It’s hardly surprising that the assassination of President John Kennedy has spawned dozens of thrillers; in many ways, it exemplifies the aphorism that truth is stranger than fiction.
A young, handsome, inspirational world leader is gunned down in the midst of a surprisingly warm reception from crowds in a city that was expected to be filled with hostility toward him. The assassin, an obscure nobody, is taken into custody, proclaiming he was set up, despite compelling evidence against him, including the discovery of the murder weapon at his place of work. Forty-eight hours later, the day of the president’s funeral, the assassin—who had defected to the U.S.S.R. at one point—is himself shot to death on live television, in police headquarters, by a man who has some mob ties. The FBI and CIA have reasons not to fully disclose relevant information to the official investigating commission, and don’t do so. And the murder is viewed by many as the start of a “swerve into darkness,” as author Greg Iles puts it, the first step in a chain of national traumas that some feel radically reshaped the direction of the country.
Bizarrely, the first Kennedy assassination fiction was published in 1962. Under the alias of J.J. Maric, British writer John Creasey created Gee-Gee, Cmdr. George Gideon of the Yard, who appeared in more than 20 procedurals between 1955 and 1976. In 1962’s Gideon’s March, Creasey imagined a plot to kill J.F.K. on a visit to London; a Southerner opposed to Kennedy’s civil rights policy was the murderer-to-be. Fifteen years later, Jeffrey Archer imagined a conspiracy against a President Ted Kennedy, a concept widely found offensive, in Shall We Tell the President? Publication of the book by Viking lost it the services of editor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and eventually led to a revised version with a female chief executive substituted for Kennedy.
And with widespread distrust of the Warren Commission’s findings that Oswald acted alone, many authors took unanswered questions, as well as ambiguous forensic evidence and witness statements, as a starting point for their thrillers. The line between fact and fiction was often blurred, with some writers using their novels to purportedly reveal the real truth. Their ranks included none other than the controversial New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (himself fictionalized and glamorized in the 1991 Oliver Stone film JFK, with then-A-lister Kevin Costner in the role), who, in 1969, charged a local businessman, Clay Shaw, with plotting Kennedy’s death with others; Shaw was acquitted in less than an hour.
In 1976, Garrison came out with The Star-Spangled Contract, featuring a CIA/Defense Department plan to take out a sitting president. Its reception was not much kinder than that of his flimsy case against Shaw. (Richard Condon’s Winter Kills and Loren Singer’s The Parallax View were superior 1970s paranoid thrillers, and were both made into films).
One trend planted a well-known fictional detective in the midst of the investigation. 1980 saw an old (make that a very old) Sherlock Holmes on the trail of the assassins in Edmund Aubrey’s Sherlock Holmes in Dallas. A more chronologically logical choice, TV’s Lieutenant Columbo, popped up in 1993’s Columbo: The Grassy Knoll by William Harrington. On the other side of the law, Michael Corleone dealt with the murder of the J.F.K.-like president James Shea in 2006’s The Godfather Revenge by Mark Winegardner.
Another trend, which played on the public appetite for Kennedy fiction, rather than on the events in Dallas, transformed both President and Mrs. Kennedy into the protagonists of spy thrillers. In 2012, Riverhead published Jack 1939 by Francine Matthews, herself a former CIA intelligence analyst, which sends a 22-year-old J.F.K. on a mission for F.D.R. Without an intelligence service, Roosevelt needs the young Kennedy to foil a diabolical plot by Hitler to flood the 1940 U.S. presidential election with German money to foil F.D.R.’s hopes for a third term. On a lighter side, the authors using the Maxine Kenneth pseudonym have made hay of a reference they found in a letter the first lady had written revealing that she had been offered employment by the CIA! In Paris to Die For (Grand Central, 2011), Jackie’s efforts to get a Russian to defect in the early 1950s soon turn bloody. The tone is deliberately arch (“Jacqueline Lee Bouvier wasn’t exactly dressed for discovering a corpse”). The 2012 sequel, Spy in a Little Black Dress, has her going undercover in Havana to learn about a young revolutionary—Fidel Castro.
But the case has attracted literary heavyweights as well, such as Norman Mailer (Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery , in which the assassin acted to give his pathetic life some meaning) and Don DeLillo. The latter’s conspiracy-rich Libra (1998) was the inspiration for James Ellroy’s ultra-dark American Underworld trilogy, the first volume of which, American Tabloid (1995), tracks the fatal path toward Dealey Plaza, ending just before shots are fired there. As with the plethora of assassination nonfiction, his novel’s focus on conspiracy fits the rule, and that’s not surprising. It’s easier to lure readers in with a promise of hidden historical truths rather than a recapitulation of the first, and simpler, official explanation. And that trend continues with books appearing around the 50th anniversary of the murder.
