What makes a good thriller? The Day of the Jackal gives us a clue or two…
Last month I wrote on the importance of plot. This time round I will take that discussion a step further and look at a genre where plot is paramount — the thriller. What makes a good thriller? Well, let's investigate while dissecting one of the best — Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal.
Broadly speaking, plots can be placed in one of two categories — the siege narrative and the quest narrative. The siege narrative is one where the main character is in the position of the hunted. His or her tormentor can be physical, such as an invading army or a stalker, or the siege can take on a psychological dimension, such as an awful memory that refuses to go away. The most well-known siege narrative, for instance, is a psychological one — Shakespeare's “Hamlet” where the hero is constantly stalked by the ghost of his dead father imploring him to exact revenge for his murder. A quest narrative, on the other hand, is one where a character goes on a journey, such as in Homer's Odyssey. While a quest can take any number of forms, it always stems from one emotion — desire.
The Day of the Jackal begins in the early 1960s as a quest narrative, where a professional assassin codenamed the Jackal is hired by the Organisation de l'armee secrete (OAS), a right-wing French terrorist organisation committed to killing the then French president Charles de Gaulle for granting independence to Algeria. The OAS is seeking revenge for what it sees as a sell-out on the part of de Gaulle while the Jackal is looking to pull off the one big job that will enable him to retire to the good life. These two desires coalesce in the beginning of the novel to send the Jackal off on his quest to assassinate de Gaulle.
As the novel proceeds, however, it transforms from a quest narrative into more of a siege narrative as the French secret service get wind of the plot to murder the president and start hunting the Jackal. In the last section the novel becomes the proverbial race against time as the French authorities scramble to stop the Jackal from carrying out his plan. When it comes to creating tension, one of the oldest tricks in the book is to put a clock to your siege or quest and then run down the clock. Forsyth employs this gambit with aplomb right through the second half of the novel, cracking up the tension as the Jackal closes in on his quarry.
What makes The Day of the Jackal a stellar piece of writing is that we all know the Jackal's quest is doomed to fail right from the outset. History tells us that de Gaulle did not die at the hands of an assassin. He died of a heart attack. The fact that the novel continues to hold our attention, regardless, marks it out as a superior work.
How does Forsyth accomplish that? Well, contrary to popular perception, thrillers are not just about creating tension. Like any good piece of fiction, they involve us in the characters they create and the worlds they reveal. The Jackal, at the centre of the novel, is a beguiling character. Shadowy — even by the end we don't know his real name —brilliant in his use of disguises and multiple identities and, ultimately, all too human. One of the big moments in the novel occurs roughly halfway through it when the Jackal discovers that his cover is blown. Instead of aborting the mission, as any professional assassin might, he decides to press ahead. His greed gets the better of his professionalism. In that moment he ceases to be the robotic professional and reveals himself to be as fallible as you and me.
There are several worlds into which The Day of the Jackal transports the reader. The best part of the novel, by far, is not the impending assassination but the planning that goes into it. The execution of the plan takes the reader deep into the criminal underworld of Europe. Furthermore, as the novel unfolds, Forsyth presents a portrait of France at the time, giving us a look at French society, bureaucracy and the police, as well as the secret world of the OAS.
Finally, what makes the novel so successful is Forsyth's extensive research. To make it work the man had to know about guns, forging documents and French political history since World War II. He also had to re-create Vienna, London and Paris, as well as the countryside of Belgium and France. And this was well before a lot of that information was a mere mouse click away. The thriller genre demands exhaustive research, and Forsyth's commitment to it helps make him one of its undisputed masters.