- - Friday, March 8, 2013

By Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster, $26.99, 477 pages

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, was the crime of the 20th century.

Like many of the military and intelligence people I met while serving in the U.S. Navy and later as a Defense Department civilian employee, I believed Fidel Castro killed Kennedy. Kennedy attempted to kill the communist Cuban leader and the dictator announced publicly that he intended to return the favor.

My view changed after reading Gerald Posner’s book “Case Closed.” Mr. Posner debunked all of the Kennedy conspiracies and laid the deed squarely on Lee Harvey Oswald. Vincent Bugliosi, the famed prosecutor of the Charles Manson “family,” further assured readers that Oswald was the lone assassin in his huge book “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy.”

Stephen Hunter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for The Washington Post, said that he started writing his first novel, “Point of Impact,” with the Kennedy assassination in mind. When he started the book, he said, everyone thought a conspiracy was behind the killing. Halfway through the novel Mr. Hunter read “Case Closed” and he ceased believing in conspiracy. The premise of his early novel had been destroyed, and in the end, he separated the novel from the JFK assassination.

However, in “The Third Bullet,” Mr. Hunter returns to the scene of the famous crime. He sets a serious “gun guy” — the legendary former Marine sniper and Vietnam veteran Bob Lee Swagger, known as “Bob the Nailer” — on a course to discover the truth behind the Kennedy assassination.

In the opening of the thriller, a writer named James Aptapton (based on Mr. Hunter himself) is investigating the Kennedy assassination when he is intentionally run down by a speeding car in Baltimore. Aptapton’s widow thinks it was murder and not an accidental hit-and-run. She travels to Idaho and approaches Swagger with her suspicions. She offers Swagger her husband’s research to guide him in his investigation.

Swagger, an old and battered veteran with a limp from a steel hip, is interested in the case, believing the Warren Commission did not fully explain why the third bullet exploded. As a former Marine sniper and ballistic investigator for the FBI, he is perhaps the ideal man to finally resolve the technical mysteries behind the Kennedy shooting

Mr. Hunter takes the reader on an investigative journey from Dallas to Russia to rural Connecticut. Swagger encounters Russian gangsters, mercenaries and other villains who attempt to curtail his investigation.

In Dallas, Swagger connects with a Kennedy conspiracy expert who guides him through the many conspiracy theories and accumulated documents. Swagger also visits the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald took his shots, and other historical sites connected to the shooting.

Swagger teams up with his old FBI friend, Nick Memphis, who happens to be assigned to Dallas. Memphis provides support for Swagger’s investigation, but cautions the old warrior about shooting up the city.

Later, there is an attempt on his life, and Swagger shoots and kills a man in self-defense. He then pulls out his cellphone and calls Memphis:

“I’m at Elm and North Market. He’s piled up to the right, on the sidewalk, no citizen collateral, all of it clean. Get your team here fast …” Swagger tells Memphis.

“Bring a body bag,” says Swagger. “And a mop.”

Swagger’s investigation takes him to Russia, where he encounters Russian mobsters who try to take him out. Swagger survives a gunfight.

Portions of the thriller are written in the first-person voice of Hugh Meachum, a wealthy, Ivy League retired senior CIA officer. The legendary CIA operative, who faked his own death, is now enjoying his retirement, wealth and privacy. But Meachum knows he is being pursued by Swagger, so he takes to writing about his finest operation as he waits for Swagger:

“I won’t argue the morality, and I won’t — can’t — argue the strategic outcome in the next years. I will say this: As espionage, it was a masterpiece.”

When he hears of the gunfight in Moscow, Meachum writes, “Swagger, at 67, was still very, very good. He could not be taken by run-of-the-mill criminal gunmen. He was too smart, too swift, too calm in action, too determined. Moscow had hardened him while confirming his suspicions, and he could move more directly to the target, which was, alas, me.”

In “The Third Bullet” Swagger attempts to answer questions that have been hotly debated by investigators, researchers, writers and conspiracy buffs for many years.

You don’t have to be a ballistic expert to follow Mr. Hunter’s critical look at the bullet evidence. You also don’t have to believe in conspiracies to enjoy this well-written, suspenseful and action-packed thriller.

Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.