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Find more 50 Years, 50 Books
When Truth and Fiction Are Equally Strange
If John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s election to the presidency in 1960 symbolized youthful optimism in America, then his assassination in Dallas three short years later represented the advent of a new cynicism and paranoia in America, a sudden and drastic coming-of-age. That Kennedy was never able to fulfill his promise only served to frustrate his supporters’ high hopes—and when, less than a year later, the Warren Commission pinned the blame on a lone gunman, speculation and conspiracy theories ran rampant.
Much of that speculation continues to this day. According to Jill Abramson in the New York Times, 40,000 books about JFK have been published in the 50 years since Kennedy’s death. Historian Robert Caro told Abramson that “Kennedy’s life and death form ‘one of the great American stories.’”
The Kennedy clan; JFK’s youth, charisma, and charm; his glamorous wife; the Camelot mythology; the brinkmanship with the Soviets; the skirmishes with Cuba; and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death provide more than enough fodder to inspire a whole subgenre of literature. Add to that his unfinished presidency, its unfulfilled promise, and the inconclusiveness of the investigations into his death, and you have even more raw materials for storytelling. (And aren’t many of the so-called facts surrounding the assassination more than likely fiction, anyway?)
Among those 40,000 titles are novels that use Kennedy’s assassination as a key subject. They range from the pulpy to the literary, from the ludicrous to the self-consciously artistic. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of that dark day, we present 50 books, arranged in chronological order, that include what-ifs examining what would have happened if Kennedy survived the assassin’s bullet; time travels in which history is altered by a visitor from the future; thinly disguised theories about what really happened; routine political thrillers; and more artistic explorations of the tragedy’s impact on Dallas and the nation.
The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon. 1959. o.p.
We commence our list with Richard Condon’ second novel, which, while not a JFK assassination novel, is an obvious precursor. This vastly influential Cold War thriller, a precedent for Showtime’s Homeland series, concerns a Korean War prisoner of war who comes home a hero, but, in fact, was brainwashed by the Communists while in captivity and programmed to shoot the presidential candidate. Made into a motion picture in 1962, the film was removed from distribution, allegedly by its star, Frank Sinatra, after his friend Jack was killed. The book was adapted again for the big screen in 2004 by Jonathan Demme, this time starring Denzel Washington.
The Idle Warriors, by Kerry W. Thornley. 1961. o.p.
This one is indeed an oddity. While also not a JFK assassination novel, it has the unique distinction of being a pre-assassination novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. Countercultural provocateur Thornley knew Oswald while they served together in Japan as disgruntled marines. After Oswald defected to the Soviet Union, Thornley based the character Johnny Shellburn on him. In 1964, following the Kennedy assassination, the Warren Commission felt compelled to call Thornley to testify. Later Jim Garrison subpoenaed him, charging him with perjury, charges that were later dropped. Some people suggest that both Thornley and Oswald were given LSD as part of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA mind-control experiments, which might have contributed to Thornley’s mental illness. The book has long been out of print.
Gideon’s March, by J. J. Marric. 1962. o.p.
Another eerily prescient fiction. John Creasey wrote the Gideon series under the pseudonym J. J. Marric, winning an Edgar Award in the process. In the eighth novel in the series, Inspector George Gideon of Scotland Yard learns of a plot to assassinate President Kennedy during a parade in London.
The President’s Commission on the Assassination of the President (aka The Warren Commission Report). 1964.
Fact or fiction? You be the judge.
Assassins from Tomorrow, by Peter Heath. 1967. o.p.
According to reports, the second in the Mind Brothers series is apparently an inane novel featuring unlikable time travelers from the far future who go back to investigate (or cause) the assassination. “Peter Heath” was a pseudonym for Robert Irvine.
The Atrocity Exhibition, by J. G. Ballard. 1970. Re/Search, paper, $17.50 (9781889307039).
