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In 1971, Frederick Forsyth published a novel that revolutionized the spy-thriller genre. He was a journalist in Paris when French President Charles de Gaulle granted independence to Algeria in 1962. Angry French militants vowed to assassinate the president. Their attempts failed, but Forsyth got the idea for a story about a professional hitman able to penetrate the security around de Gaulle. Forsyth interviewed bodyguards, forgers, gun makers and an assassin to provide realistic details for his fictional thriller. Diane invites listeners to join her in a Readers’ Review of “The Day of the Jackal.”
- Peter Starr Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University and a professor of literature specializing in French literature and conspiracy theories in contemporary American culture. He is the author of a web-based multimedia book “We the Paranoid.”
- John Weisman An author of military thrillers, most recently, " Kill Bin Laden."
- Nancy Youssef Pentagon correspondent, McClatchy newspapers.
“The Day of the Jackal” is a fictional account of a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. The book became an international best seller and won an Edgar Allan Poe Award when it was published 40 years ago. Diane and guests talk about the book’s enduring appeal and its unique place in the world of thrillers.
A Book With An Interesting Backstory
Frederick Forsyth wrote the book in 35 days, Nancy Youssef said, but he researched it over the span of his career as a journalist. “For me as a writer and as a journalist, what I found most captivating was the way he wove details together to bring you in so that the outcome was almost an afterthought as a reader, but it was really how you got there that drew you in,” Youssef said.
Forsyth’s Influence On Other Writers
Writer John Weisman said Forsyth has always been a “template” for him. “He broke through the same way, for example, that Joseph Wambaugh broke through the police procedural with “The New Centurions.” This book, this novel, very, very different than John le Carre’s 1964, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” another mold breaker, by the way, another seminal novel. But this novel for me has always been the template because it is a seamless fusion of journalism and fiction writing,” Weisman said.
Was “The Jackal” Based On A Real Person?
Diane pointed out that when Forsyth was asked whether the jackal was based on a real person, he replied that he didn’t have the kind of imagination to spin a character out of the air. Forsyth said he had met the jackal, but he did not have the smoothness and style of “his” jackal in the book. He was simply a professional killer. “Whether or not Forsyth actually met him or someone like him, obviously he
met someone close enough so that you can use that putty to start to mold it,” Weisman said.
Who Is This Book For?
Diane asked the guests to recommend the book to certain groups or age groups. “I’d recommend it to young readers, to people who love writing, to people who are curious about the relationship between police and government and politicians,” Youssef said. Weisman said the same, and added that he’d add it to the U.S. Marine reading program in addition.
You can read the full transcript here.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. "The Day of the Jackal" is a fictional account of a plot to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle. The book became an international best seller and won an Edgar Allan Poe Award when it was published 40 years ago. Joining me for this month's Reader's Review of Frederick Forsyth's classic spy thriller, Peter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences here at the American University, Nancy Youssef, Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, and John Weisman, author of "Kill bin Laden" and other military thrillers.
MS. DIANE REHMWe do invite you to join us as well, 800-433-8850. And good morning to all of you.
MS. NANCY YOUSSEFGood morning.
MR. PETER STARRGood morning.
MR. JOHN WEISMANGood morning.
REHMGood to have you here. Peter, I wonder if I could start with you to remind us of the historical event itself. At what point do facts leave off and fiction begins?
STARRWell, the beginning of the novel, as you know, Diane, is very, very factual. It's drawn an explicit assassination attempt on de Gaulle's life at Petit-Clamart. And de Gaulle had suffered up to 20 assassination attempts and he was a fearless man. We can get into this later, about his fearlessness and the way in which he literally looked death in the face many times in his life. And it's remarkably moving to me, I think, the extent to which this man, who was a target, managed to survive and rise up over all of that danger.
REHMHe knew that because of his decision on Algeria, and many other decisions that there was a group that absolutely loathed him, that wanted him out of the way, but he proceeded despite all that. Then we have Frederick Forsyth coming along and what does he do?
