Fifty years? Can it really have been a whole half-century since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated while riding in a motorcade through the cheering-crowd-filled streets of Dallas, Tex., on Nov. 22, 1963? I remember it was a Friday morning, and I was in my first-grade class when the principal’s strained voice came over the loudspeaker system, informing us all that the president had been fatally wounded and that as a consequence students would be sent home early.
Two days later I found myself sitting in front of a news broadcast on my family’s black-and-white TV set, only barely watching as accused gunman Lee Harvey Oswald was escorted through the basement garage of the Dallas Municipal Building, when a nightclub owner named Jack Ruby suddenly stepped out from the huddle of newsmen and—live on national television—shot Oswald in the chest. Oswald died a couple of hours later, but by that time my mother had switched off our flickering set, sure her 6-year-old son was traumatized enough.
During the last five decades, Kennedy’s brutal murder has become the stuff of legends, conspiracy theories...and more than a few crime-fiction plots.
The latest such imaginative twist on facts comes from Max Allan Collins, who’s made a career of reinvestigating prominent historical mysteries with the assistance of his hard-boiled and (thankfully) hard-headed series featuring private eye Nathan Heller. His new title Ask Not is the concluding entry in Collins’ “JFK trilogy,” following 2011’s Bye Bye, Baby (in which Heller sought proof of Marilyn Monroe’s “suicide”) and last year’s Target Lancer (about an aborted conspiracy to bump President Kennedy off in Chicago, rather than Dallas).
Ask Not gets off to a dynamic and near-deadly start as Heller and his teenage son, Sam, leave a Chicago Beatles concert in September 1964—and are almost flattened by a careering Pontiac. Heller recognizes the driver as one of several Cubans who, like himself, was once associated with Operation Mongoose, a CIA scheme to take out Fidel Castro with the Mafia’s assistance. Knowing this street incident was no accident, the PI resolves to remove his family from the crosshairs of any further hit men. Meanwhile, he takes on the case of a suspicious small-time suicide, which leads him to a rash of dubious deaths among witnesses and other folks linked to Kennedy’s assassination. Goaded on by investigative reporter and TV personality Flo Kilgore (modeled in part on real-life columnist Dorothy Kilgallen), Heller travels from Texas to New York to Louisiana, interviewing “loose ends”—people whose knowledge of the Dallas slaying conflicts with the “lone gunman theory” soon to be promulgated by the blue-ribbon Warren Commission. He’s also taken into the confidence of former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the late president’s younger sibling, who’s already envisioning a White House run of his own, one that will give him authority to expose the “truth” behind his brother’s tragedy, as well as conceal his role in the Operation Mongoose fiasco.
Collins’ three decades of experience blending fictional storylines with historical records serves him well in these pages as he spotlights timeline discrepancies and opportunely overlooked reports related to Kennedy’s killing, the sum of which might make even conspiracy-doubters question the Warren Commission’s conclusions. Although his narrative is occasionally too thick with the gleanings of assiduous research, Collins can be forgiven, for he also uses Heller’s relationships with Kilgore and a spangled stripper called Jada to reveal more of his gumshoe’s heart, and he delivers a well-crafted detective yarn that succeeds independent of its links to notorious political machinations.
Ask Not joins a shelf-load of other crime and thriller works connected to President Kennedy. Also prominent among those is American Tabloid, James Ellroy’s rather lurid 1995 novel about a trio of unpredictable fictional characters—allied with the FBI, the CIA and organized crime—who become entangled in rivalries between John and Robert Kennedy, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. William F. Buckley revisits failed Operation Mongoose in 1987’s Mongoose, R.I.P., sending his urbane CIA operative, Blackford Oakes (who’d debuted—and bedded British royalty!—more than a decade earlier in Saving the Queen), to test the feasibility of killing Castro without leaving the Kennedy administration’s fingerprints all over the deed. In Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn (1974), we find a U.S. intelligence agent trying to uncover proof that Vietnamese officials engineered Kennedy’s shooting as payback for the previous slayings of their own leaders, while Stephen Hunter’s The Third Bullet (2013) posits an alternative scenario about the president’s execution based on a dirty raincoat and unaccounted-for ammo. Heck, even renowned boob-tube sleuth Lt. Columbo got a piece of this action thanks to William Harrington’s 1994 paperback The Grassy Knoll, in which the rumpled cop’s search for a motive behind the murder of a controversial talk-show host leads him to make remarkable discoveries about JFK’s demise.
All the stories mentioned so far have focused on the end of John Kennedy’s life. But two others portray him very much alive and well…and up to his earlobes in espionage.
In The Only Thing to Fear (1995), naval-fiction specialist David Poyer offers a captivating (if patently farfetched) adventure set in the spring of 1945, toward the close of World War II. Kennedy was then a 27-year-old navy lieutenant, recovering (with a bad back and mysterious fatigue symptoms) from the dramatic action he’d witnessed in the South Pacific as a lieutenant in command of a patrol torpedo (PT) boat. Poyer’s story has him transferred to Washington, D.C., where he joins the personal staff of aging President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It seems “someone close to the President is planning an attempt on his life,” and it falls to young “Jack”—the wealthy, womanizing son of a former ambassador to Great Britain—to head off any would-be assassins. “You have charm and intelligence,” Kennedy is told when he asks why he’s being assigned such responsibilities. “You have the social contacts to move smoothly in any circle. The President knows you. You’re a war hero—in print, at any rate. You can fit naturally into a staff job. And you have an intelligence background.”
He’ll need more than social graces and a reputation for bravery, though, to impede a Russian killer who’s defected to the Nazis and arrived in the U.S. capital via U-boat. The Germans hope FDR can be slain in such a way that it implicates the Russians, splits the Allies and provokes a military altercation between the United States and the Soviet Union that will take some heat off the Third Reich. With help from a comely actress named Lauren Wolfe and a modicum of sharp marksmanship, Kennedy just might be able to prevent these disasters. Poyer fills his pages with famous cameo appearances (by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Congressman Lyndon Johnson and others) and does a superior job of capturing the 1940s atmosphere. However, his principal emphasis is on delivering an energetic plot, enriched by its depiction of two Democratic presidents—one then current, one future—joined by ideals and, in this case, subterfuge.
Conceived along similar lines is Francine Mathews’ Jack 1939 (2012). Set of course in ’39, it finds President Roosevelt contemplating a run for his third term in the White House and Europe bracing for another decimating war. Jack Kennedy is only 21 years old and planning to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to do research for his Harvard senior thesis (destined to become the 1940 best-seller, When England Slept), yet he’s already caught FDR’s eye. The wheelchair-bound chief executive, worried that Adolf Hitler is endeavoring to influence the 1940 presidential election and replace him with a more isolationist politician (shades of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America), recruits Kennedy as a personal spy, someone who’ll sort out what the Nazis are up to—and help stop them. But, at the same time Kennedy is enjoying the romantic attentions of a slightly older Englishwoman, Diana Playfair (a Fascist sympathizer he’s not convinced can be trusted), he is dogged by a homicidal fanatic on the Gestapo payroll. Murders ensue, bed sheets are given a proper rumpling and the Enigma cipher machine works its way into the action. As interesting as this book’s central plot, though, are Mathews’ insights (sometimes negative) into relations among the Catholic Kennedy clan.
Even 50 years after his violent passing, John F. Kennedy remains a figure of interest. And yes, intrigue.