Capitulating to controversy, Doubleday pulped the first American printing of this groundbreaking book featuring provocative stories with such titles as “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” and “Plans for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy.”
Executive Action, by Mark Lane and others. 1973. o.p.
This novelization, based on the screenplay for the controversial film of the same name (starring Burt Lancaster), was written by activist, legislator, and conspiracy theorist Lane (who later witnessed and survived the Jonestown massacre) along with Donald Freed (screenwriter of the 1984 film Secret Honor) and Dalton Trumbo(author of Johnny Got His Gun, 1939). Like Lane’s Rush to Judgment (1966), it contests the findings of the Warren Commission.
Last Man at Arlington, by Joseph DiMona. 1973. Premier Digital, e-book, $6.99 (9781937957193).
On the tenth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, a madman targets six Kennedy administration operatives. One of those operatives, George Williams, discovers that he is on the killer’s list and sets out to stop the would-be assassin. This is the first appearance of Williams, who would appear in several other novels by DiMona. DiMona, incidentally, was the coauthor of H. R. Haldeman’s Watergate memoir, The Ends of Power (1978).
The Tears of Autumn, by Charles McCarry. 1974. Overlook, paper, $15.95 (9781585678907).
Favorably compared with John le Carré, former CIA agent McCarry originally published this novel in 1974, although it fell out of print and remained that way until 2005. This second espionage thriller to feature CIA agent Paul Christopher has the hero travel to Saigon on an unauthorized investigation into the Kennedy assassination.
Winter Kills, by Richard Condon. 1974. o.p.
Fourteen years after a Kennedyesque president is shot in a Philadelphia motorcade, the late president’s half brother learns that the lone-gunman theory is bunk and that a vast conspiracy involving Cubans, the Mob, and his father (who bears a strong resemblance to Joseph Kennedy) was behind the shooting. An entertaining film adaptation was made in 1979 starring Jeff Bridges, John Huston, and Sterling Hayden.
The Eye in the Pyramid, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. 1975.The Golden Apple, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. 1975.Leviathan, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. 1975.Omnibus edition: The Illuminatus Trilogy. 1975. Dell, paper, $20 (9780440539810).
A cult favorite and a classic of conspiracy literature, the Illuminatus Trilogy is about two NYC detectives, Saul Goodman and Barney Muldoon, who investigate the bombing of Confrontation magazine and the disappearance of its editor. They discover that the magazine was conducting its own investigation into the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, leading them to a whole lot of cover-ups, secret societies, and conspiracy theories.
Sherlock Holmes in Dallas, by Edmund Aubrey. 1980. o.p.
Holmes and Watson come out of retirement to investigate the assassination. Of the four reader reviews on Amazon, three consider this novel the worst book they’ve ever read, while one was greatly impressed with the scholarly analysis.
November 22, by Bryan Woolley. 1981. Brown, $21.99 (9781612541365).
In this fictional account, author and journalist Woolley covers the 24 hours spanning the president’s assassination. It’s now back in print after many years, and, according to some accounts, it’s just as relevant now as it was then in its depiction of the attitudes of Dallas’ citizenry.
The Sisters, by Robert Littell. 1986. Overlook, $24.95 (9781585674183).
Master spy novelist Littell has created two eccentric characters in CIA agents Carroll and Francis, “the sisters Death and Night,” famous in their milieu although only a few know what they actually do. They mastermind what they believe is the perfect crime—convincing the now-retired Potter, a former KGB agent in charge of training sleepers, to reveal the identity of a secret agent planted in the U.S.—so that they can activate the sleeper agent to . . . I’m afraid I only have the authority to reveal that much; the rest you will have to read for yourself.
A Time to Remember, by Stanley Shapiro. 1986. o.p.
Not unlike a more recent blockbuster, this is a time-travel novel in which a Dallas school teacher convinces an eccentric physicist to send him back in time to stop Oswald from killing the president—in the hope that, if Kennedy were to survive, it would have prevented the war in Vietnam from taking the life of his older brother. This was the basis for a 1990 made-for-TV movie called Running against Time, starring Robert Hayes.
