Stephen Hunter goes ballistic: ‘The Third Bullet’ rethinks the JFK story

Bob Lee Swagger cracks the case.

Stephen Hunter is the cleverest JFK assassination conspiracy theorist to come along in many a year, so clever that few of his fellow theorists have even noticed that he is one.

In his latest novel, “The Third Bullet,” Hunter pulls off a an authorly act of legerdemain: he dresses up a rigorous reading of the forensic evidence about the assassination fo President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in the guise of an international shoot ’em up thriller.

The trail of adventure runs from Baltimore to Moscow to Dallas as Hunter’s creaky alter ego Bob Lee Swagger, a humble soldier of fortune who packs a mean pistol, solves the crime of the century while chatting up old buddies and twitching for a drink. 

This is not a tale for the literal-minded students of the often-baffling case of the murdered president. Hunter displays little of the righteousness that often adorns the various conspiracy and anti-conspiratorial accounts of Kennedy’s assassination. He disdains liberal pieties. “I don’t give a fuck about JFK,” Swagger says at one point. Hunter pokes fun at anti-conspiratorial oracle, Vincent Bugliosi.

Hunter fancies himself superior to those losers known as JFK conspiracy theorists. Yet he shares the conspiracy theorist’s obsessive interest in the details of this formative historical event and an abiding dissatisfaction with the official story — that one man alone killed JFK for no reason.

Stephen Hunter wants you to meet Bob Lee Swagger, JFK conspiracy theorist.

The story opens with Swagger in retirement brooding about a story he once heard about the Dal-Tex Building. For the uninitiated, the Dal-Tex building is an edifice in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, from which some say gunshots were allegedly fired at President Kennedy. As Swagger investigates around the globe, Hunter uses the journey to showcases his deep reading of the case.

(Full disclosure: Hunter was a movie critic at the Washington Post at the same time I worked there, though I knew him only in passing. In a newsroom full of latte liberals he was welcomed as a Jack Daniels populist whose retro politics were redeemed only by lively prose and a healthy suspicion of management.)

Hunter’s facts

Did the Soviet KGB recruit Oswald to assassinate JFK during his time in the Soviet Union? (The archives of post-communist Russia say no.)

Could the CIA have learned via wiretaps in Mexico City that Oswald took a shot at retired right-wing general Edwin Walker in April 1963? (Yes, it’s possible.)

Was a gunshot from the so-called grassy knoll in front of JFK’s limousine easier than a shot from behind? (No.)

Did amoral and well-bred CIA officers regard Kennedy as a failed president whose assassination was morally justifiable. (Yes.)

Hunter’s rambling right-populist take on the JFK story is most convincing on the guns and ammunition involved. As a student of guns, he literally drills down in loving detail on the workings of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle; the precision of the fatal shot that killed JFK; the bullet fragments found in Kennedy’s body and in the presidential limousine; how Oswald handled firearms, and so on.

In these areas, Hunter is not merely entertaining but fresh and informative. In the effort to account for the ballistic evidence, he sticks to the facts and works through the problems posed by the official story. I think his disdain for politics is ultimately untenable but it does free his analysis from the predictable grooves of the conspiracy debate.

Hunter’s observations

Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano was an inferior weapon that fired a relatively slow-moving bullet. Hunter doubts it was the murder weapon.

Oswald was not particularly skilled with a gun. Yes, he was rated as a “marksman” in the Marines Corps, but he failed to qualify as an “expert,” the mark of an accomplished shooter.

The bullet that killed JFK disintegrated upon impact in a way that an ordinary Mannlicher-Carcano bullet would not. The official investigations never accounted for this fact.

And in the panicky aftermath of the assassination, Oswald inexplicably returned to his boarding house to fetch a pistol that he could have brought with him to work that morning. What prompted him to suddenly need a firearm? Swagger concludes, correctly I think, that after Kennedy was killed, Oswald knew his life as in danger.

Hunter’s theory

If I read him right, Hunter isn’t actually proposing a conspiracy theory that is Historical Truth. He’s proposing a different way of thinking about JFK. The best way to understand the causes of Kennedy’s death, he suggets, is to reason backwards from the incontrovertible ballistic evidence to the guns that caused it.

In the story, Swagger reconciles the conflicting gun evidence with a speculative theory about the third bullet — the bullet that killed Kennedy. Swagger figures out that a Mannlicher-Carcano bullet can be loaded into the cartridge of .264 Winchester Magnum round, which could then be loaded into the more powerful and accurate .264 Winchester Magnum rifle. (In an afterword, Hunter says he has actually pulled off this trick.)

Hunter adheres to the logic of his evidence. Such a bullet fired from the Winchester rifle would travel much faster than a Mannlicher-Carcano bullet (3,000 feet per second vs. less than 2,000 feet per second) and would explode on impact, leaving only the kind of tiny fragments found inside Kennedy’s shattered skull. Since such a bullet could not have come from an ordinary bullet fired by Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano, there must have been a second gunman.

And who could have managed such ballistic mastery? The most likely suspect, says the ever politically incorrect Hunter, would be  a U.S. intelligence officer experienced in the business of killing and covering his tracks, i.e, a senior CIA operative.

Hunter’s tale

Hunter, the author of no less than 18 books, knows how to spice up his assassination pedagogy: with a shootout in Moscow in which Swagger mows down a brigade of Russian mafiosos, with occasional food porn flings in some of Dallas’s finer restaurants, and with that recurring motif of the JFK literature, the unpublished memoir of an unrepentant CIA man.

For some “The Third Bullet” will seem ideologically incoherent. Hunter takes every opportunity to channel the Warren Commission and its modern day embellishers, Bugliosi and Gerald Posner, in depicting Castro supporter Lee Harvard Oswald as a “pathetic creep” who fired shots at President Kennedy from the 6th floor window in a bid for Marxist glory.

Yet Hunter’s narrative ultimately depicts Oswald as the hapless patsy of a small faction of CIA officers who oppose JFK’s policies in Vietnam as dangerous to American soldiers. In Hunter’s tale, the third bullet was the work of JFK’s enemies in the CIA, not that Swagger gives a damn. He doesn’t much care for Kennedy or Oswald. Cranky to the end, he lionizes J.D. Tippit, the Dallas police officer whom Oswald shot dead when he realized he had been played for a patsy. To the cynical Swagger, Tippit is more the hero than JFK.

Hunter’s irreverent approach to the JFK story is bracing. He  seeks to pierce the veil of mystery that still surrounds Dallas, not by excluding evidence that contradicts his politics, but by finding an explanation that reconciles the apparent contradictions of the evidence. He spins his yarn for a reason.

As Hunter told the Baltimore Sun earlier this year:

There must be millions of people who are at least familiar with the gigantic mega-theories of conspiracy and find them extremely troubling and grotesque. But at the same time, the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone is a disappointment.

I hope this book discovers the appropriate distance between the two and comes up with more of a sense of the possible. I tried to give the conspiracy a real-world sensibility: It’s improvised. It’s sloppy. Mistakes are made. Radical midcourse changes are made. There are arguments and bitterness between the participants.

You don’t have to agree with Hunter to appreciate his contribution. “The Third Bullet” is a fictional romp with a factual mission: to think afresh about the causes of JFK’s assassination











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