The Day of the Jackal had a major problem here because the first chapter is ridiculous. It purported to outline plans for the killing of a former French president who was very much alive, and everyone knew it. So the junior readers’ judgments probably said, “We know the climax already, the plan fails.” Manuscript returned.
Two of my rejections were simple printed forms. One was kind enough to write a letter. I wish I had retained and framed it, but I threw it away. It said the very idea would have “no reader interest.” Then I had yet another lucky break.
I was at a party and was introduced just socially to someone called Harold Harris. I had no idea who he was. Toward the end of the party, someone mentioned that he was the editorial director of Hutchinson, a major publisher.
I had already decided my solution might be to write a three-page synopsis of the plot, pointing out that the point of the story was not the death of de Gaulle, which clearly did not happen, but the manhunt as the assassin came closer and closer, eluding the huge machine ranged against him.
The following day, a Friday in September, I am afraid I ambushed Mr. Harris quite blatantly. I turned up at Hutchinson’s office in Great Portland Street and faced the usual screen of secretaries in place to keep unwanted wannabes away from the Presence behind the big door.
But I explained we were close friends and my call was social. I was allowed in. Harold Harris was puzzled until I pointed out we had met socially the previous evening. His perfect manners caused him not to summon the burly commissionaire, but to ask what he could do for me. I replied: I have a manuscript of a novel.
His eyes glazed over in horror, but I had got this far, so I plunged on. “I know you have no time, so I will not take it up, Mr. Harris. Well, maybe five minutes, tops.”
With this, I advanced to his desk and placed the brief synopsis upon it. “All I ask is that you glance at this and, if you think it is worthless, then chuck me out.”
Looking as if root canal surgery would be more welcome, he started to read. He finished the three pages and started again. He read it three times.
“Where is the manuscript now?” he asked.
I told him with which publisher it had lain for eight weeks. He stared pointedly at the ceiling.
“It is quite out of the question for a publisher to read a manuscript while a copy resides with another publisher,” he told me.
Asking him not to move, which he had no intention of doing, I was out of the office and down the stairs. I could not afford taxis, but I hailed one anyway and drove to the other publisher. It was the lunch hour. I could raise only the hall porter with my demand for my manuscript back, and he found a junior secretary on her sandwich break who retrieved my paper parcel from the reject pile and gave it back to me with a pitying smile. I returned to Great Portland Street and handed it over.
He read the whole thing over the weekend and rang on Monday morning.
“If you can be here at four this afternoon, with your agent, we can discuss a contract,” he said.
I had no agent, but I was there anyway. With my ignorance of publishing, royalties, and contracts, he could have skinned me alive. But he was an old-fashioned gentleman and gave me a fair document with an advance of five hundred pounds. Then he said:
“I am toying with the idea of offering you a three-novel contract. Do you have any other ideas?”
The thing about journalists is that they lie well. It comes from practice. It is also why they have great empathy with, or antagonism for, politicians and senior civil servants. Common territory. “Mr. Harris, I am brimming with ideas,” I told him.
“Two synopses, one page each. By Friday noon,” he suggested.
Back on the street, I had a major problem. The story about the Jackal was supposed to be a one-off, something to tide me through a bad patch. I had not the slightest intention of becoming a novelist. So I tried to analyze the story that had been accepted and to recall what I knew about from personal experience and could use as background. I came up with two conclusions.
The Day of the Jackal was a manhunt story, and I knew a lot about Germany. While in East Berlin, I had heard about a mysterious organization of former Nazis who helped, protected, and warned each other in order never to have to face West German judicial hunters and answer for their crimes. It was called ODESSA, but I had thought it was part of the relentless East German propaganda against the Bonn government.
Perhaps not. Ten years earlier, the Israeli Mossad had hunted down Adolf Eichmann, living under a pseudonym outside Buenos Aires. Perhaps another hunt-down of a disappeared mass murderer?
And I knew about Africa and white mercenaries hired to fight in jungle wars. Perhaps a return to the rain forests, not to another civil war but to a mercenary-led coup d’état?
I wrote both down, as required, on a single sheet of A4 paper and presented them to Harold Harris that Friday.
He skimmed through them and decided without a second’s hesitation. “Nazis first, mercenaries second. And I want the first manuscript by December next year.”