Morning of the Jackal

Assassination on Embassy Row

by John Dinges and Saul Landau
Pantheon, 411 pp., $14.95

Here is a well-told story of murder, mystery, mistresses, dictators, stool pigeons, love affairs, foreign agents, that ends in the best possible way—the FBI gets its man. The only sour note is that the story is true and the victims are real. Former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his assistant, Ronni Moffitt, were assassinated by a bomb detonated in the car they were driving on Sheridan Circle, part of Washington’s Embassy Row. To a reader who confesses to knowing only the outlines of the case, this book appears to be a fine piece of reporting, a work that may not answer every question but that tells us far more about the people and events surrounding September 21, 1976, the date of the killing, than we can expect to know of such foul and secret affairs.

The authors did not intend to write a mystery-adventure story. Theirs is an investigative work with revelatory intent, but the first part of the book recalls The Day of the Jackal as it describes the people, motives, and passions leading up to the staging of the crime. Then, with amazingly detailed exactitude, we learn how the assassination was done, and, finally, how it appeared to Ronni Moffitt’s husband, who escaped death that day because he was in the back seat of the car and the bomb was under the front one:

“The car was picked off the ground,” Moffitt recalled. “I started to smell the most unbelievable stench that I have ever smelled in my life…and there was a lot of heat…. We seemed to come to a stop. I was on the floor on my knees, and I couldn’t feel anything below my waist, and there was smoke.”

Moffitt tumbled out of the car, one shoe off, stunned. He pulled fresh air into his seared lungs. “I saw Ronni from the back, kind of walking or stumbling toward the curb.” He did not see Orlando [Letelier].

Moffitt ran around the wreckage to the driver’s side. Then he saw him. “There was a huge hole in the car, and Orlando was turned around, facing the back of the car, and his head was more or less hanging back and he was moving his head back and forth….” Moffitt reached into the smoking car, around jagged metal edges, and “managed to get my wrists and part of my forearm under his shoulders and tried to lift him, and he just seemed to be very heavy…. I looked down and I could see the bare flesh, the bottom half of his body blown off.”

Before this terrible moment the reader has followed the life and career of Letelier, a man of unusual charm, intelligence, and humane dedication to his country. But also depicted is the childhood and youth of the Jackal, Michael Townley, son of an American businessman stationed in Chile, who chose to stay there after his parents left. The two authors have collected an astonishing amount of information about this assassin,…

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