Unlocking the mystery of a fateful day
It seems inevitable that Bob Lee Swagger, thriller writer Stephen Hunter’s retired Marine sniper, would one day find a place in the November 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Swagger isn’t the rumored second gunman, mind you, favored by conspiracy theorists as a more plausible presidential assassin than Lee Harvey Oswald. Quite the contrary; in his latest outing, The Third Bullet, the nation’s top fictional ballistics expert takes his best shot at solving America’s most baffling murder mystery—the assassination that marks its 50th anniversary this year.
As The Third Bullet kicks off, the widow of a prominent thriller writer very much like Hunter tracks Swagger down to his Idaho home to ask him to investigate the death of her husband, who was killed in a late-night hit-and-run that may have had links to the Kennedy assassination. Swagger heads to Dealey Plaza, connects with the JFK conspiracy underground, tracks the author’s killer to Moscow and eventually encounters a CIA operative named Hugh Meachum who provides a shockingly plausible alternate answer to the age-old question: Who killed JFK?
By Hunter’s own admission, The Third Bullet was a tough slog between a mountain of hard evidence and a valley of public doubt about what actually happened on that long-ago Dallas afternoon. To flesh out his storyline, the author immersed himself in the Warren Commission Report, took inventory of the various conspiracy theories, then set off like Swagger for Dealey Plaza to have a look for himself.
Fictional ballistics expert Bob Lee Swagger takes a shot at an age-old question: Who killed JFK?
“What I tried to do from the very beginning was establish hard data points, things that everyone knew and all investigators agreed had happened,” he says. “Then I tried to plot between and around them.”
As he looked down from the famous sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, then sat on the park bench directly below it facing the 90-degree turn that the Kennedy motorcade negotiated before the fatal shot, Hunter’s own hunter’s instinct interceded. The motorcade had slowed to a near-stop for the turn, offering a fish-in-the-barrel shot that even a mediocre marksman like Oswald could have made, compared to the much longer, extremely difficult shot at a moving target as the motorcade pulled away.
“I was stunned,” he recalls. “I looked up and saw the window was about 75 feet away and I thought to myself, good God, why did he not take the easy shot?”
That epiphany unlocked the central mystery of The Third Bullet: If not Oswald, who?
To find a plausible explanation, Hunter recalled a book written by ballistics expert Howard Donahue that theorized Kennedy had been killed by a rogue Secret Service agent shooting from a trailing car.
“It was a thoroughly absurd book and was immediately condemned to purgatory by sentient people, but he understood the science of what happens when a bullet is fired at a man,” Hunter says. In the case of the Kennedy assassination, the third bullet, unlike the previous two, exploded on impact when it hit and killed the president. How could that happen if all three bullets came from the same rifle?
To answer that question, Hunter introduces us to Meachum, a vainglorious Yale-educated veteran of the CIA’s Plans Division with his own secret plans. As frighteningly cold and calculating as Meachum’s story is, Hunter challenged himself by presenting it as excerpts from the man’s diary, his first foray into first-person narrative.
“I wrote that first and I really enjoyed that but there were all kinds of problems,” he admits. “A lot of the effects I get come from cutting and juxtaposing points of view, and it frightened me to get away from those points of view and be stuck in a single head, and yet I found the voice right away. In the end, my problem was shutting Hugh up, not getting him to talk. I discovered a lot of the plotting around Hugh while writing him.”
Hunter, who lives in Baltimore, wrote for the Baltimore Sun for more than 25 years before moving to the Washington Post, where he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for film criticism. He launched the Bob Lee Swagger series in 1993 with Point of Impact, incorporating an encyclopedic knowledge of guns and ballistics, and has gone on to write 17 thrillers.
Did conducting his own investigation into the Kennedy assassination change his view on what happened that dark day in Dallas?
“I suppose I confirmed my suspicions,” Hunter allows. “My theory of the world is that nothing works the way it’s supposed to work, so if anyone argues for perfection, they’re barking up the wrong tree. I wanted my Kennedy assassination conspiracy to be small and adept, but at the same time, mistakes were made, improvisations were made, the whole thing is thrown together on the fly and everybody happens to have a very good day on that day. To me, that was far more realistic than a theory that involves the CIA, Czechoslovakian intelligence and the Mattel toy company and their headquarters is under a volcano. You just don’t believe that.”
Does he agree with Stephen King, who concludes in his JFK speculative novel 11/22/63 that there’s a 99-percent chance Oswald did it?
“That’s how I felt when I started, but now I feel that figure is more like 95 percent,” Hunter says. “There’s a much larger chance than we know that something like [what] I came up with actually happened.”