Mongoose, R.I.P., by William F. Buckley Jr. 1987. o.p.
Operation Mongoose was a real-life covert operation authorized by Kennedy and aimed at Cuban strongman Fidel Castro. In Buckley’ novel, CIA officer Blackford Oakes, the protagonist in 11 of the famous conservative columnist’s spy novels, is in Cuba, assigned to assist a would-be assassin in one of several different plots to kill Castro. Learning that Castro plans to launch a missile (left over from the Cuban missile crisis) at Dallas and Kennedy, Oakes must do what he can to prevent the escalation of the Cold War.
Strange Peaches, by Edwin Shrake. 1987. John M. Hardy, paper, $19.95 (9780979839115).
Dallas in the early sixties informs this rollicking, humorous novel about a Hollywood actor who returns to Dallas to make a documentary and inadvertently captures the assassination on film. Interestingly, the author, a sportswriter, golfing enthusiast, screenwriter, and native Texan, briefly dated Jada, the star dancer at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club, who mysteriously quit her job and left Dallas shortly before the shooting.
Watchmen, by Alan Moore. 1987. DC, paper, $16 (9781401222666).
In this groundbreaking graphic novel, Edward Morgan Blake, aka “The Comedian,” is a violent, nihilistic hero (or vigilante) implicated as a possible Kennedy assassin. (For that matter, Jackie is implicated in the death of Marilyn Monroe.) Later, he kills Woodward and Bernstein. Zach Snyder (300) made a much-discussed movie of Watchmen in 2009.
Libra, by Don DeLillo. 1988. Penguin, paper, $17 (9780143119258).
DeLillo’s fascination with conspiracy theories makes the assassination a perfect subject for him. He followed up the highly acclaimed White Noise (1985) with his take on Lee Harvey Oswald, whom he depicts as a gunman set up by discontented former CIA agents. It’s their hope that, following the Bay of Pigs debacle, an unsuccessful attempt on the president’s life will provoke a war with Cuba.
Promises to Keep, by George Bernau. 1988. o.p.
In this alternative history, the thirty-fifth president of the U.S., John Cassidy, is wounded by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas. While he is incapacitated, his Texan vice president and political rival assumes control of the office and begins to undo the young president’s policies. Can Cassidy regain control of the White House? Can he survive as the conspirators regroup to make a second attempt at killing him?
Assassination Rhapsody, by Derek Pell. 1989. Autonomedia, paper, $9.95 (9780936756547).
A bizarre, postmodern “pataphysical”(the word comes from from French pre-postmodernist Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics, a “science of imaginary solutions”) take on the assassination by visual artist and satirist Pell, in which the findings of the Warren Commission are deconstructed. One reader called it a cross between Naked Lunch (1959) and The Medium Is the Massage (1967).
Flying in to Love, by D. M. Thomas. 1992. Westview, paper, $9.95 (9780786702084).
Mixing history with fiction in another literary take (see Libra, above), Thomas (The White Hotel, 1981) chooses not to emphasize the facts of that fateful day but, instead, in dreamlike prose, to explore what made that day so mythic.
The People v. Lee Harvey Oswald, by Walt Brown. 1992. o.p.
In this what-if courtroom drama, Oswald survives Ruby’s bullet to face trial. Brown, a former special agent for the Justice Department, uses his novel to make the argument that Oswald was a patsy (or, at least, that the evidence strongly suggests it). Famed trial lawyer Martin Garbus wrote the preface.
Columbo: The Grassy Knoll, by William Harrington. 1994. o.p.
When talk-show host Paul Drury is murdered after promising to reveal the real assassin in his final broadcast, the rumpled L.A. detective gets into the act. As it turns out, a lot of people wanted to see Drury dead. Harrington wrote a number of Columbo novels where he “solves” cold cases, including The Hoffa Connection (1995), The Hoover Files (1998), and The Helter Skelter Murders (1994).
