There's a bullet mark on the case of the typewriter that Frederick Forsyth used to write The Day of the Jackal. The damage was done during the Nigerian Civil War in the late Sixties, which Forsyth covered first for the BBC and then as a freelance reporter. "I was in my bungalow and I think it was a MiG that came over, strafing," he says. "The window went in and bang, churrrunk. I hit the floor and the plane went overhead."
The 72-year-old author doesn't invest the account with any drama. "It happens. Being a foreign correspondent is a job that might involve being shot at."
But when he got back to London, Forsyth was broke and tired of the hand-to-mouth slog of freelance life. So in the bitterly cold January of 1970, he sat down at the rickety fold-out table in a friend's kitchen with his battle-scarred Empire Aristocrat typewriter and, in just 35 days, wrote the thriller that broke the mould. The idea for The Jackal first dawned on him years earlier, while he was working for Reuters in Paris.
Between 1961 and 1963 there was a series of assassination attempts on Charles de Gaulle by a French terrorist group, the Organisation de l'Armee Secrete (OAS), fighting to prevent Algerian independence. "It was just a question of watching the concentric rings of security around de Gaulle," he says, "and coming to the conclusion that the OAS were not going to kill him."
If the terrorists really wanted the job done, Forsyth figured, they should hire an outsider: a professional hit man with no ties to them and no file with the French police. The thought simmered away. "I would come back to it in airport lounges," he says, "but I never thought I'd do anything with it." Then, in Biafra, he met hired guns for the first time.
"Some of the mercenaries were psychopaths, sociopaths and the cruelties they perpetrated have been recorded and are very unpalatable indeed. Others were just ex-soldiers, down on their luck. I would tag along behind them on raids behind Nigerian lines because that was the story. Why would such men allow Forsyth to "tag along"?
He offers me a grim smile. "There was one man, a German called Steiner," he explains. "He was nutty as a fruitcake — styled himself ‘Colonel' Steiner. He only spoke German and French and as so many of the other mercenaries only spoke English he needed an interpreter. That got me in. So I was sitting around campfires in the jungle doing my best to look non-threatening. I heard some pretty miserable life stories, out of which came how to get a false passport, how to get a gun, how to break a neck." All the tricks that Forsyth's fictional assassin would need to get to de Gaulle.
He didn't have high literary or commercial expectations. "Growing up, all I wanted to be was a pilot [at 19, he became one of the youngest-ever RAF pilots by lying about his age] and when I left the RAF in my early twenties all I wanted to do was travel, which is what motivated me to go into journalism. I just saw writing a novel — stupidly — as a way of making a bit of money."
He hawked his book around from February to September 1970, when it was finally accepted by a publisher, who told Forsyth he could see why The Jackal had been so roundly rejected. "They told me I'd broken all the rules," he says. For starters, de Gaulle was still alive (he died in November 1970) so readers knew a fictional assassination plot (set in 1963) couldn't succeed.
The publishers were also wary of a book whose central character has no name. A small print run was planned. Then, to the surprise of both Forsyth and his publishers, buyers at bookshops began reordering copies before publication. "The run went up to 8,000 copies," he says, "There were no reviews. The book slithered out through the summer of '71. Slowly, the orders began to move faster. It was all word of mouth. Then my publisher phoned me at 4am in my bedsit. He'd sold the book to an American publisher for $365,000, which was roughly £100,000. And I got half of that. I'd never seen money like it and never thought I would."
What shocked Forsyth was the public admiration for his fictional hitman. "I thought Lebel [the assiduous French detective] was the hero. Jackal was the villain. I was very surprised when readers said they loved him. He was the ruddy killer." But surely we all envy somebody who can move that cleanly and untouchably through the world? "Hmm maybe. I had expected women to hate him. ... But no, he had a lot of female admirers."
There are those whose fascination with the book went beyond escapist pleasure. It has been described as "an assassin's manual". Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan bomber, was nicknamed "Carlos the Jackal" after a copy of the book was found in a London flat he had occupied, although the novel turned out to belong to a later tenant.
Forsyth tells me his second novel, The Odessa File, helped identify Eduard Roschmann, the runaway Nazi concentration camp commander it described. "They made it into a film, which was screened in a little fleapit cinema south of Buenos Aires, where a man stood up and said, ‘I know that man, he lives down the street from me,' and denounced him. He decided to make a run for it to Paraguay and died of a heart attack on the river crossing."
He also claims one of his later books, The Dogs of War, was used as a guide to the invasion of the Comoros Islands by the French mercenary Bob Denard in 1978.
So his pride in his work is essentially journalistic? It's still about digging for the truth? "Yep," nods Forsyth. "There's a moment in research where you start to think, ‘I'm pretty certain that happened.' Then you write it. Then you find out it's true. Gotcha!"
Forsyth had more journalistic thrills while researching his latest novel, The Cobra, about the drugs cartels. "I nearly bought it in Guineau-Bissau. I picked up an infection that nearly cost me my left leg." While he was flying into the country, the army's chief of staff was assassinated, then he was woken in his hotel room by the army's revenge: a bomb was thrown through the window of the presidential villa. The president was then shot and finally hacked to death with machetes.
"The borders were closed so I was reporting from the spot. ... journalism. Even in your seventies, I don't think that instinct ever dies. But my wife worries all the time." Sympathising with her, I finally mention the tall, slim gun leaning against his patio door. "Are you sure you're going to try and keep out of trouble now?" He laughs. "That's just an air rifle. For the grey squirrels." He squints out at the swaying trees, momentarily Jackalesque as he seeks a bushy-tailed target. Are you a good shot? I ask. "Reasonably good," he smiles, "yes."