“The Third Bullet” by Stephen Hunter (Simon & Schuster, $26.99)
Someone should have asked a sniper.
That’s what Stephen Hunter — a bestselling novelist who created Bob Lee Swagger, the best shooter there ever was, the Gun Whisperer — believes.
The gaping hole in the middle of most Kennedy assassination theories, Hunter says, is that the theorists, even those attached to the original Warren Commission, don’t know the first thing about shooting, ballistics or angles.
“Looking at the body of assassination material,” the author says, “too many people who knew too little have said too much.”
Hunter’s action-packed new thriller, “The Third Bullet,” in stores Tuesday, puts Swagger on the case and introduces a shockingly plausible alternative to the Lee Harvey Oswald- “lone gunman” explanation.
Without giving too much away, it involves a conspiracy of just three people, a sharpshooter hidden in the neighboring Dal-Tex Building and an “exploding” bullet that leaves no forensic trace.
“I’m very curious what the assassination community will make of it,” Hunter says.
But ultimately it makes no difference if experts try to pick apart his scenario, because there’s a safety net for Hunter: His book is a work of fiction, and is not presented as revelatory findings and gospel truth.
“I know what criticism will be leveled at me,” he says. “It’s that I want it both ways, that I want credit for an ingenious theory, but I don’t want to be held too strictly to a standard of truth because this is a thriller. The only answer I have to that: guilty, guilty, guilty.”
“The Third Bullet” is Hunter’s eighth book about Bob Lee Swagger.
Bob is a man’s man, a throwback to another, more rugged time. He’s part John Wayne, part Ted Williams, part Audie Murphy. In Vietnam, he earned the nickname “Bob the Nailer” because of his prowess with a rifle. The things he can make a bullet do boggle the mind.
If anyone is capable of walking through Dealey Plaza in Dallas nearly 50 years after the shooting of President Kennedy and seeing possibilities that no one else even considered, it’s Bob.
Alas, Swagger is a fictional character.
But Hunter, who visited the requisite Dallas landmarks, including the Dal-Tex Building, from which a “second shooter” could have theoretically fired the fatal bullet, is hardly a rookie.
He’s not a firearms savant like the character he invented, he concedes. “But I’m a guy who, from age 3 onward, has loved and been attracted to and been absorbed by guns.”
Hunter maintains that he is one of the first people to bring that kind of knowledge to this historic mystery.
“It’s not something you can pick up from reading a few copies of Guns & Ammo,” he says. “You have to know the culture. You have to know what is possible and what isn’t. You have to develop an ear for what is authentic and for what is just hooey.”
Hunter also vetted the ballistics issues with experts, which is more than most conspiracy theorists seem to do.
“The Third Bullet” also casts serious doubts about Oswald, a lifelong ne’er-do-well, and whether he was capable of succeeding as the shooter.
For example, when Swagger wonders why Oswald didn’t take the obvious shot, when Kennedy was closest to the Texas School Book Depository and was a barely moving target, only to take three rushed shots as the motorcade pulled away, the reader will wonder the same thing.
What’s more, when Swagger speaks disparagingly of Oswald’s WWII-era mail-order Mannlicher-Carcano, a badly built Italian rifle with an ineptly mounted scope, raising the question of whether Oswald could have hit anything he aimed at, the reader will start scanning the Dallas skyline in a desperate search for any other possibility.
But remember, “The Third Bullet” is a thriller, so it’s possible not only for Swagger to raise interesting questions but also to solve the mystery and even mete out justice 50 years after the crime.
Let’s see your typical JFK conspiracy theorist pull off that trick.