Corruption of Blood, by Robert K. Tanenbaum. 1995. Open Road, e-book, $7.99 (9781453210185).
The author of 25 novels, Tanenbaum served in the late 1970s as deputy chief counsel on the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations to investigate the assassinations of JFK and MLK (where he determined that JFK’s death was the result of a conspiracy). This more than qualifies him to speculate about Mob connections, Russian spies, and CIA agents in this edgy legal novel, the sixth in the Butch Karp and Marlene Ciampi series.
American Tabloid, by James Ellroy. 1995. Vintage, paper, $16.95 (9780375727375).The Cold Six Thousand, by James Ellroy. 2001. Vintage, paper, $16 (9780375727405).
In the days leading up to November 22, 1963, two FBI agents and a former L.A. cop turned CIA operative find themselves mixed up with JFK, his brother Robert, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, and Mob boss Sam Giancana. Nobody is innocent here. Ellroy’s delirious sequel, The Cold Six Thousand,takes on Vietnam and the assassination of RFK and MLK.
Who Killed Kennedy: The Shocking Secret Linking a Time Lord and a President, by David Bishop and James Stevens. 1996. o.p.
Coauthor “Stevens,” is, in fact, the fictional narrator of this Doctor Who spin-off novel. The good doctor only makes a brief appearance, but die-hard fans of the longest-running science-fiction series in television history will recognize Dodo Chaplet. In an alternate 1964, President Kennedy survives the shooting in Dallas, although Jackie is killed. According to the jacket: “Now—despite government attempts to halt the publication of this volume—the complete, shocking story can be told. Read the book they tried to ban!”
The Umbrella Man, by Doug Swanson. 1999. o.p.
The rumored, black-and-white “DuFrain film,” a counterpart to Zapruder’s better-known color film of Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, might show a second gunman in the grassy knoll. In his fourth zany caper, low-rent Dallas PI Jack Flippo sets out to prove whether or not the film exists.
The Shot, by Philip Kerr. 2000. o.p.
Before Kerr garnered well-earned acclaim for the Bernie Gunther series set in Hitler’s Germany, he wrote this political thriller about Tom Jefferson, a hit man hired by Sam Giancana and the CIA to kill Castro. However, when Jefferson learns that a randy presidential candidate had slept with his wife, he decides to target the seducer—Kennedy—instead.
The Godfather’s Revenge, by Mark Winegardner. 2007. o.p.
Following the death of Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather (1969), his estate gave Winegardner the honor of continuing the Godfather franchise. He has now written three novels in the Corleone saga. Like Puzo’s novel and Coppola’s film, Winegardner’s tale takes authentic historical figures and events and fictionalizes them. Here the Cosa Nostra plot to kill a young, upstart president for attempting to distance himself from those who helped place him in office. While The Godfather II is generally considered to be the rare case where a sequel (or prequel) is even better than the original, this one certainly ain’t.
November 22, 1963, by Adam Braver. 2008. Perseus, e-book, $14.95 (9780982053997).
In this fictional evocation of that fateful day, Braver weaves multiple stories—including those of Jackie Kennedy, Abe Zapruder, the salesman of Kennedy’s casket—to demythologize and capture the human aspect of the assassination.
The Memoirs of John F. Kennedy, by Donald James Lawn. 2010. Castlefin, paper, $17.95 (9780982906408).
In another what-if novel, Kennedy survives the gunshot wounds he received in Dallas and goes on to serve a second term as president of the U.S., leading the country down a very different path than the one it actually traveled. The novel also follows the story of the young reporter assigned to coauthor the president’s memoirs.
Shift, by Tim Kring and Dale Peck. 2010. o.p.