Earlier this year, Stephen Hunter’s The Third Bullet (Simon & Schuster) brought his marksman hero Bob Lee Swagger out of seclusion to investigate the hit-and-run murder of a novelist who had gotten information that a coat stained with gun-cleaning fluid was found, not in the Texas School Book Depository, but in the neighboring Dal-Tex Building; the implication is that there was a second gunman firing from behind the presidential motorcade. The novel makes use of Hunter’s ballistics expertise to look into the Kennedy assassination (“the ballistics had a lot to do with what was possible and what wasn’t and why things happened one way and not another,” Hunter says).
Hunter believes that discussions of the killing have been “a hurricane of chaos and misinformation. A perfect example is the decadelong furor over the ‘magic bullet,’ the bullet that passed through both the president and the governor and was found on the hospital gurney, seemingly undamaged. That is exactly what that cartridge was designed to do. It has an unusually thick-jacketed, unusually long bullet meant to penetrate winter battle dress, particularly in the Alps, where the Italians presumed they’d be fighting future defensive wars. Thus the true mystery of the J.F.K. assassination isn’t ‘how could the bullet go through two people with only slight damage?’ but ‘why did the third bullet explode?’ ”
Fans of Max Allan Collin’s Nate Heller novels, which somehow plausibly have the PI present at the 20th century’s most notorious mysteries, starting with the Lindbergh kidnapping, saw Heller foil a Chicago assassination plot not long before Nov. 22, 1963, in last year’s Target Lancer (Forge). This fall’s Ask Not picks up the action after Dallas, as Heller fears that those behind the president’s murder are targeting him as well for knowing too much. The theory advanced in that book matches Collin’s own beliefs about what happened. “It’s developed from extensive, even exhaustive research, but reflects a belief in the mob’s role and Oswald as a patsy that I’ve held for decades. Normally, I go into writing a Heller novel without an opinion—it’s bad science, trying to prove a theory—but my opinion was shaped by lots of reading over many years. Also, as a teenager, when I saw Oswald proclaim himself a patsy on TV, I believed him. I still do. That any reasonable person, with any knowledge of the facts, could accept Oswald as the sole perpetrator speaks to the understandable human need to make this awful event simple, to make it just go away. It won’t.”
The Kennedy Connection by R.G. Belsky, managing editor at NBCNews.com, will be published by Atria in August 2014. For Belsky, “The J.F.K. assassination is the greatest mystery—the biggest crime story whodunit—of our time. So I decided to write a book about a newspaper reporter who uncovers shocking evidence that a series of murders in present-day New York City is somehow connected to what happened on November 22 in Dallas—and he’s determined to find out the truth after all these years. This was more than just an intriguing story line for me. It also gave me an opportunity to use my own fascination with the J.F.K. assassination story—I’ve read virtually every book and watched every documentary about it—as a basis for my fictional character’s obsession with the same topic.”
Fifty years later, Belsky still has vivid memories of where he was when he heard the news from Dallas. “I was a freshman walking to class across the campus of Ohio University. A friend asked me if I’d heard someone took a shot at the president. We assumed it wasn’t anything serious—that J.F.K. would joke about it at his next press conference, the way he always did about his close calls like [the sinking of] PT109 in WWII. But when I got to my class they told us the president was dead.” Greg Iles’s Natchez Burning (Morrow, Apr. 2014) kicks off a trilogy related in some way to the J.F.K. assassination (Iles doesn’t want to spoil the books by saying more). For him, the public fascination is not with the “whodunit” aspect of the mystery. “I believe there’s a collective sense in this country that J.F.K.’s murder was a hinge point in our history. The road not taken in 1963 is so vivid in our minds and hearts, we can almost feel it, and the child within each of us wants to know why we didn’t get that. The truth lies somewhere between Hannah Arendt and Oliver Stone. Evil is depressingly banal, but to believe we know the whole truth about those assassinations is infantile.”
Not every writer on the subject is so emotionally engaged. Ellroy, for example, recalls delivering newspapers the evening after the murder, and the images of street after street with houses illuminated by the black and white of the TV screens everyone seemed to be glued to is still vivid for him. But he had no personal interest in the historic events, and used them to write a social history of the 1960s and explore “the private nightmare of public policy.” Asked whether his books’ elaborate conspiracies reflect his own views of the truth, Ellroy responds that he doesn’t know, and doesn’t care.
