Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1285
Forsyth, Frederick 1938–
A novelist and journalist, Forsyth is the author of The Day of the Jackal and The Odessa File.
[Frederick Forsyth's novel, "The Day of the Jackal," is] a wholly comprehensible thriller…. So plausible has Mr. Forsyth made his implausible villain, a professional assassin whose business card might well read "Presidents and Premiers My Specialty," and so excitingly does he lead him on his murderous mission against impossible odds, that even saintly readers will be hard put not to cheer this particular villain along his devious way. I can think of no larger tribute to pay any author whose protagonist is cut to the Satanic pattern, although he works a more limited territory than the Prince of Darkness….
The epic account of how [the] arch-assassin [The Jackal] oozes through and around all obstacles toward his target [Charles de Gaulle], and how a gray little police detective named Charles Lebel—a sort of arch-Hercule Poirot—undertakes the task of identifying, then finding and destroying him, is handled by Mr. Forsyth with scrupulous fairness; the thoughts, emotions and actions of every character in the story are laid before us wide open, as in a poker game where all the cards are dealt face up.
But because surprise constantly falls on surprise right up to the penultimate scene of the book, each surprise grounded in logic, there is never any diminution of tension along the way. And even our knowing from the start that Lebel must hold the winning hand, since we know for a fact that Charles de Gaulle did not die under an assassin's bullet, never for an instant lessens our absorption in the story.
If there is anything to cavil at in all this, it would have to be the author's graceless prose style which shapes up as a lot of récitatif and very little aria. However, since this may have been brought about by a deliberate effort to maintain that journalistic monotone used to such good effect in the opening chapter, one is more than willing to forgive it. The fact is that in "The Day of the Jackal," Mr. Forsyth, a Britisher with no previous books to his name, has written himself a strikingly successful thriller which, let us hope, is the first of many.
Stanley Elkin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 15, 1971, p. 3.
Frederick Forsyth's extraordinary talents as a suspense writer—so brilliantly displayed in his bestselling The Day of the Jackal—seem to have turned against him in his latest book, which concerns the tracking down of a resurgent, secret Nazi organization that goes by the name Odessa.
Probably few readers stopped to think how daring Forsyth's first book was; he blithely broke every established rule for popular suspense writing. The Day of the Jackal focused on an OAS plot to kill Charles de Gaulle. Thus, the reader knew the end of the book before he began it. One would think suspense was impossible in this situation. Further, Forsyth relied heavily on cliché plot situations and enthusiastically employed the device of coincidence several times in his narrative. His characters, particularly the enigmatic figure of the hired assassin, were sketchy and often unbelievable. His writing was redundant, with many points repeated in narrative or dialogue.
Despite these drawbacks, which would have wrecked a less vigorous narrative, The Day of the Jackal came off as the most relentlessly readable book of the last few seasons. In order to succeed, the book demanded one technically difficult maneuver—the reader's allegiance had to be shifted from the forces of law and order to the side of the hunted Jackal, so that by the end of the story the reader was rooting for the assassin….
The basic subject matter of Odessa has been the foundation of suspense novels in the past, and, to my knowledge, it has never worked well. The constellation of concentration-camp victims, SS officers, and lingering German anti-Semitism has too many reverberations, too many profound moral questions, to fit comfortably in a suspense-novel format. The questions are weightier than that superstructure can support, and the story collapses under the burden….
Forsyth is excellent at dealing with obsessed men, but the obsessions of Jackal were more private, and in a sense more ambiguous, than they are in Odessa. There is a vast difference between disillusioned, uprooted OAS officers and disillusioned, uprooted SS officers. We can maintain some sympathy for the first group but none for the second. Furthermore, the obsessions of the OAS underground were matched by the well-known obsessive characteristics of de Gaulle, the hated enemy. No such equation can be drawn between Nazis and Jews, even if the agents of modern Israel can be justly defined as obsessive….
Finally, the narrative devices all backfire. The coincidences that were so wonderful in Jackal are not convincing in Odessa; the redundancies are noticeable and irritating; the use of real background in this instance often seems exploitative in a disagreeable way (wholly unintentional, I'm sure); the sketchy characterization suddenly seems to matter.
In the end, one does not want to judge the book too harshly. Forsyth attempted a story that, I suspect, is almost impossible to carry off, no matter what the approach, stance, or narrative maneuvers. He remains the most interesting new suspense writer of recent years. One hopes his next book will be more workable in conception and better suited to his particular skills.
Michael Crichton, "The Anatomy of Suspense," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, September 9, 1972; used with permission), September 9, 1972, pp. 68, 74.
Frederick Forsyth's first novel, "The Day of the Jackal," about an attempted assassination of de Gaulle, received and deserved a good deal of praise for being suspenseful. Forsyth was able to make a prospective event that could no longer occur (de Gaulle had died well before the book appeared) seem exciting through purely mechanical means: the compounding of some actual political fact and the intricate, authentic details of the Jackal's patient pursuit. Forsyth achieved this excitement despite the lameness and hokiness that took over the book whenever he forsook his false passports, disguises and concealed rifle parts to dabble in dialogue and intimate behavior.
Although "The Odessa File" is as thorough as its predecessor in the ways of factual and political authenticity, it turns out to be a much more vulnerable book. Not only because you will have to stumble this time over exposed wires of plot and, again, the dialogue's lumber, but also because the book's absorbing facts, made livelier for a while by their moral urgency, will probably sour in your mouth as the moral urgency becomes discolored….
Forsyth shows two areas of strength again. One is the substance of his historical narration. The second is in his knowledge and use of mechanics. Whatever equipment he describes, you know he is describing it authoritatively—thus his burglaries, bombs, murders and forgeries are arresting.
Lurking ineptitude, though, now runs free. The Jackal in Forsyth's earlier novel was, by definition, without personality. The book wasn't less convincing on this account. But Peter Miller and "The Odessa File" both lack character—in part because Miller is merely another plotting device, with a moral fuse attached. He is given characteristics as if by an otherwise preoccupied creator, which is exactly the case. Forsyth, preoccupied with plot, has let us down here, too. Some moments of the story are absorbing, and one moment is stunning. But four occasions are impossible in their forced convenience to themselves—a convenience which, of course, is ultimately interfering.
Richard P. Brickner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1972, pp. 5, 26.