The Day of the Jackal/Casino Royale
At first glance, it might seem strange to be reviewing these two books together, but there are in fact some valid reasons. Both are spy thrillers written by journalists turned novelists, both take place in Cold War-era France, and both were adapted into successful and highly enjoyable films which were, by and large, very faithful to their literary roots. Oh, and finally, I started reading one within hours of finishing the other, so there.
Beyond that, though, the similarities do admittedly end. The Day of the Jackal’s draw comes from its staunchly realistic portrayal of the events depicted, and Frederick Forsythe’s painstaking, some might say anal, attention to detail. Far from making the book boring, this actually increases the tension, because everything is conveyed so precisely and in such a journalistic style that it becomes easy to forget that this is in fact a fictional tale. This feat is made doubly impressive because virtually anyone reading the book will know that Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated, so the outcome can never be in any doubt. The Day of the Jackal is definitely a page-turner - and I mean that in the best sense of the phrase, not in the “this book has short chapters and is printed in a large typeface on small paper” sense of The Da Vinci Code.
Casino Royale, meanwhile, may be many things, but it is not a page-turner. It’s certainly a brief and enjoyable read, but it didn’t have the draw of The Day of the Jackal that made me eager to start another chapter as soon as I’d finished the last. Despite the fact that Ian Fleming’s novel is much shorter than Forsythe’s, I’d estimate that I actually took roughly the same number of days to read both. Whereas The Day of the Jackal seems painstakingly real, Casino Royale is clearly a work of escapism, fantasising about the sexy, cutting-edge life of espionage while sidelining the doldrums of paperwork and surveillance.
Both books are fairly light on character development, although this tends to work in the favour of Forsythe’s novel. We never get to know much about his protagonist, the Jackal, apart from the fact that he is ruthless, methodical and slightly cynical, and that he lavishes great care on guns. We never manage to get inside his head and, perhaps contrary to expectations, this is what makes him scary. Bond, on the other hand, is a little more open as a character, in that we are often privy to his thoughts, and he is certainly an intriguing fellow: a sexist, a cynic, committed to the task in hand almost to the point of insanity, and someone who probably has a lot of emotional baggage but has learned how to “lock it away” in his mind. He’s not very likeable, and I get the impression that this is intentional. He doesn’t seem real, though: more of a construct than a character… although this may change with Fleming’s later novels - I haven’t read any of them, so I wouldn’t know. Both books are, on the whole, very enjoyable, although The Day of the Jackal is the better of the two by a country mile.
Update, May 10th, 2007 07:52 AM: I’m disabling comments on this entry due to the ridiculous amount of spam it has been receiving.