Few books really do break the mold. This year, however, marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. publication of a thriller that — at the very least — redefined the scope of the genre: The Day of the Jackal.

Frederick Forsyth wrote it in just over a month at the start of 1970, fueled not so much by inspiration as desperation. He was 31 and no one was much interested in the Biafran war he had been covering as a journalist for the previous few years. Banging out a book quickly on his Empire Aristocrat typewriter, sitting at a kitchen table in a friend’s flat, appeared the best way to pay off his debts.

Forsyth at his typewriter, 1970.

Yet for 18 months no publisher wanted the novel. The problem, it seemed to them, was fairly fundamental. Forsyth’s plot revolves around a fictional attempt in 1963 by an assassin to shoot Charles de Gaulle, at the time the president of France. De Gaulle was very much alive while the manuscript was sitting on editors’ desks, so they reasoned that the story lacked the requisite element of suspense.

Hutchinson eventually took a chance on a small print run. Word of mouth soon made The Day of the Jackal a runaway bestseller, especially in the US, and by 1975 it had sold 2.5 million copies. For what readers had immediately appreciated was that it succeeds as a story precisely by breaking the literary rules.

Half a century later its style has been so widely absorbed that the radically different nature of its telling is perhaps overlooked.

Police Dossier–Cum–Novel

This may be a mass-market thriller but Forsyth largely dispenses with the essential indications — such as interior dialogue — telling you that you have a novel in your hands. Instead, events are related as though observed by an all-seeing camera and presented in the neutral, nondescriptive prose of a police dossier or a newspaper report.

The book opens with an authoritative account of a real-life failed ambush of de Gaulle’s motorcade by the OAS, the far-right organization opposed to Algeria gaining its independence. Forsyth had reported from the scene and it gave him the idea for the story.

Edward Fox in Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 film adaptation of The Day of the Jackal.

It is this documentary style, continually bolstered by specific details such as times of meetings and the particular functions of security officials, that wins the confidence of the reader and makes the known outcome irrelevant. Cleverly, too, it keeps the clock ticking down, in a plot that is little more than a chase.

In John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which has a similar structure, the winning personality of its hero, Richard Hannay, engages the sympathy of the reader. Yet Forsyth daringly makes his antihero a cipher. We learn little about the anonymous Englishman hired by the OAS to kill de Gaulle, and even what we think we know turns out to be false.

Events are related as though observed by an all-seeing camera and presented in the neutral, nondescriptive prose of a police dossier or a newspaper report.

Forsyth had anticipated that readers would identify with Commissioner Lebel, the shrewd detective doggedly searching France (in the pre-computer age) for a man whose identity and features are unknown. Instead, they responded to the Jackal — for a generation, forever the cravat-sporting Edward Fox of Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 film version. What fascinated them was the inside knowledge shared of the techniques needed to procure false passports, or to get within rifle range of a president.

Forsyth is often credited with changing the thriller by founding it less on escapism than on research. It might be truer to say that his innovation was to replace the amateur adventurers of Hammond Innes and Alistair MacLean with a professional protagonist.

Books should reflect their times. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was published in 1974, but John le Carré was looking back a decade to the betrayals of George Blake and Kim Philby that had marred his own secret service. Forsyth’s Jackal, however, carries with him a sense of the social mobility of the previous decade, of modernity and the “white heat of technology”. Almost all we do know about him is that he wants the good life, and he is not prepared to dutifully count paper clips while waiting for it to come.

Tellingly, the unexpected twist that foils him stems from de Gaulle’s embrace of tradition. But it is the Jackal, confident in his own merits, who is ahead of the times. After all, the novel was written before the age of international terrorism began and it was the discovery of a copy in his London flat that gave Carlos the Jackal his nickname. There is no doubt that even more casual readers of thrillers will still be enjoying it in 50 years’ time.

James Owen is the author of Great Events: 200 Years of History as It Happened