cover image The Man Who Knew Too Much: Hired to Kill Oswald and Prevent the Assassination of JFK: Richard Case Nagell

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Hired to Kill Oswald and Prevent the Assassination of JFK: Richard Case Nagell

Dick Russell. Carroll & Graf Publishers, $27.95 (824pp) ISBN 978-0-88184-900-4

Carroll & Graf has been in the forefront of producing books about the Kennedy assassination--of widely varying quality; it has come up with a winner this time. Russell, a freelance journalist who has written for Time and the Village Voice , has spent 17 years on this mammoth study of one of the most mysterious figures on the fringes of the assassination: Richard Case Nagell, described as the man ``hired to kill Oswald and prevent the assassination of JFK.'' With painstaking care, Russell sets out to reconstruct the strange life of Nagell, a former member of a super-secret army intelligence unit who was wounded in battle, the sole survivor of two air crashes, a contract agent for both the CIA and the KGB at different times, and a man whose life kept intersecting with Oswald's. Russell has met Nagell on a number of occasions, corresponded with him as recently as 1990 (when he was living in a motel in California) and wonderfully captures the intriguing eccentricities of his speech, with his deliberate, almost playful, allusiveness. Nagell seems to have been utilized by both the CIA and the KGB to keep tabs on Oswald (who himself probably also worked both sides of the street) and was ultimately prodded by the Russians to head Oswald away from his role in the Dallas plot (one of at least three to kill JFK in 1963, according to Russell). If Nagell failed to dissuade Oswald, he was to kill him. At that point Nagell, bewildered and unsure who was calling the shots, lost his nerve, warned the CIA and FBI of the impending disaster, then had himself arrested (he discharged a gun harmlessly in a Texas bank a month before the president was assassinated); he spent years in jail, while lawyers wrangled over his sanity. Nagell has not been heard from for the past two years, but Russell believes he is still alive, his silence bought by a generous military pension. The author is right in suggesting that a government investigation that subpoenaed Nagell as a witness (neither the Warren Commission nor the House inquiry did) would learn a great deal about an event that continues to intrigue and baffle the world. No praise can be too high for Russell's mastery of a massive quantity of detail, for his determination to seek out primary sources and for his refusal to over-dramatize. This is a model work of historical reconstruction that should, as Norman Mailer suggests in a blurb, open up many hitherto unperceived leads in the case. (Jan.)