The Shot, by Philip Kerr

This is another take on the assassination of JFK. But not the one this reader was thinking about as he picked up this 1999 novel. This complicated but fascinating prequel to 11/22 in Dallas is set in 1960 just after the presidential election. Present, however, are many of the same participants who have long been implicated in the Dallas assassination. That is, the Mob, the Cubans, the FBI and the CIA, and an unknown, cold-blooded killer. But this killer is named Thomas Jefferson, and he is so cold blooded that while he is introduced as plotting to kill Fidel Castro for the Mob, he ends up plotting to kill the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, for the Cubans.

In 1960, the Mafia, under Sam Giancana, was angry at Fidel Castro for kicking them, with their profitable casinos, out of Cuba, while the U.S. government was even more angry because Fidel had turned Cuba into a Communist state. So in this novel the two sides join forces in a plot to kill the Cuban leader, finally settling on using Thomas Jefferson, who has proven in the past his skill at contract murders.

And then, there is an unexpected death, whereupon Tom Jefferson disappears, and the proposed Castro assassination is no longer in effect. Moreover, Jefferson has disappeared with a large Mafia down payment of $150,000 for killing Castro, and the Mob can’t let him get away with that when he has done nothing to earn it. So it sends an ex-FBI sleuth, Jimmy Nimmo, to find him. But the Mob also learns something else, that Jefferson has switched sides and intends to kill JFK, and they tell Nimmo that he cannot let that happen. For they are depending on the new president, whom they helped elect by packing the ballot boxes in Illinois, to dispose of Castro in the upcoming invasion of Cuba, and are convinced, moreover, because of their past ties to Kennedy’s father, that JFK will help them return to Cuba and run their casinos again.

It is all rather complicated, given that the Government and the Mob are collaborating so closely. Indeed, at their many planning sessions, it becomes difficult to determine where the actual loyalties lie for a mix of characters who represent both sides of the law. Which, in turn, often makes it difficult to recall these characters relationships, and why are doing what they are doing.

This is particularly true regarding Jimmy Nimmo, who takes over the entire center of this novel. We follow him as he seeks to find Thomas Jefferson and bring an end to the threat that Jefferson represents for both JFK and the Mob’s major plans for Cuba. However, when Nimmo himself comes to an inconclusive end, and it has no real impact on the novel’s assassination attempt on JFK in January, 1961, the reason for Nimmo presence in this novel suddenly seems quite calculated.

In fact, one wonders if the author has not turned Nimmo into a major character precisely to distract us from the latest activities of Jefferson and an old friend, and now an FBI operative, Alex Goldman. Especially when those two set up an assassination scenario in Harvard Yard. For the author then introduces a big surprise, a major twist. And the reader wonders why. Why have these friends acted as they have? What do they hope to achieve?

On the final pages the reason for their decision does become clear. Indeed, their actions project the reader forward to what will actually happen three years later on 11/22. But like much of the novel, as interested as we are in learning where author Kerr is going with this story, we also have to endure a long and complicated journey to reach this novel’s theory about what and who lay behind Kennedy’s actual assassination. In other words, we have witnessed, in this alternate history of 1960 and 1961, a proposed solution to the disputed events of 1963.

One reads this novel with the November, 1963 assassination always present in one’s mind. And one can see the application of the action here to that historic event. But the events here also seem very calculated, deliberately paralleling the rumored behind-the-scenes actions of 1963. They are convincing enough to be credible, but they also serve the novel’s suspense. And then also set up the twist. But while the twist makes logical and political sense here, it also requires a major reversal of character, a reversal that reflects a certain logic and yet at the same time fails to be convincing.

Kerr is a true professional as a writer, but one senses that he is writing here to convey a message. About the collaboration that might well have prompted the events of 1963. And then he adds the twist that all thriller writers like to offer at the climax of their work. In other words, the twist is not intended to apply to his behind-the-scenes portrait of the assassination. It is meant to stand on its own. And for the record, it does not last in one reader’s memory as long as does the collaboration between the Mafia and the U.S. government—and all that that relationship implies. (June, 2019)

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