“A Semiforgotten Masterpiece of Short Fiction” (by Kevin Mims)

With EQMM’s 80th anniversary issue (September/October 2021) on sale now, this post, which begins by marking another significant anniversary in crime fiction, seems apt. It also calls attention to an important collection of short fiction of which I’d been unaware. Short-story writer and essayist Kevin Mims is a frequent contributor to this site.—Janet Hutchings

Fifty years ago, in August of 1971, Viking Press published Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (Hutchinson & Co. had published it a few months earlier in the U.K.). A fictional account of an attempt to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle, The Day of the Jackal is one of the most influential crime novels of all time. I was planning to write a fifty-year retrospective of the novel but, foolishly as it turns out, cancelled that plan because I figured mine would be just one of dozens of tributes to this classic piece of fiction. I assumed that the New York Times and other media organizations would write about the book and even conduct an interview with Forsyth to accompany the main story. Curiously, this didn’t happen. Blame COVID-19, blame the busy news cycle—blame anyone you want. The sad fact is that a book that had an impact on popular fiction somewhat similar to the impact that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had on popular music was allowed to pass its fiftieth anniversary largely under the radar.

Jackal’s influence was everywhere in the 1970s and in just about every subsequent decade as well. Prior to Jackal, most crime writers didn’t bother to make themselves experts on guns. The weapons their fictional killers used were generally just described as pistols or revolvers or rifles or Derringers or Smith & Wessons—you name it. But Forsyth’s assassin needed a special weapon, a rifle that would be accurate at long range but which could be broken down into small parts and shipped in a suitcase that no one would suspect contained a rifle. The Day of the Jackal goes into great detail about how the gun is designed and bored and assembled and stabilized and so forth. Later, this kind of almost fetishistic detail about guns would become more commonplace, but it was fairly rare prior to The Day of the Jackal.

Other details from Forsyth’s novel were borrowed countless times in other books. One such detail involves the acquisition of a fake identity and has come to be known as TheDay of the Jackal fraud, because it has appeared in so many fictions and has been attempted with various degrees of success by numerous real-life fraudsters. It involves visiting a graveyard and finding the tombstone of a dead person who was born close to your own birth date. Armed with this person’s name and date of birth, you then visit the local hall of records, give them the fake name and birth date, claim that they are yours, and then inform the clerk that you have lost your original birth certificate and would like to obtain a copy. Armed with this birth certificate, you can then go out and acquire a fake driver’s license, a fake passport, fake credit cards, etc. Modern technology has rendered this ruse all but obsolete, but at the time that Jackal was published, it was a brilliant and brilliantly effective way of obtaining a false identity. 

Believe it or not, The Day of the Jackal is not actually the subject of this essay. To do it justice I would have had to reread it carefully, and the time has passed for that. Instead, I’d like to recommend a different Forsyth book, No Comebacks, a collection of short stories published in 1982. This book is also a bit of a one-off wonder. And because readers of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine are by definition fans of short crime fiction, I think this book deserves mention here.

We are living in an era of great crime writers. Most of these writers specialize in novels. But excellent collections of short mystery and/or crime fiction still get published all the time. For the most part, they fall into two categories. Category one is the multiauthor anthology. These include the annual collections such as The Best American Mystery Stories (fill in the year), as well as various geographical collections of crime stories set in Boston, or New Orleans, or Los Angeles, and so on. We have also seen the recent publication of many really good single-author crime-story collections. These include No Middle Name, a collection of Jack Reacher stories by Lee Child; The Beat Goes On, a collection of DI Rebus stories by Ian Rankin; The Pyramid, a collection of Inspector Kurt Wallander stories by the late Henning Mankell. These are worthy additions to the genre, but each story in the book features the same crime fighter.

One of the things that made No Comebacks fairly unusual is that it was a best-selling collection of crime stories from a lone author that didn’t feature any pre-existing characters. Such books still get published, but you practically have to be Stephen King to hit the bestseller list with a collection like that. Which probably explains why the closest thing we’ve seen to No Comebacks in the last few years is King’s 2015 bestseller The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, a collection of stories, many involving crime and punishment, that are not all connected by a main character or an obvious theme.

No Comebacks is by no means an obscure book. It has been in print for nearly forty years, and it has a fairly high rating at the online book review site Goodreads, where nearly 4,000 people have rated it and nearly 200 have reviewed it. 

The collection has many things to recommend it. Lets start with the twists. Forsyth is as much a master of the surprise ending as O. Henry, Saki, Richard Matheson, or Rod Serling. Like those masters, he is also capable of planting entertaining surprises at just about any point in a story. It can diminish the enjoyment of such stories to reveal the surprises in a review, so I am going to mention only one of them. The fourth story in the collection is called “There Are Some Days . . .”, and in its opening pages we find ourselves in the company of an Irish truck driver named Liam Clarke. His truck is being transported aboard a large ferryboat from La Havre, France, to the small Irish port town of Rosslare. After the ferry docks at Rosslare, Clarke drives his vehicle into a sort of truck barn where it will be examined by customs agents. Clarke and a customs inspector discover that the truck is leaking oil because of a broken “differential nose-piece.” (One of the pleasures of Forsyth’s fiction is its detailed knowledge of various professions that I can’t help thinking of as manly, although I know little about any of them myself: truck driving, marlin fishing, the demolition of buildings, etc.) At any rate, the problem is serious and the truck will not be allowed to leave the customs barn until it is fixed. Clarke calls the company he works for. They promise to send a repairman in the morning. In the morning, as promised, a repairman arrives with a new differential nose-piece and he and Clarke repair the truck. When they have just about finished, another large ferry arrives at the dock and a truck identical to Clarke’s rolls off the boat and into the customs barn to be briefly inspected. Off on a grassy knoll a few hundred yards away, a criminal named Murphy watches through binoculars as the second truck rolls off the ferry and into the barn. Murphy plans to hijack this truck. He knows what its contents are and he has found a gang of criminals from Northern Island who will pay him handsomely for the ill-gotten gains. Murphy expects it will take this truck about ten minutes to clear customs. But just five minutes later, he sees the truck exit the barn. All the better, he thinks. But the reader knows that he has made a critical mistake. The truck exiting the barn is not the one Murphy is waiting to hijack. It is Liam Clarke’s identical truck (he works for the same company as the other driver, but carries a very different kind of cargo). And this is only the first in a whole series of bizarre plot twists that will lead us to a very surprising conclusion.

