"The Day Of The Jackal" features a plot you know is going to fail, a protagonist who you never know much about other than he's up to no good, and a henpecked hero looked upon with contempt by most of his superiors. The Bond lovers who made up this novel's key audience back in 1971 must have scratched their heads. But they kept reading. So will you.
Ian Fleming had his James Bond take on outsized supervillains in blurry circumstances that only slightly approximated real life. Forsyth took Fleming's Anglo love for the good life and attention to how-things-work detail, and transported it to a real-life setting, part travelogue, part "what-if" hypothesis. He named real people, used real issues, and presented in utterly passionless style a story that sells you on its utter verisimilitude.
Forsyth doesn't go much for humor: a trip by the assassin Jackal to a gay bar is about the closest to a chuckle we get; a politically incorrect one to be sure. He throws in some nice descriptions: "The heat lay on the city like an illness, crawling into every fibre, sapping strength, energy, the will to do anything but lie in a cool room with the jalousies closed and the fan full on." But for a first-time fiction author, Forsyth isn't trying to sell you on his lyrical brilliance. He just moves you from one scene to another with minimum fuss, a deeper brilliance given he was a struggling writer with no track record with this sort of thing.
Spy fiction was never the same after "Day Of The Jackal" came out. It became less a thing of fantasy, more a thing of life, because Forsyth proved that such an approach not only could work but work better than the Fleming approach. Even the movies' Bond adapted to it over time, for better or worse.
One thing not talked about much that first-time readers will likely get is "Day Of The Jackal" is at times a brutal book, unsparing in its detailing of government-directed torture, of casual murder, of the mass of luckless shadow people with their missing limbs and mildewed medals in which evildoers are able to move, unobserved by the hoi polloi. Reading it for the first time in boarding school, I was taken aback at how harsh a world I lived in, that things like this could go on. Read today, after 9/11, it's almost quaint in that respect. But it's never a nice book. In fact, the casual nastiness is part of its perverse charm.
First and last, this is a ripping good yarn, well told with a wealth of lived-in detail. You get the feeling Forsyth, struggling as he was, traveled every yard of the Jackal's long trail before setting it all down. It's not the only great book Forsyth wrote, "The Odessa File" came a year later, and he's shown flashes of his old form in the decades since. But "The Day Of The Jackal" began the art of spy fiction as we know it today; more than 30 years on, it's still the gold standard.