The Jackal’s Breakfast
When I was writing The Icon Thief, the book I read the most for inspiration was Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. This shouldn’t be surprising: more than forty years after it was published, Forsyth’s debut remains the best international thriller ever written, and it’s arguably still the single most influential novel of its kind. Much of its fascination comes from the figure of the Jackal himself, a coolly efficient British assassin who claims more than a few innocent victims, yes, but is also enormously attractive, to the point where a reader can’t help rooting for him, at least to some extent, as he nears his deadly appointment in Paris. We like the Jackal, despite ourselves, because he’s professional, clever, and resourceful as he goes about his business of forging identities, obtaining weapons—and even making breakfast. Here’s my favorite paragraph in the entire book:
He made himself a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs, orange juice and more black coffee in the flat’s small but compact kitchen, and ate it off the kitchen table. Being a tidy and methodical man, he emptied the last of the milk down the sink, broke the two remaining eggs, and poured them also down the sink. The remainder of the orange juice he drank off, junked the can in the trash basket, and the remainder of the bread, egg shells and coffee grounds went down the disposal unit. Nothing left would be likely to go rotten during his absence.
Taken out of context, the scene is vaguely hilarious—it reads almost like a parody of the lovingly detailed sections in which the Jackal acquires, assembles, and tests the rifle he intends to use to assassinate Charles De Gaulle. Really, though, it’s a reminder that the Jackal, who has no real backstory or even a name, is defined completely by his efficiency. Note, for instance, that his breakfast apparently consists of nothing but scrambled eggs, as if bacon or toast would upset the balance of so streamlined a meal—and it wouldn’t do at all, of course, for him to make pancakes or waffles. Something about those eggs, as well as the curiously redundant “small but compact” kitchen, is just right, and it lies near the heart of the Jackal’s appeal. Both he and his book are models of professionalism, down to the smallest detail, and the more we look at the Jackal (as well as his more heroic successors like Jason Bourne or Gabriel Allon, or even my own Ilya Severin), the more he comes to resemble the ideal of the suspense novelist himself…