Because he grounds his stories in very specific details, generally pertaining to ordinary workaday life, Forsyth’s shocking plot twists never seem unbelievable. The title story is a good example of this. In many ways it is a variation on The Day of the Jackal. Like Jackal, it concerns a contract killing which is negotiated in one country but carried out in another, meaning that the hitman has to bring his weapon across a European border. But Jackal was set in 1963, when airport security was fairly lax. The story “No Comebacks” is set in 1973, by which time airport security was anything but lax. In 1963, the Jackal was able to carry most of his contraband material from England to France in baggage that he took aboard a commercial air flight. But from 1965 to 1972 the world experienced what author Brendan I. Koerner, in his excellent nonfiction book The Skies Belong to Us, dubbed “a Golden Age of Hijacking.” At one point, an airplane was being hijacked in U.S. airspace just about once every week. The situation in Europe wasn’t much better. Thus by the end of 1972, just about every piece of passenger luggage carried aboard an airplane or stowed in its cargo hold was inspected before it was allowed to pass. Forsyth is keenly aware of this. Writing from the perspective of a French hitman who needs to find a way to get his murder weapon into Spain, Forsyth writes: “Airplanes were out—thanks to international terrorism every flight out of Orly was minutely checked for firearms.” Instead he uses a meticulously detailed workaround involving a fat book on Spanish history whose pages he has hollowed out, international mail, and some cutting and pasting tools. His ingenious plan is so homespun —involving stuff anyone could acquire over the course of short shopping spree—that it seems totally believable.

One thing you might not expect to find in a Frederick Forsyth book is humor, but his stories actually pack quite a lot of it in, even the grimmest of them. Sometimes this comes in the form of authorial understatement. Of an irate farmer who is having a mental breakdown after a roadside confrontation, we are told, “He was having a noisy personal conversation with his creator.” 

The plots of these stories are fiendish. In “Money With Menaces,” a timid little insurance clerk seeks out a bit of extramarital companionship only to find himself being blackmailed by some very bad people. But is the insurance clerk really the milquetoast he appears to be? In “Used in Evidence,” a lone elderly holdout is preventing a development firm from razing a rundown housing project and building a shopping mall in its place. But is it just sentimentality that keeps the old man from wanting to surrender his home of thirty-plus years? None of us likes paying taxes, but you’ll be amazed when you see what lengths the protagonist of “A Careful Man” goes to in order to keep the UK’s Office of Inland Revenue from collecting what he owes them. A story called “There Are No Snakes In Ireland” might have made an excellent installment of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. “Sharp Practice” involves a couple of card sharps who teach an Irish judge a lesson whose moral could be summed up in this famous quote from Damon Runyon: “Some day, somewhere . . . a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son . . . do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider.”

Born in 1938, Forsyth is now in his eighties, and he remains active as a writer. His most recent book, The Fox, was published in 2018. As good as he is, Forsyth is not without his faults as a writer. Years ago, I attended a lecture by John Irving in which he noted that: “In the end, a writer’s greatest strength will often end up being his biggest weakness.” Or words to that effect. He pointed out that writers who are praised early in their careers for creating clever dialog, often end up focusing all their attention on writing clever dialog, to the detriment of their work. Writers praised for their wicked plots will often create plots that are more and more complex until eventually they are pretty much incomprehensible. Early in his career, Forsyth was heavily (and justifiably) praised for the depth of his research and for his ability to explain all sorts of complex operations—an identity swindle, the workings of an engine, how to smuggle contraband across various international borders—so that anyone could understand it. This trait was a hallmark of his best books. But by the 1990s, this research began to weigh down many of his books. At least that is my opinion. The last Forsyth novel I was able to finish was The Phantom of Manhattan, published in 1999 (it was a source of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 2010 musical Love Never Dies). The newer stuff seems mired in excess data, though opinions on that may vary. Those later books have plenty of fans, judging by various online review sites. For me, the golden era of Frederick Forsyth fiction is the stretch from 1971 to 1982. Any legitimate list of the best thrillers of the twentieth century has to have The Day of the Jackal at or near its top spot. But don’t overlook No Comebacks. The title isn’t one of Forsyth’s best-known, but any legitimate list of the best single-author collections of crime short stories ought to include it. It is a shame that Forsyth hasn’t written more short stories because he has a real knack for it.

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1 Response to “A Semiforgotten Masterpiece of Short Fiction” (by Kevin Mims)

  1. Jon L. Breen says:

    An excellent survey. Forsyth did at least one other collection of shorter fiction, The Veteran (St. Martin’s, 2001), reviewed in “The Jury Box,” EQMM, January 2002.

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