STARRFrederick Forsyth takes this historical germ and as a journalist who himself arrived at Petit-Clamart, the sight of the scene that opens the novel, Frederick Forsyth builds the story which is fundamentally fictional, which is technically accurate, and that is something that I think John Weisman's work reflects so beautifully and it's one of the lineages that I see between Frederick Forsyth and John Weisman.
STARRTechnically incredibly accurate that draws us in as readers precisely because of the technical accuracy, and creates a fiction that is fundamentally true, and I think the pleasure -- one of the things -- I'm a literature professor. I teach literature. I teach people to understand and appreciate literature. One of the things that's remarkable about this novel is how true it is.
REHMPeter Starr, he's dean at the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of literature at the American University. Nancy Youssef, Forsyth writes a novel where we already know the ending.
REHMBut does that in any way affect the suspense of the novel?
YOUSSEFNo. The magic of it is in how he writes the story. This is a story about the attempted assassination of de Gaulle. Of course, de Gaulle wasn't assassinated, he died seven years later after the setting of this book, watching TV at home, and you know that going in within pages of the book. But it's -- the magic is in the writing and in the details. And I think we take it for granted now, but at the time that this book came out, the approach was really quite audacious, this deal of weaving details, not just depending on one's imagination to put together a mystery novel.
YOUSSEFBut what the author does is take his experience as a journalist and tie in all the facts in the underworld that he'd come to learn, and make a novel that is really essentially research, that the -- you know, he wrote this book in 35 days, but he researched it over a career as a journalist, and I think that's what makes it so riveting. For me as a writer and as a journalist, what I found most captivating was the way he wove details together to bring you in so that the outcome was almost an afterthought as a reader, but it was really how you got there that drew you in.
REHMAnd Nancy Youssef is the Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. She is also a frequent guest on the international Friday news roundup. Turning to you, John Weisman, I have heard so much praise for "Kill bin Laden." I wonder if what Frederick Forsyth did in any way influenced your thinking, your writing, in presenting your own novel.
WEISMANWell, he has always been a template for me. He broke through the same way, for example, that Joseph Wambaugh broke through the police procedural with "The New Centurions." This book, this novel, very, very different than John le Carre's 1964, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," another mold breaker, by the way, another seminal novel. But this novel for me has always been the template because it is a seamless fusion of journalism and fiction writing.
WEISMANAnd voices, absolutely. I mean, all of the voices in this novel are distinct and strong.
REHMSo we go from this group -- this tiny group that plans this assassination, that takes over the top floor of a hotel in order to think about how best to complete their rage against de Gaulle, because he has freed Algeria, and they decide -- the conversations among them are fascinating.
STARRThey are. And they come with a -- I mean, the question that Nancy was addressing, how do you write a plot in which the reader knows what the result is? And there's a moment at which the jackal's plot is blown, through a series of sort of pillow talk, essentially. And there's a moment at which Rodin and comrades are saying, should we recall him? And there's -- at that moment they realize that they can't recall him, that they can't communicate with this killer who is ruthless and motivated by money and wants to retire on the proceeds of this one big hit.
STARRAnd I think some of the pleasure of the pleasure of the novel is the fact that they can't recall him. He's loose. He is going to do what he's gonna do, and he's inexorable in that way, and it's stunning that they can -- that Forsyth can pull that off.
WEISMANIt's called plotting. And, you know, novels are, to use the cliche, 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. And what this novel is indicative of is the plotting that goes into a great, great book. You set up conditions so that that the readers are inexorably drawn from point to point to point. I mean, this is connecting the dots.
YOUSSEFI also think it's an intersection of motives because the men who are plotting the assassination, and this was something as a war correspondent that drew me, are angry essentially about the false promises that were told to them and why they went to war, why they lost comrades, and sort of want retribution for that. And the jackals -- and we should mention that throughout this book we never know who he is, even until the very end. Our main character, we don't even know his name. His motives are far different and yet they collide until the point that Peter mentioned, until they've lost control.