Although Philip Kerr, best known for his Bernie Gunther series, believes Oswald acted alone (he describes the notion of the ex-Marine being part of a plan “nonsensical”), he depicts some familiar conspirators in his thriller The Shot (Atria, 2000). The story centers on a Miami-based hit man, Tom Jefferson, who adopts presidents’ names as his aliases. Mobsters who are eager to continue doing business in Havana hire Jefferson—to kill Fidel Castro. But the plan hits a snag when Jefferson learns that Kennedy has been sleeping with his wife. For Kerr, the murder “helped to shape a conspiracy-minded culture; nothing happens now—not the death of Princess Diana or 9/11—that was not the result of some Machiavellian plot by hidden figures.” Despite his disdain for Warren Commission skeptics, Kerr does think that “there was a conspiracy to cover up the incompetence of law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies after the event. The Secret Service agents were probably drunk with J.F.K. on the night before the assassination; and hungover on the fateful day in Dallas.”
Yet Kerr concedes there might have been even more going on behind the scenes. Russ Baker’s book about the Bush family—Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, the Powerful Forces That Put It in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America (Bloomsbury, 2008)—caused him to “ask some new questions about dirty American politics, assassination, and the CIA.” Kerr wrote about the assassination precisely “because it seemed so difficult—everything had been said, it seemed; the only things not said were fictional, and I hoped that this book would provide some insight into an event of such importance. I like a challenge.”
Glen Carter’s Last Witness (Breakwater, Oct. 2013) and Wil Mara’s Frame 232 (Tyndale, June 2013) both center on a witness to the murder, the so-called Babushka Lady, who has film of the shooting. And The Castro Gene by former White House economic adviser Todd Buchholz (Oceanview, 2007) presents a wholly original hypothesis: “Jackie Kennedy was the intended victim, targeted by one of the president’s jealous girlfriends who had close ties to the mob.” (Buchholz does think that his take is wholly fictional.)
Two notable recent books accepting the Warren Commission’s lone-gunman conclusion fall in the “what if” category. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (Scribner, 2011) features a time-traveler’s attempts to stop Oswald. Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History (Putnam, Oct. 2013) is classified as nonfiction, but reads like a counterfactual novel. Greenfield has been fascinated by “small, random twists of fate,” like the butterfly effect of weather in Dallas; he notes that “the rain that forecasters thought would continue to fall in Dallas on that Friday would have kept the bubble-top on the presidential limousine.”
But would that change in the weather really have changed history? That question is at the center of one of the year’s most fascinating takes on the crime, Jim Lehrer’s Top Down (Random, Oct. 2013). The veteran journalist wrote it “because of a real story from my own experience that had been stuck way, way back down in my memory—and soul, I guess—for nearly 50 years.”
On November 22, Lehrer was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, the city’s afternoon newspaper, assigned to cover the Kennedys’ arrival and stay to cover the departure. While waiting for the arrival of Air Force One, he went to the small ramp where the Secret Service had lined up the half-dozen official cars that would be in the presidential motorcade. “My rewrite man downtown wanted to know if the bubble top would be up on the presidential limousine when it eventually drove through downtown. From the top of the ramp I saw that the bubble top was on the car. I asked the Secret Service agent in charge if it was going to stay there. The bubble top was a non–bullet-proof quarter-inch-thick Plexiglas covering that was used only for protection against inclement weather. It had been raining in Dallas earlier that morning. Now the agent declared it to be clear and ordered other agents to take down the bubble top.”
In Top Down, the agent who made the decision to remove the bubble top became so irrationally overcome with guilt afterward that he believed he was responsible for President Kennedy having died. As experienced a newsman as Lehrer is, he went back over the central facts of the assassination and the investigations “to make sure my 50-year-old memories were accurate. It turned out some were not. It was a good reminder of the truism for a journalist or anyone else that the information from an eyewitness always must be questioned and verified. Different people see the same things through their own and very different prisms.”
Roman à Death
The Kennedy assassination is, of course, not the only true crime case to have inspired, and to continue to inspire, fiction. Scholars point to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as one of the earliest examples, but a better starting point may be Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Mary Roget,” published in 1842 as the second Auguste Dupin tale, and offering a solution to the real-life mystery of the murder of New York City cigar girl Mary Rogers. The Lindbergh kidnapping was the starting point for Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. One of Josephine Tey’s most popular works, 1948’s The Franchise Affair, was inspired by the real-life experiences of Elizabeth Canning, an 18th-century maid who claimed to have been held against her will for a month in a hayloft. The savage butchery of Elizabeth Short in 1947 Los Angeles was solved both by James Ellroy, in 1987’s The Black Dahlia, and in another Nate Heller novel by Max Allan Collins, 2002’s Angel in Black. And even such classics of American literature as Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were inspired in part by real murders.
