the time of President Trujillo`s assassination. The rumour states that a hired assassin stopped Trujillo`s car with a rifle shot, allowing a gang of partisans to finish him off. Additionally, Thomas also learns that the assassin was an Englishman, whom he is able to identify as Charles Calthrop.
To his surprise, Thomas is summoned in person by the Prime Minister (unnamed, but most probably intended to represent Harold Macmillan), who informs him that word of his inquiries has reached higher circles in the British government. Despite the enmity felt by much of the government against France in general and de Gaulle in particular, the Prime Minister informs Thomas that de Gaulle is his friend, and that the assassin must be identified and stopped, with a limitless amount of resources, manpower or expenses at Thomas` disposal. Thomas is handed a commission much similar to Lebel`s, with temporary powers allowing him to override almost any other authority in the land. Checking out the name of Charles Calthrop, Thomas finds a match to a man living in London, said to be on holiday. While Thomas confirms that this Calthrop was in the Dominican Republic at the time of Trujillo`s death, he does not feel it is enough to inform Lebel, until one of his junior detectives realises that the first three letters of his Christian name and surname form the French word for Jackal, Chacal.
Unknown to any member of the council in France, there is an OAS mole among them: the mistress of an arrogant Air Force colonel attached to de Gaulle`s staff. Through pillow talk, the colonel unwittingly feeds the Jackal a constant stream of information as to Lebel`s progress. The Jackal enters France through Italy, driving a rented Alfa Romeo sports car with his weapon welded to the chassis. Although he receives word from the OAS agent that the French are on the lookout for him, he determines he will succeed anyway. In London, the Special Branch raids Calthrop`s flat, finding his passport, and deduce that he must be travelling on a false one. When they work out the name of the Jackal`s primary false identity, Lebel and the police come close to apprehending the Jackal in the south of France, but thanks again to his OAS contact, the Jackal leaves his hotel prematurely and evades them by only an hour. With the police on the lookout for him, the Jackal takes refuge in the château of a woman whom he had encountered and seduced at the hotel: when she goes through his things and finds the rifle, he kills her and flees. The murder is not reported until much later that evening, allowing the Jackal to assume one of his two emergency identities and board the train for Paris.
Lebel becomes suspicious of what the rest of the council label the Jackal`s apparent `good luck`, and has the telephones of all the members tapped, which leads him to discover the OAS agent. The Air Force colonel withdraws from the meeting in disgrace and subsequently tenders his resignation. When Thomas checks out and identifies reports of stolen or missing passports in London in the preceding months, he closes in on the Jackal`s remaining false identities.
On the evening of 22 August 1963, Lebel deduces that the Jackal has decided to target de Gaulle on 25 August, the day commemorating the liberation of Paris during World War II. It is, he realises, the one day of the year when de Gaulle can definitely be counted on to be in Paris and to appear in public. Believing the inquiry to be over, the Minister orchestrates a massive, citywide manhunt for the Jackal now that he can be reported as a killer, dismissing Lebel with hearty congratulations – but the Jackal eludes them yet again: slipping into a gay bar while in disguise, he gets himself picked up by a local man and taken to his flat, where he kills him and hides out.
On the 24th, the Minister summons Lebel yet again and tells him that the Jackal still cannot be found. Lebel listens to the details of the President`s schedule and security arrangements, but can suggest nothing more helpful than that everyone `should keep their eyes open.` On the 25th itself, the Jackal, masquerading as a one-legged French war veteran, passes through the security checkpoints carrying his custom rifle concealed in the sections of a crutch. He makes his way to an apartment building overlooking the Place du 18 Juin 1940 (in front of the soon-to-be-demolished façade of the Gare Montparnasse), where de Gaulle is presenting medals to a small group of Resistance veterans. As the ceremony begins, Lebel is walking around the street, questioning and re-questioning every police checkpoint. When he hears from one CRS guard about a one-legged veteran with a crutch, he realises what the Jackal`s plan is, and rushes into the apartment building, calling for the patrol to follow him.
Having sneaked into a suitable apartment to shoot from, the Jackal prepares his weapon and takes aim at de Gaulle`s head, but his first shot misses by a fraction of an inch when de Gaulle unexpectedly leans forward to kiss the cheeks of the veteran he is honouring. Outside the apartment, Lebel and the CRS officer arrive on the top floor in time to hear the sound of the first, silenced shot. The CRS man shoots off the lock of the door and bursts in as the Jackal is reloading: the Jackal turns and fires, killing him instantly with a shot to the chest. The Jackal scrambles to load his third and last bullet while the unarmed Lebel snatches up the dead policeman`s submachine-gun: Lebel is faster and shoots the Jackal with half a magazine-load of 9mm bullets, instantly killing him.
In London, the Special Branch are cleaning up Calthrop`s apartment when the real Charles Calthrop storms in and demands to know what they are doing. Once it is established that Calthrop truly has been on holiday in Scotland and has no connection whatsoever with the hitman, the British are left to wonder `if the Jackal wasn`t Calthrop, then who the hell was he?`
The Jackal is buried in an unmarked grave in a Paris cemetery, officially recorded as `an unknown foreign tourist, killed in a car accident.` Aside from the priest, the only person attending the burial is Police Inspector Claude Lebel, who then leaves the cemetery to return home to his family.