YOUSSEFBut I found it fascinating, the driving factors behind it because one is ideological and one is very practical.
REHMForsyth talks about the OAS, this group of real fanatics who are angry, as you said, about decisions that de Gaulle has made in regard to Algeria. You know, today, we'd either call them fanatics, maybe we'd call them terrorists, John.
WEISMANWell, the French certainly thought of them as terrorists, and of course, they raised money by robbing banks and jewelry stores. DST, the...
REHMTo finance the whole thing.
WEISMANIndeed. The DST, the French internal -- their equivalent of the FBI, but with a lot more juice behind them, referred to this in the late 1990s as gang terrorism, and it was exactly what the GIA, the armed Islamic group did to raise money. It is what the Taliban do to raise money. They go into crime. The Taliban is growing narcotics, selling narcotics.
WEISMANThe fact that Forsyth was able to look at all this stuff and put it together, and yet give these people who the French thought of as terrorists, a real good motive. And indeed it was a motive because you had an entire class of Frenchmen who had lived in Algeria, who had lived in Morocco, whose entire lives were built around that, uprooted, moved, abandoned, they felt. And I remember listening at one point in my life to a conversation in Paris in 1962 with some of these Pied Noir talking about how de Gaulle had abandoned them and it was an amazing thing then to read the novel some ten years later.
REHMJohn Weisman is a military thriller writer. His most recent novel is "Kill bin Laden." The phones are open. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd we're talking about Frederick Forsyth's novel "The Day of the Jackal" written around what, 1974, something...
REHM'71. And when asked whether the jackal was based on a real person, Forsyth said, I do not have the kind of imagination to spin a character out of the air. I met the jackal, although he did not have the smoothness and style of my jackal. He was simply a professional killer. What did you think of the professional killer as Forsyth found him, John?
WEISMANWell, I think -- I mean, the character is wonderful because his background obviously has given him the ability to be a totally protean character. His tradecraft is impeccable. And one of the things I try and do in my own novels is get the tradecraft right. And what this chap does in terms of the creation of multiple identities and self protection rings absolutely true. This guy is made of flesh and blood. Whether or not Forsyth actually met him or someone like him, obviously he met someone close enough so that you can use that putty and start to mold it.
REHMHe's attractive to women, Nancy.
YOUSSEFHe is and that's one of the many tools he employs in his effort to escape and yet he's an enigma and a loner. I thought what was interesting about him is his evolution from this man of intrigue to a psychopath. And I think it happens the first time he murders somebody because you're no longer curious about what drives him. We get these descriptions of him and his gray eyes and his blond hair and his demeanor and the way he dresses and so there's still a mystery about him. Who is he? And then, all of a sudden, you realize he's driven strictly, strictly by the money and that he's a psychopath.
REHMAnd even those who hire him, Rodin, looks at his gray steely eyes and realizes there is no expression.
STARRIn massively intimidating with those gray steely eyes. One of the things that I find interesting about this particular character is Forsyth says in an interview to the BBC, he was a despicable character and that he's often a bit surprised the extent to which readers identify with the jackal. We like to see -- in these kinds of stories, we see an often hyper competent antagonist and a hyper competent protagonist.
STARRBut what's interesting about this novel is that Lebel doesn't seem to be up to the jackal.
REHMNow describe Lebel. Tell us who he is.
STARRLebel is modest. He's a little bit henpecked by his wife. He is not a genius. He's not Poirot. He's not one of these Agatha Christy detectives who sees the thing that no one else sees. He's not that. He's methodical. John mentioned a moment ago about plotting, it's 99 percent hard work. The novel says it, detective work is 95 percent hard work and one minor little bit of intuition at the end that solves the case.
STARRSo here you have this absolutely brilliantly force, technically competent and protagonist full of foresight and anticipation. And you've got this, at the same time against him, a detective that you don't think is up to speed.
WEISMANExcept from the very first, you begin to see Lebel is made of steel.
