The Day of the Jackal: A thriller plus history

Spring, 1963. The OAS, a secret organization of Algerian ex-military, wants Charles de Gaulle killed.

A jackal escapes the hunter's sights
Jackal narrowly escapes

Having failed spectacularly in one attempt to kill de Gaulle, OAS leaders decide to hire a professional assassin, a blond man from England who calls himself Chacal, which is French for jackal.

Chacal wants to operate entirely on his own, with no contact with the OAS except for a telephone number in Paris he can call for information on the security situation.

The OAS set off a rash of thefts across France to raise Chacal’s $500,000 fee, then await developments.

French security officials guess the thefts are to finance another assassination attempt.

They pull in the best detective in France, Claude Lebel, a homicide cop who gets results by deliberate, plodding inquiry and fact checking.

Fredrick Forsyth was a newsman before turning novelist. His knowledge of how government agencies work and his crisp, clear, just-the-facts-m’am prose style makes Day of the Jackal a real page-turner.

Because de Gaulle died of natural causes, readers know who wins, but Forsyth keeps readers up past their bedtime to see the ending.

A bonus is the illumination of European history largely unfamiliar to contemporary readers: France’s conquest of Algeria in the 1830s, her colonial operation there through WWII, and the belief of many Algerians that de Gaulle had promised them French citizenship as a reward for their military service.

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth
Viking Press [1971], 380 p.
1971 bestseller #4. My grade: A-

© 2018 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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The Old Countess adds terror to impressionism

While painting the Dorgone River Valley landscape, Richard Graham encounters a witch-like old woman who looks like a portrait by Goya. He accepts the Comtesse de Lomoudrie’s invitation to come to tea and bring his wife.

On the way, Richard and Jill visit a cemetery where one grave, that of Marthe Ludérac, stands isolated from the rest.


The Old Countess by Anne Douglas Sedgwick.
Grosset & Dunlap, 1927. 373 pp. 1927 bestseller #9. My grade: B+.

woman's hands folder in her lap.
Closeup of a Goya portrait.

At the Manoir, they find Mme. Lomoudire’s landlady is also a Marthe Ludérac. She’s the daughter of the woman in the lonely grave.

Jill, sensitive to suffering, feels sorry for the Countess, but knows instinctively that Marthe needs her as a friend.

Richard agrees to paint the Countess’s portrait to get a chance to see Marthe, which puts him in conflict with the jealous countess, his wife, and the attracted but self-controlled Marthe.

Anne Douglas Sedgwick portrays the four characters using tiny dabs of facts, details, and emotions. Jill and Marthe are straightforward, caring and incredibly good people; Richard and the Countess are manipulative and selfish and nasty.

Gradually the tiny bits add up to a crisis.

The atmosphere of The Old Countess is creepy, the plot contrived, the characters too all-of-a-piece to be believable.

And without a pretty good command of French, readers will miss much of the story.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Dere Mable sees WWI recruit’s funny side

Dere Mable is what it’s fictional narrator would probably call an E. Pistol Larry novel.

Dust jacket of Dere Mable shows Bill Smith in his tent in France penciling a letter to Mable back home.

The American army is attempting to turn Bill Smith into a clog in its fighting machine in France.

Bill had mastered the clog part before he reached training camp.


Dere Mable: Letters of a Rookie by Edward Streeter

G. William Breck. illus. 1918 bestseller #4. Project Gutenberg ebook #13993.
My grade C.


Turning Bill into a soldier makes defeating the Germany army look like child’s play.

Bill writes Mable chatty letters about life in the Army where “bed and board mean the same thing” and recruits are told to “walk a post but their aint no post.”

Bill tells Mable he’s taking French lessons at the YMCA so he can talk to girls when he gets to France, but when Bill hears Mable has been spending a lot of time with someone named Broggins, he is furious.

Dere Mable has little plot and virtually no character development. G. William Breck’s droll illustrations bring the story to life and make it long enough to be called a book.

Though he makes Bill a comic figure, Edward Streeter’s tone is gentle. He doesn’t mock Bill for lack of education, but for his smug self-delusion.

Streeter’s respect for the American conscript is what makes Dere Mable a more durable work than Mac Hyman’s No Time for Sergeants 36 years later.

Streeter dedicates his novel to the privates who "serve as a matter of course."
The dedication page of Edward Streeter’s Dere Mable

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

In 1926 Beau Sabreur foresaw Islamic State

Some novels deserve to be read despite all the author’s efforts to render them unreadable.  Beau Sabreur falls into that category.

Half of P. C. Wren’s Beau Sabreur is the fictional memoir of Major Henri de Beaujolais; the other half tells basically the same events from the perspective of two French Foreign Legion deserters.

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Beau Sabreur by Percival Christopher Wren

Grosset & Dunlap, 1925, 1926. 1926 bestseller #5. My grade: C+.


Henri’s uncle, who heads France’s war ministry, plans to build a French African empire.

He wants his nephew to be his tool.

Henri agrees.

He volunteers for military service, enters cavalry training, and in due course Henri is posted to Africa where he becomes a secret agent.