Murderous romans à clef continue to be popular. In recent years, both Lloyd Shepherd, in The English Monster (Washington Square, 2012) and David Morrell in Murder as a Fine Art (L,B/Mulholland, May 2013) have reexamined the horrific Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. Shepherd’s main ground rule was “to stick as closely as possible to the original chronology. These murders were vicious and inexplicably demonic, but, more importantly, the official reaction to them was chaotic and panicked, and only got worse as time went on. It was important to try and keep that sense of panic, while at the same time navigating the reader through what I hope is a clear explanation—within the rules set up by the book I wrote—for something so profoundly obscure and disordered. We have become used to crime stories that are built upon our modern mechanisms for investigating crime: establish motive, seek witnesses, establish alibis, follow a chain of evidence, build a prosecution case. In the early 19th century, none of these were recognized, apart from the need to collect witnesses. The result was shambolic, and I wanted that to be what came through in my telling of the story, without confusing the reader.”
Using a real crime was simpler at the start for Shepherd: “The story is waiting to be told, and you know the shape of it. You sit down and the question is, ‘how do I tell this story?’ rather than ‘what story am I going to tell?’ It moves you forward more quickly in the early stages. But it gets harder as you go on because there is no room for cheating; you can’t move dates around, or put people in places where they couldn’t be, and that can make pacing difficult. The real world is a complex place, and patterns for narrative do not always emerge—they have to be coaxed out.”
By contrast, Morrell finds it easier to build a story around actual events. “Life is always stranger than fiction. I could never have imagined the astonishing Ratcliffe Highway murders or what happened to the supposed killer. One challenge about writing fiction is to try to make it seem real. If I have an actual crime at the core of my story, there’s a better chance to make the story feel authentic.”
The Lincoln assassination has attracted its share of fiction writers as well. In September, Kensington published David O. Stewart’s The Lincoln Deception. Impressively, Stewart has a novel take on the unquestioned conspiracy that led to the president’s murder. In 1900, John Bingham, the lead prosecutor of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators, was on his deathbed; Bingham claimed that during the trial one of the defendants, the notorious Mary Surratt, told him a secret that “would destroy the republic.” Stewart believes that most readers come to his book already curious because they think “the Booth conspiracy mattered. That’s a tremendous advantage for the writer.”
The strange death in 1886 of Ludwig, the mad king of Bavaria, is explored in Oliver Potzsch’s The Ludwig Conspiracy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Sept.). The Dreyfus affair is brought to life in Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy (Knopf, Jan. 2014).
But there is also plenty of crime fiction based on more recent events as well. Linda Fairstein’s Night Watch (Dutton, 2012) has her alter ego Alex Cooper involved in a thinly disguised version of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case. This was a radical departure for the series. Fairstein recalls, “It was always my intention, before that, not to base any of my books on actual cases, although I drew from motives and characters and issues raised in actual crimes. What ultimately drew me in was the idea that prosecutors, whose job is to see that justice is done, count on victims coming to them for help. The crime has been committed and only the law enforcement cavalry, the police/forensic examiners/prosecutors, can right the wrong. So why is it that any witness would present herself and not be truthful? Whatever happened in the hotel room, why would she lie about every other external fact (her asylum application, specifically having faked a rape charge), her boyfriend and his illegal activities, her family, her means of support—why lie about so much, when all it does is undermine the central story you are telling the assistant DA? So I wanted to use that basic case structure to create an entirely different result in the case.”
Dr. Bill Bass, renowned forensic anthropologist, and Jon Jefferson, a veteran journalist and documentary maker, use the alias of Jefferson Bass for their Body Farm novels, which draw on Bass’s career and real-life murder cases. Their latest, Cut to the Bone (Morrow, Sept. 2013), a prequel, is based on an actual serial-killing case in Knoxville, Tenn., the 1992 Zoo Man murders. Those murders were a good fit for the series concept as “time-since-death estimates played a crucial role in that case, because the prosecution needed to prove that the defendant had the opportunity to kill each of the four women.” Bass and Jefferson note that “drawing on a real-world case can make it easier to get going—like parking your car on a downhill slope. Trouble is, actual cases don’t often make for satisfying novels: readers love fiction because the pace can be faster, the octane higher, and the narrative arc more satisfying. So if you roll-start the writing with a real-world crime, you soon have to part company with fact, and that’s when the uphill climb begins.”
Among the other recent causes célèbres to get similar treatment are the Amanda Knox case, in Jennifer duBois’s Cartwheel (Random, Sept.) and the abduction of Elizabeth Smart, in And Then She Was Gone by Rosalind Noonan (Kensington, Jan. 2014). Marcia Clark’s next Rachel Knight novel, The Competition (Mulholland, July 2014), centers on a school shooting, while Lisa Jackson’s Tell Me (Zebra, Mar. 2014) is based on the story of an Oregon state trooper, Diana Downs, who shot her three children.