WEISMANAnd he takes no guff from this large group of self important -- they would be referred around the Pentagon today as perfumed princes, who make fun of him because, yeah, he's got maybe cigarette ash...
REHMSort of rumpled clothes.
WEISMANRight. And he's rumpled. But as his boss says, the best detective in France would be Lebel. And Lebel also immediately upon being challenged by the bullies...
STARR...smacks them down.
REHMStands up. Nancy, what have you got?
YOUSSEFWell, I wanted to remark how we are introduced to the jackal and how we're introduced to Lebel. I just want to read a graph from each to get a sense of who these two are.
YOUSSEF"To Rodin's eye" -- this is referring to the jackal -- "he looked like a man who'd retain control of himself, but the eyes bothered him. He'd seen the soft moist eyes of a weakling, the dull shuttered eyes of psychopaths and the watchful eye of soldiers. The eyes of an Englishman who are open and stared back with frank candor, except for the irises which were a flecked gray so they seemed smoky like the horror mist of a winter's morning.
YOUSSEFIt took Rodin a few seconds to realize that they had no expression at all. Whatever thoughts did go behind the smokescreen, nothing came through and Rodin felt worn of unease. Like all men created by the systems and procedures, he did not like the unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable."
YOUSSEFAnd now let's get to -- that was on page 40. And here we get introduced to our detective Lebel. And notice the difference in the description. "Claude Lebel, as we all knew, a good cop. He'd always been a good cop, slow, precise, methodical, painstaking. Just occasionally he'd shown a flash of inspiration that is needed to turn a good cop into a remarkable detective. But he'd never lost sight of the fact that in police work, 99 percent of the effort is routine unspectacular inquiry, checking and double checking, laboriously building up a web of parts until the parts become whole and the whole becomes the net. And the net become -- finally encloses the criminal for the case that will not just make headlines, but stand up in court."
REHMAbsolutely perfect reading. And understanding these two antagonists, the jackal, how does he get his name? What is his name?
WEISMANWell, he gets his name because the first three letters of his first name and last name under the alias that he is currently using, which is Charles Calthrop is chacal, which in French is jackal. But obviously, he gets other passports under different names. And one of the best pieces of tradecraft here actually is how he gets a British passport, which in those days was very, very easy to do by going and finding someone who is approximately the same age as you who died as a youngster. And you get their birth certificate and their death certificate, and then you burn the death certificate.
WEISMANAnd you go to the registry office. And of course, in those days, nothing was on a computer. They didn't have computers. And he forges a priest's signature and the church papers and you present that and in the mail at a mail drop, you get a British passport.
REHMAnd another element of his absolute brilliance is smuggling this handmade, precision-made gun in the chassis of the car that he drives across the border.
WEISMANThis is something that Forsyth does, not in this novel alone, but also in "The Fourth Protocol." He has a nuclear device smuggled by -- I think it's nine separate couriers from Russia, the Soviet Union, to London to be assembled by a technician next to an American airbase and blown up. The tradecraft -- let me talk just a minute about the tradecraft in this book.
WEISMANForsyth understands intelligence tradecraft and counterterrorism tradecraft. What the jackal does is no different from what al-Qaida does. He is searching for vulnerabilities in his targets. When I teach counterterrorism, one of the things you first teach is you have to think like a bad guy. Bad guys will take the path of least resistance. And to teach this, to teach vulnerability, is to think like a terrorist. And so the jackal says, okay, where am I most vulnerable at the crossing points? How do I get through the crossing points? How do I get through a police barrier?
WEISMANAnd what he does is he does what all good terrorists do. He sits back and he looks and he looks at the patterns and he looks for anomalies. And for example, he sets himself up near the old Gare Montparnasse and sits. And by the way, if you check the maps of Paris and go on Google Earth, you will see that that street and those buildings are exactly as described, which is just wonderful.
REHMAnd of course, he manages, again, to disguise himself as an elderly man using a crutch. But he is not the only one figuring Lebel is there because Lebel figures that that day, that particular celebration, De Gaulle will be in public. And that is the opportunity he knows the jackal is waiting for.