Henri receives orders from his uncle to negotiate a federation of tribal leaders that will align with France against a Islamic caliphate.

As jihadists strike Zaguig, Henri and his men smuggled two white women out with them.

Henri’s men are killed.

He and the women are captured by Arabs who want the women for their wives.

Henri wants Mary Vanbrugh for his wife, but does he love her more than he loves his county?

The romance is predictable and silly, but the split perspective actually ruins the novel.

Beau Sabreur is worth reading today only for its anticipation of 21st century jihaddists and the emergence of Africa as a economic force.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Mandarins tread murk of post-war politics

The Mandarins is Simone de Beauvoir’s fictional account of the upper echelons of the political left in post-war Paris, a group that she knew personally.

Gen. Charles de Gaulle and his entourage marching down the Champs Elysees
DeGaulle leads march to thanksgiving service for liberation of Paris.

The book follows two middle-aged characters, writer Henri Perron and psychotherapist Anne Dubreuilh.


The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir

Leonard M. Friedman, trans. Regnery, Gateway, 1956. 610 pp. 1956 bestseller #9.  My grade B.


Henri and Anne’s husband, Robert, were active in the French resistance.

After the war, they work to create a socialist movement separate from the Communist Party and find the ambiguity of politics a greater moral challenge than fighting the Nazis.

Anne is more interested in people than politics, but finds working with war-scarred minds depressing.

On a tour to learn American psychoanalysis techniques, she meets a Chicago writer she thinks is the love of her life.

Their affair fizzles to friendship on his part, misery on hers.

Sooner or later, each of the characters faces a decision: Do I continue fighting, though I’m no longer sure I believe in what I’m fighting for?

The Mandarins should still be read, but it won’t find many takers.

Beauvoir’s novel is too intellectual, the narrative too dispassionate for today’s America.

Even its seamy elements, like the vigilante justice meted out to former Nazi sympathizers, would seem tame to Americans raised on high-definition crudity.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

In Secret: Ciphers, Espionage, Murder, and Mystery

In an American secret service office, Evelyn Erith opens a coded letter. It says the Germans believe Kay MacKay, an American concentration camp escapee, knows The Great Secret.

MacKay must be eliminated.

From that beginning, In Secret’s author, Robert W. Chambers,  sets up familiar scenarios which he promptly turns on their heads.

The novel’s series of shattered expectations generates incredible tension.

Evelyn finds MacKay, dries him out — the Germans had gotten him addicted to alcohol in hopes of getting information — and they go to Germany to get proof of what MacKay knows.

Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps

MacKay believes that for 40 years the Germans have been building a tunnel under Switzerland into France. Soon the tunnel will let them attack the French from behind French lines.

The proof the Americans need is accessible only from Mount Terrible, a peak in a part of Switzerland between Germany and France.

The Germans pursue them relentlessly.

What began as a series of attacks becomes a battle of attrition: The manpower, firepower, food, water, and winter clothing are controlled by the Germans.

Chambers works readers to the edge of their chairs, then pulls the chairs out from under them with a perfectly plausible but totally unexpected ending.

In Secret
By Robert W. Chambers
1919 bestseller #10
Project Gutenberg ebook #5748
My grade: B+

Photo credit: Mont Blanc 9 by marco_cecc

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land Honors WWI Noncombattants

Canadian military chaplain Canon Frederick George Scott
Canadian military chaplain Canon Frederick George Scott

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land begins like a romance for religious spinsters, but within 20 pages, the handsome missionary Barry Dunbar turns out to be asthmatic, pedantic, and tactless.

When war breaks out, Barry, a Canadian, tries to enlist. He is rejected on medical grounds, but his father is accepted.

Barry reluctantly accepts a chaplaincy and attempts to enforce godliness among the troops.

On the eve of his arrival in France, an elderly Anglican chaplain sets him straight: “My dear fellow, remember they are far from home. These boys need their mothers… And, my boy, they need God. And they need you.”

Those words change Barry’s attitude.

Later as Barry watches while his father, both arms blown off, die of his injuries, he learns personally what it means to be alone far from home.

Ralph Connor’s descriptions of trench warfare are horrific. Oddly, the descriptions of the sleep deprivation, loneliness, and submerging of their own needs that Barry and other non-combatants endure are even more painful.

Despite some implausible elements — the medically unfit Barry remains healthy, for example—Connor spins an unforgettable yarn about men and women who picked up the pieces of those who went over the top.

Though Connor’s story is fiction, the war’s horrors are not. In The Official History of The Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Vol. 1, A. Fortescue Duguid writes: 

Carrying out their spiritual duties the Chaplains were to be found both in the field and at the dressing stations giving comfort to the dying. Major (Canon) F. G. Scott on the evening of the 22nd encouraged an advancing battalion with the words “A great day for Canada, boys—great day for Canada,” and he was in their midst when they charged the wood.

The Sky Pilot in No Man’s Land
By Ralph Connor
1919 bestseller #6
Project Gutenberg e-book#3288
My grade: B
 

Photo of Military Chaplain  (and noted Canadian poet) F. G.  Scott is from the George Metcalf Archival Collection  of the Canadian War Museum.

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni