Sunday 31 October 2021

How do real assassins measure up against Forsyth's Jackal?


It’s 50 years this year since Frederick Forsyth’s classic novel of assassination, The Day of the Jackal, was published. In my book Assassins’ Deeds: A history of assassination from Ancient Egypt to the present day (Reaktion), I muse on how closely real assassins mirror the character of Forsyth’s would-be killer.

The Jackal, whose real name we never discover, plans absolutely meticulously. He commissions a specially-designed super-thin rifle that can be hidden in his crutch as he pretends to be a wounded war veteran. He has long before selected the perfect window from which to shoot his victim. He chews cordite to make himself look ill and ease his way past security checks.

It is strictly business. He is going to kill his quarry, President de Gaulle, because he is being paid a lot of money. He is ruthless, murdering a number of people who get, or might get, in his way. And he fails, because the intended victim moves his head at the crucial moment and the Jackal’s shot misses.

One respect in which the Jackal was not typical was in his decision to try to kill his victim at a distance. Of 266 assassinations I analysed, only 19 were not up close and personal. Until the nineteenth century, stabbing was the favourite method, but even when firearms took over, it tended to be the handgun at close quarters rather than the sniper’s rifle.

Nor were hired killers of the Jackal kind very common – just 18 of them. Most assassins were activated by motives other than money – ambition, anger, fear, religion, ideology. Few assassinations were as well planned as the one Forsyth portrays, so mercifully, according to an American study I quote, more than four in five fail.

But the way the victim escapes in Forsyth’s novel does have a parallel in the real world. In 1800, a would-be assassin took a pot shot at King George III in a London theatre, but missed because the monarch bowed his head to acknowledge the cheers of the audience at the critical instant.

Many other similarities and differences emerge in the book.