YOUSSEFBecause it's guaranteed that he'll be there. He has to be there. He knows where he can be so he can pick his sniper spot. He can plot weeks in advance, which is what he does. And what's interesting about Lebel is he investigates until the very last second.
REHMHe sure does.
YOUSSEFEven when the ceremonies go on and nothing's happened. And there's one more ceremony and it goes on and nothing happens. And it's by chance that someone mentions, I let this man with a cripple into his house and he chases. And it's really within -- the difference is a matter of seconds. He is that methodical person until the very, very last minute.
REHMAnd had Lebel gone through the door first, it would've been he who would have lost his life.
REHMBut it's just fascinating. We've got lots of callers waiting, 800-433-8850. Let's go first to Alaine (sp?) in Annapolis, Md. Good morning, you're on the air.
ALAINEGood morning, Diane. Can you hear me okay? I'm on a cell phone.
REHMI certainly can. Go right ahead.
ALAINEAll right. The main phrase, technically correct, my hat's off to the author, Mr. Forsyth. Briefly, some years back, I was asked to read this very novel and act upon it. I followed the British churchyard procedure, the birth certificate and there is not now somebody running around the world with yet another passport. I don't want to keep the conversation too long before the FBI and all the squad cars arrive. I think, to the best of my knowledge, my cell phone is not visible, but you never know. But if I can do this, so can lots of other people. Thank you very much.
WEISMANWell, until very recently, you could do it. You can still do it and Mr. Forsyth actually has complained about this too in the press. He's written a number of op-ed pieces. The tradecraft is still practiced. And it's not a good thing, especially since the Brits suffer from so much internal terrorism right now.
REHMJohn Weisman. His most recent novel is "Kill Bin Laden" and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Nancy.
YOUSSEFIt's also worth pointing out that this book has been translated in a number of languages and has showed up in the homes of some assassins. A man who attempted -- who was involved in the (unintelligible) assassination, Carlos the Jackal named after this book. And so it's interesting in this effort to make this so realistic, it's actually become, for some people, a manual in terms of how to carry out these things because of the way he methodically paints it.
YOUSSEFNow, how much you can assign to anything to the book itself is unclear. But it certainly -- it resonates with the underworld itself because of the rich detail in which he describes it.
STARRAnd Forsyth himself, in a BBC interview a number of years ago, said that he put, in some of his more technically nuclear-related plots, he intentionally put flaws in the technical details in order to preclude that from happening.
YOUSSEFIt's what you actually have to do these days because, look, the bad guys can buy it on Amazon...
WEISMAN...the way the rest of us can.
WEISMANAnd so as a writer -- I mean, I'm looking at stuff as I write it and saying, okay, is this safe to use, is it not safe to use. Luckily, I've got a brain trust of people who have very, very, very high classifications who will look at chunks of the manuscript and say, okay, you can get away with that. But we wish you would actually...
REHMYeah. Let's go to Chris who's here in Washington D.C. Good morning.
CHRISGood morning. My question is, for the benefit of some maybe younger listeners, the factual actualities of this fictional novel I suppose were quite novel. So can you explain how Algeria related to the French Republic and why so many people felt passionate in its loss and the colonists that had to leave. And why was that so passionate for -- why was Algeria so important to France (unintelligible) ?
STARRFrance's sense of itself as a world power had been put into jeopardy first in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War. Then again in the long slog of the First World War. Then again in the defeat in the beginning part of the Second War. And so Algeria was one of the last gasps of the French Imperial presence in the world. And De Gaulle represented resurgence and a reaffirmation of France. I mean, De Gaulle was France. He referred to himself in a third person and he referred to himself as France.
STARRSo the Algerians, those who believed in what was called (speaks foreign language) very strongly felt that he was going to support them going forward. Remember a lot of the war efforts had taken place in North Africa. This was a very important part for De Gaulle's own work in the free French. He said famously -- I think it was his first time back to Algeria after he was named president of the 5th Republic in '58. He said (speaks foreign language) I've understood you. And they understood that to mean he supports them.
