Friday 11 October 2013

Assassin Procedural

Orion have asked me to contribute a guest blog to their excellent Murder Room site as part of the Read a Great Film month, where they invite authors to contribute a piece about a crime film they love that was based on a book.

I love all kinds of crime and thriller movies, so I had a very long shortlist, even after I discounted Chinatown for being an original screenplay (albeit heavily influence by Raymond Chandler's Marlowe novels). I whittled the list down to three: LA Confidential, Angel Heart and The Day of the Jackal, eventually deciding on the latter

You can read my contribution below, or better yet check it out on The Murder Room and, while you're there, read some of the other great pieces by other authors on classics like Farewell, My Lovely and Manhunter.


Mason Cross examines the painstakingly realistic documentary feel of the film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Fred Zinnemann's 1973 film of The Day of the Jackal, released just two years after the publication of Frederick Forsyth's hit novel, is that it does not feel like fiction.

Like the book, the film opens with a real-life event: the August 1962 assassination attempt on Charles de Gaulle by disillusioned French militants. From there it transitions seamlessly into a taut thriller about the failed assassins engaging a mysterious foreigner, codenamed the Jackal, to complete the job. By necessity, the film hews very closely to its source material, because the plotting of Forsyth's book is every bit as meticulous and precise as the fictional plot within its pages.

Edward Fox is a great choice for the Jackal. He embodies the calculating sociopath of Forsyth's book without any of the baggage one of the bigger names under consideration would have brought to the role. Much as I'd love to see a version starring Jack Nicholson or Michael Caine in their early-70s prime, they would both have been entirely wrong for this role, because you'd be rooting for the assassin rather than Michael Lonsdale's Columbo-esque cop.

What really sets the film apart from the rest of the assassination thriller pack is the verisimilitude it brings to the various stages of the plot, from its grounding in real historical events to the painstakingly depicted manhunt for the assassin. The attention to detail in each scene, the interweaving of real historical figures and events, the omnipresent ticking clocks in the background, all work to create a documentary ambience that is reinforced by the almost total absence of a musical score. The film feels much closer to docu-dramas like All the President's Men than its more obvious thriller cousins.

The detail is the thing I love most about The Day of the Jackal: the fascinating minutiae of the Jackal's preparations for the assassination, from procuring a false passport and commissioning a bespoke sniper rifle, to efficiently covering his tracks when the manhunt gets underway. If the story becomes a police procedural in the second act, then the first act is a less well-trodden genre: assassin procedural. The coldly efficient way the Jackal goes about his business serves to throw the brief outbursts of violence into sharp relief, so that it's genuinely shocking when he dispatches a blackmailing forger and an inquisitive lover with the same blank detachment with which he does everything else.

It's testament to the skill of everyone involved that perhaps the most tense scene in the film involves a lone man with a rifle firing three rounds into a watermelon suspended from a tree. The film, and particularly Fox's largely silent performance, has influenced pretty much every cinematic depiction of a coldblooded professional killer ever since, from Leon to the Bourne movies. The disturbing allure of the prepared lone-wolf sniper was certainly a big inspiration for my own thriller, The Killing Season.

By the climax, the film manages to pull off the novel's delicate balancing trick of building unbearable tension even though the end is never in doubt: we know the Jackal will fail in his mission because we know de Gaulle was not assassinated in 1963. The historical backdrop is real, but these events never took place.

And yet, it doesn't feel like fiction.

Monday 7 October 2013

London again

Last week I was in London again for my author photoshoot. I was booked in with some other authors who have recently signed with Orion to be photographed by Paul Stuart. He's good. Check out his website.

Basically, Orion needed some decent pictures of me for general publicity, the website, and of course the little thumbnail author pic on the back cover of the book. I always tell people I look bad in photos and they say everyone thinks that. Then they look at some examples of pictures of me, and are forced to agree that, yeah, I don't photograph particularly well. Something about the pained, tortured expression.

I took the train down, because door-to-door, it takes the same time as flying and you get to relax the whole time instead of wandering around airports praying your flight isn't delayed. The other great thing about the train is it gives you time to work. As my date for the photoshoot happened to coincide with the submission deadline for the second Carter Blake book, I was able to use the trip to make some last minute tweaks to the manuscript before emailing it off to Jemima, my editor at Orion.

The new one is called The Samaritan, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Jemima thinks. This one had to be turned around fairly quickly, in about six months, so I'm looking forward to a short break before I get the notes back and start editing again.

Anyway, back to the shoot. As someone who hates having his photograph taken, I was mildly apprehensive (okay, mildly terrified) about my first photo call, but the experience was surprisingly painless. Fun, even. It felt a little like I'd won a competition to be a famous person for a morning. Hair and makeup and somebody bringing me coffee and everything. The venue was a gorgeous loft studio in Shoreditch. Paul and his assistant Bradley did an excellent job of making me feel comfortable, and it looks like they accomplished the impossible and got some pretty good pictures of me.

I want to live here

After the shoot, I got the tube back into central London and met my old and new agents for lunch. It was a combination of introduction and goodbye, because my previous agent Thomas is moving on to a new career. I'm sorry to see Thomas go, because we had a fantastic working relationship and his input to the first two books has been immense. On the positive side, I don't have to look for a new agent because Luigi Bonomi (also of LBA) has taken me on. I've known Luigi for some time, and he was the first person to get in touch with me from LBA, but this was the first time we'd met in person.

Great food (I had the crab spaghettini), great wine and even better conversation. We talked about the books so far, what happens next, and generally had a great time discussing the movies and television shows and books we love. I think all three of us walked away with a list of things to read / watch.

After that, it was back on the train to head back to real life. Only 185 days to go until publication day...