Stephen Hunter: The Third Bullet

We are huge fans of Stephen Hunter. Steve is of course the novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning former film critic of the Washington Post. Of Steve, Glenn Reynolds concisely holds: “Love him, and his books.”

Today is the official publication date of Steve’s new Bob Lee Swagger thriller, The Third Bullet. Based on an advance copy, Richard Fernandez has already posted an astute appreciation of the novel. Steve has graciously accepted our invitation to bring his new book to the attention of our readers from the perspective of the author himself. He writes:

The Third Bullet came from a brilliant idea. In fact it was so brilliant, I doubted I had it, because I’m not that smart. But nobody else was in the room at the time.

Anyhow, it wasn’t the idea to turn Bob Lee Swagger loose on the JFK assassination, although that was a pretty good one.

It wasn’t the breakthrough that enabled me to figure out a brand new Who, How and Why to the assassination–explanations that actually made some sense–although if you don’t mind me saying so, that was outstanding work.

It wasn’t that my theory of the secret ballistics of the event turned out to be identical to one created separately by one of America’s leading ballisticians, who is an expert on 6.5 mm projectiles. Pretty damn great, but no, that wasn’t it.

It was something that overarched and enabled these things. It was this idea: let’s return the assassination to the real world. After all, tragically enough, that’s where it took place, and we feel its melancholy weight to this day.

Up till now, the two churches of assassination true belief seem to belong not in the real world at all. They belong in crazyland.

The mega-theories, offered by everyone from Mark Lane to Oliver Stone to something currently calling itself the “assassination community” are mostly wacko. They’re eye-rollers, that turn on Oswald doubles, three separate shooters (triangulation, don’t you know), the Military-Industrial Complex, the Boy Scouts of America and Sears, Roebuck, all working in perfect syncopation. Some of them are so vast it seems that more people are inside the conspiracy than outside it. And, naturally, they skew lefty, finding convenient bogeymen to blame like Big Oil, Big Defense, Big Intelligence and Big Money. (In fact the left’s quick domination of the JFK assassination narrative is one of the great agitprop triumphs of the century.)

But inevitably they fail the laugh test. They take place in a world where it is possible that within the government a conspiracy with so many moving parts and so much personnel can operate in absolute perfection. I was in the army for two years, and believe me I know that nothing the government has ever done can be called “perfect.” First law of reality: everything is always messed up. Someone forgets something, someone orders the wrong documents, someone is POed at someone from a slight at a party two decades ago and misleads him so he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ask the paratroopers who landed in flooded fields on D-Day, except you can’t because they drowned.

But not only would such an enterprise be perfect, according to the mega theories, it would remain shielded in silence for half a century. The greatest secret of all time, the Enigma Machine in World War II, remained secret for about 20 years. Someone blabbed. Second law of reality: someone always blabs. Someone is not given enough secret credit, someone’s career didn’t turn out the way he expected, someone enjoys the secret power of treason, someone has the self-control of an alcoholic, someone is prone to flattery: it all adds up to one thing. In the end, someone talks. It’s always the same. It’s human nature.

Yet on the other side the narrative championed by the Warren Commission and its adherants, like Gerald Posner and Vincent Bugliosi, is equally dispiriting and unconvincing. Of course it lacks weight and gravitas, and it is painful to consider that one of the most beloved men in American history was felled by a loser creep who wanted to impress the editor of The Daily Worker. The vast distance between the squalor and cupidity of the one and the grace and majesty (and potential) of the other seems so out of proportion that the mind struggles to accommodate it.

Still, most people seem to have made peace with the report and gotten on with their lives. I was one such until I looked at it carefully. I learned quickly that the Commission did a pretty lousy job. I learned quickly that it was particularly slack on the issue of the rifle.

The whole lone-gunman scenario turns on a single improbability: that a classic screw-up like Lee Harvey Oswald, who was a disaster at everything he ever tried and was not even employable at stoop-labor wages, was able to hit a 4 by 4 target moving at 11 miles an hour ahead and deviating to the left 265 feet away through a telescopic scope which, according to the FBI itself in the Warren Commission Report, could not be zeroed. In other words as a practical matter, that rifle could not be made to shoot where it was aimed.

That’s the technical context; consider the emotional: the man has been visible to police or counter-sniper gunfire for somewhere between 8 and 11 seconds so he’s getting very nervous; then, he’s had to reacquire his sight picture through the limited vision of that dinky 3/4 of an inch scope after recoil and a laborious recock of a stiff bolt action and now he has to shoot when the target is farthest, and is moving fastest. Likely?

Consider the third bullet itself. Engineered in the nineteenth century primarily to kill heavily clad enemy soldiers in mountain combat by virtue of heavy sectional density, length and an extra-thick jacket, it somehow magically explodes so totally that no trace of it has ever been found. Likely?

Then Oswald, the most hunted man in history, doesn’t flee; he goes home to retoeive a revolver he could have had with him in the first place! Likely?

So my idea was as follows: Let’s take the hard data of the Warren Commission and make certain that Oswald is always where they said he was. In other words, let’s not deny the Warren Report but accept it, and try and find out if there could have been a conspiracy in its shadows, its arroyos, its alleyways. And if there could, let’s put him in it but make it a small, extremely professional conspiracy, run by people who are the best in the world at this sort of thing. But even then, let’s not envision an ideal, a perfection, a masterpiece. And let’s pass on the lefty smarm.

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