STARRSo when De Gaulle -- and for reasons that Forsyth himself talks about when he's introducing Rodin, he says this, and maybe just read a little bit. This is right after where Nancy just read. "Like most fanatics, Rodin could blind himself to facts with sheer belief. The escalating costs of the war, the tottering economy of France under the burden of a war becoming increasingly unwinnable, the demoralization of the conscripts were a bagatelle, a nonentity, nothing.
STARRDe Gaulle understood all that. He understood the drain that Algeria was having on France and realized that he needed to get out of Algeria for very, very practical. It's actually one of his great strokes of brilliance in many ways in solidifying the 5th Republic. So it was a very, very fraught time.
REHMPeter Starr, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University. He's professor of literature. He's the author of a web-based multimedia book "We the Paranoid." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd we're back. We'll go right back to the phones to Rye, N.H. Hi there, Connie, you're on the air.
CONNIEGood morning, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.
CONNIEThis is such an interesting discussion. I read "The Day of the Jackal" many years ago. And if I had known that it was going to be discussed today, I probably would've dug it out and read it again. But I remember being struck lo those many years ago, by the level of surveillance the Sirate (sp?) was able to maintain over all of France, who checked in to what hotel on what day, that I can remember that being part of their investigation. Is that historically accurate? And if it is, who instituted that type of surveillance in what was supposedly a democratic republic?
WEISMANWell, the Sirate , currently called, I guess, the DST, the Director of...
WEISMAN...of Surveillance of the Territory is how it translates, is a very powerful internal security apparatus. And while the French don't have the hundreds of thousands of close circuit video cameras that the English have, they maintain the ability to tap any phone in Paris and some of the outstanding areas within seconds.
WEISMANOne of the things that...
REHMWell, if they have it, surely we have do too.
WEISMANWell, actually, no, because their courts are a lot different than our courts. And by the way, the DST sent in the '60s, in 1963 I believe, a group over here to look at our presidential protection versus De Gaulle's. And they came away saying that the Secret Service were a bunch of clowns basically, that the American president was not protected half so well as the French president was. Now, the French president went through, what, ten assassination attempts.
WEISMANThirty assassination attempts.
WEISMANWhereas there was one very successful one in 1963 so DST is a very effective organization. And I gather now that they're not using motorcycle riders to pick up the tickets. I think everything is computerized these days.
REHMBut you know it's interesting that the Jackal would have succeeded had, at least in the novel, De Gaulle not bent forward...
REHM...a medal receiver.
WEISMANIt's something interesting that, of course, the Jackal is English and forgets that piece of French...
REHMYes, that's a good point.
WEISMANHe has not -- he did not factor that in.
REHMI hope that answers your question, Connie. To Bryant, Ind. Good morning, David.
DAVIDGood morning. I love this topic, love the novel. First of all, I saw the film before I read the novel back in the '70s and then saw the new film more recently, and I wondered about your panel's comment about the making of the film related to this.
REHMI saw the 1973 film which I found most intriguing.
WEISMANI think so, too. And Forsyth gets credit for the screenplay on that movie. And one of the things I noticed, having read this and then I screened the film right after, is that he has a couple of hiccups in the novel that he cleans up and makes a lot more effective in the film.
WEISMANSuch as the murder of the baroness. In the book, he has her overhearing a conversation and that's a cliche. And in the movie, she rolls over and says, you can tell me anything, and he just simply puts the pillow over her face and smothers her.
WEISMANThe second thing that he does in the book is he has, as the Norwegian priest, check in to a cheap hotel on the Left Bank, the Jackal does. And Lebel is looking out his window which faces the Grand (unintelligible), and the hotel where the Jackal is, is on the Grand (unintelligible) and they are basically looking at each other, not knowing that one is looking at the other. That also is a cliche. And he changes that to an apartment on the Right Bank and uses, by the way, not a gay bar, but a steam bath.
REHMThe second film was with Bruce Willis.
REHMI gather that was not as effective. Did you see it, Nancy?
YOUSSEFWell, I wanna make a case for not watching the movies 'cause I contemplated watching both of the movies in anticipation of this, but I thought, you know, part of the magic of the book is the weaving of details. And I think what it does is take the reader along and allows you to use all those details to paint a picture in your own head. And I thought that was sort of part of the magic of the book, so I was almost afraid to watch the movies 'cause I painted it in my own head, you know, and I think that was part of it, part of the way that you're taken along in the story where you already know the outcome.
WEISMANI think you should actually watch the first movie...
WEISMAN...and burn the second movie.
REHMYeah. Peter, we haven't talked about Kowalski because he becomes a central figure in why the group that plans the assassination fears they might have to call it off and the whole issue of torture comes into it. Talk about Kowalski.
STARRYes, yes. Well, Kowalski was guarding the three OAS leaders in Italy and was the man who did the mail drops with handcuffs, the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist. And he is lured back into France by virtue of a story about a stepdaughter, I believe it was, who has suddenly taken ill. And it's a very moving piece of work that is -- I think it doesn't come through. It doesn't get played out in the movie. I think for reasons of simple filmmaker economy, you can't do that level of a subplot in a movie in a way you can do it in a novel.
STARRAnd I don't regret that being gone from the film. And, of course, then if you were to do that, you would have to show this absolutely brutal torture of Kowalski that led to the revelations of certain kinds of aspects to the plot.
WEISMANWell, of course, the French were known for that.
WEISMANIf anyone's seen the "Battle of Algiers," I mean, this was par for the course. The French did not give Miranda Warnings and still don't. And Kowalski's treatment was no better or worse than was given Algerian nationalists.
YOUSSEFI think for a reader of the book goes from being an interesting plot, an interesting dissection of people's motives and to a real ugly crime novel and all the brutality that comes with this kinda plot. I thought for me as a reader that was the turning point. I was no longer as intrigued by motives. That was the first point I thought, you know, this is ugly. This is going to be ugly.
REHMAnd to Chris in Fairfax, Va. Good morning to you.
CHRISHi. It's a fascinating conversation. I'd like to comment on just one point regarding disclosure of information. I was in the Marines and part of what I did was counterterrorism. And after my honorable discharge, I went to school to study journalism. I became a journalist. And I still find myself (word?) and leaning far more to the side of keep the quiet rather than disclose because the bad guys can read the news and I'm sure they learn a lot.
CHRISAnd I can't stop thinking, you know, you have to know your enemy. You have to be able to think a bit like them in order to close with and destroy them. But I just -- I thought I'd comment on how I struggle with that too and wondering what journalists struggle with as well in that regard with knowing they might help.
WEISMANWell, I think you can -- I think in fiction, fiction gives you deniability that nonfiction does not. I have problems with some of the stuff I read journalistically these days in terms of how much it discloses, perhaps inadvertently. But there's still a lot of stuff disclosed in terms of sources and methods that I can easily do in fiction because it is fiction. I think that sometimes because of deadline pressures and because of competition, people tend to do more than good sense might, might suggest, especially when we're in a time when, indeed as the caller said, the bad guys can read just about as much -- I mean, when I wrote KBL...
REHM"Kill Bin Laden."
WEISMAN..."Kill Bin Laden," everything I wrote -- and that is open sourced. I did some interviews. I talked to a lot of people. But it is open sourced. I used no classified material in that book. And yet people have come to me, people who are well positioned to know, and said, how did you find that out?
YOUSSEFYou know, I think it's interesting you've raised bin Laden because -- and let me begin by the way, Chris, just thank you for your service and welcome to the business.
REHMI should say.
YOUSSEFIt's interesting you bring up the bin Laden case because I can tell you, as a journalist, I think there's been an erosion of that trust in terms of how information was used. In the case of bin Laden, the administration declassified things that would've never been classified. And one could argue that they did it for the political gain of saying that they had captured bin Laden. And I think that's why it's become such a difficult thing in terms of determining what information is releasable and what's not because I think both sides are using information as a tool. And I thought the bin Laden example was a really exceptional case of that because things that would've never been declassified before were in a matter of 24 hours after his death.