TV writer Kring (Heroes) and author/critic Peck, in the first novel in the Gate of Orpheus trilogy, incorporate the government’s secret psychological operations (MK-ULTRA, which involved the use of LSD) into their particular conspiracy theory.
11/22/63, by Stephen King. 2011. Gallery, paper, $19.99 (9781451627299).
If you had the power to go back in time to change history, would you? In this sprawling best-seller, Jake Epping travels through a time warp in a diner pantry, arriving in 1958. His aim: to stop Oswald from killing Kennedy.
Shelter from the Texas Heat, by Bobbi Kornblit. 2011. Peach Twig, paper, $17.95 (9780615538617).
Kornblit’s debut novel is the story of redheaded Rachel Frank, a Jewish girl coming of age in 1960s Dallas. This multigenerational novel demonstrates the massive and lasting impact of the president’s assassination on teenage Rachel and on the world around her.
Bye, Bye, Baby, by Max Allan Collins.2011. Forge, paper, $7.99 (9780765361462).Target Lancer, by Max Allan Collins. 2012. Forge, paper, $7.99 (9780765361479).Ask Not, by Max Allan Collins. 2013. Forge, $25.99 (9780765336262).
Thirty years and 17 books ago, Collins’ Chicago PI Nathan Heller (dubbed “PI to the stars” due to his many celebrity clients) series began with Heller taking on his first client, Al Capone. Here, the series continues with a trilogy devoted to JFK. In the first story, Bye, Bye, Baby, Marilyn Monroe hires Heller to tap her phones after Twentieth Century Fox threatens to fire her. Heller learns that Monroe had affairs with both JFK and his brother Robert. When Monroe is found dead of an alleged overdose, Heller investigates and the Kennedys don’t come out looking good. Target Lancer concerns a lesser-known, failed assassination attempt (a planned presidential visit is cancelled at the last minute) three weeks earlier in Chicago, home of the PI to the stars. An appearance by Jack Ruby and references to Operation Mongoose add to the fun. The series culminates with Ask Not, in which Heller and his son, leaving a Beatles concert, are nearly run down by a vehicle driven by one of the Cubans involved in the Chicago plot. Heller investigates a series of questionable suicides by witnesses to the events in Dallas and comes to a very different conclusion than did the Warren Commission.
The Third Bullet, by Stephen Hunter. 2012. Simon & Schuster, $26.99 (9781451640205).
The eponymous third bullet of the title of this, the eighth Hunter novel to feature former Vietnam sniper Bob Lee Swagger, refers to the third shot fired on JFK’s motorcade in Dallas—the shot that fatally hit the president in the head. When a writer of thrillers (much like Hunter himself) is murdered while working on a book about the assassination, his widow enlists Bob Lee to find the killer. Moving between 1963 and the present, The Third Bullet reinterprets accepted facts, giving them a plausible twist and culminating in a thrilling, present-day manhunt.
Top Down, by Jim Lehrer. 2013. Random, $26 (9781400069163).
Lehrer—who was a reporter in Dallas on November 22, 1963—examines the decision to leave the top down on JFK’s limo during the motorcade in Dallas, a decision that has weighed heavily on Secret Service Agent Van Walters.
Other Titles of Interest:
The Attempted Assassination of John F. Kennedy: A Political Fantasy, by Lucas Webb. 1976. Wildside/Millefleurs, paper, $13 (9780893702045).
The Legacy, by Stephen Frey. 1998. Onyx, e-book, $7.99 (9780786543199).
The Number of the Beast, by Robert A. Heinlein. 1986. Random/Fawcett, paper, $7.99 (9780449130704).
Paper Wings, by Marly Swick. 1996. HarperCollins, paper, $13 (9780060928377).
Scop, by Barry N. Malzberg. 1976. o.p.
Sixty-Three Closure, by Anthony Frewin. 1998. No Exit, paper, $13.99 (9781901982046).
Wyatt Earp in Dallas: 1963, by Stephen McCabe. 1995. o.p.
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