REHMHere's an email from Jonathan, who says, "This is the first book I remember my mother reading. She said she enjoyed it, but the topic was difficult for her. It marked a changing, more violent world. Listeners should consider that this book came out just after a slew of assassinations, including John and Bobby Kennedy, the Reverend Martin Luther King, a number of political figures in South America. It also was around the time of the rise of terrorists groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Red Brigade." Interesting to remember all that. All right. Let's go to John in Baltimore, Md. Good morning, you're on the air. John, are you there?
JOHNYes. Hi, Diane.
JOHNI wanna carry this part of the conversation, I'm glad it went in this direction, just a little bit. When I initially called, it was right after your guest essentially admitted to self censorship in writing his fiction under the, I guess, you know, small deed direction of individuals with, you know, high level classified clearances. And I cringed at the thought of novelists and people in literature essentially taking their marching orders, and maybe that's a little strong, from government agents. Like imagine what would've happened if Mark Twain had consulted with the government about writing the book about a white boy and a black slave going down the river on a raft. I can't imagine.
REHMAll right. Let's get an answer from John Weisman. But you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
WEISMANWell, novelists and journalists don't get their marching orders from anybody. What it is nice to have is someone who will back you and say, yes, this is how we do it. This is how the language goes. This is the capability of the weapon. This is how it works. When I say I've got a brain trust, I do have a brain trust because you can't write this kind of fiction without interviewing, researching and talking to people. But what you don't wanna do is give people who have very bad motives an insight in a way that they can use it against you. At least I don't. And if you wanna call that self censorship, fine. I don't consider it that. I consider it prudence.
REHMAll right. And to Ahmed in Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning to you.
AHMEDGood morning to you, Diane. Charles de Gaulle has a famous expression. It says, we have lost a battle, but not the war. What I'd like to ask Nancy Youssef, what does this mean?
YOUSSEFWell, I don't know. I mean, I'm gonna let Peter take that 'cause that's something...
STARRNo, I'm not.
YOUSSEFNo? What does it mean? We've lost the battle, but not the war. Well, in the case of France, I think there would be a case to be made that maybe Algeria didn't come out in the way that they wanted, as Peter talked about earlier about the loss of it's sort of imperial status, but it retained its French dignity, if you will, its power, its France-ness, if you will. And that was my take on it, but...
REHMTell me each of you to whom you might recommend this book, what age group, sensibility, et cetera.
STARRDiane, as you mentioned earlier, I work on this project on paranoia and paranoid novels and paranoid stories tend to portray the world as a big Manichaean us versus them struggle. And the thing that I very much respect about Frederick Forsyth's novels, and by the way also John Weisman's KBL, is that it is very much a human struggle. There's no big government behind this struggle. It's Lebel against the Jackal in a very human scale. And I think that's very salutary. I think I missed that kind of humanistic sense of an action thriller, action thrillers that have a kind of humanistic sense to it.
YOUSSEFI'd recommend it to journalists, to people who love writing, to people who are curious about the relationship between police and government and politicians.
YOUSSEFI would recommend it to young readers. I think it's so simply and beautifully written that I think it's something young readers should read to get a sense of what beautiful writing is, the simplicity of a sentence and how those simple sentences crafted together can make something really beautiful.
WEISMANI agree with my colleagues here. And also I would add it to actually the United States Marine reading program. I think it would be great for our young men and women in uniform.
REHMJohn Weisman, his most recent novel is "Kill Bin Laden." Nancy Youssef is Pentagon correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. Peter Starr is dean of the College of Art and Sciences at American University. Thank you all so much.
REHMAnd let me tell you that our next Readers' Review is going to go in an entirely different direction. On Wednesday, February 22, we will review "Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton. I hope you'll read it right along with us. I'm Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening. Enjoy your day.
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