You might think that there’s nothing new to say about the assassination of JFK. Surely the subject has been done to death already? Think again. Three Bullets breathes new life into the greatest controversy of 20th century American politics by approaching it from an entirely new angle. The result is a radically refreshed story – a genuinely gripping page-turner with a deeply personal quest at its centre and the fate of a nation hanging in the balance.
What if JFK wasn’t killed at Dallas? What might have happened during the full term of his presidency? With a deceptively simple sidestep, author RJ Ellory creates the backdrop for an inventive and original conspiracy thriller, one which takes actual events, people and places and subtly adjusts their significance and our interpretations.
All the key players are present and correct: John, Jackie, Bobby and the entire Kennedy team at the White House; Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby in Dallas. The Democratic conference is about to kick off and the incumbent president is seeking his second nomination. If you enjoy the West Wing or House of Cards then you’ll find plenty of political intrigue to keep you entertained.
But the JFK conspiracy is just the backdrop to the core story, an intimate investigation into an apparent suicide. Freelance photographer Mitch struggles to accept that his childhood sweetheart – long since estranged – killed herself. She was a liberated woman of the 1960s, an accomplished journalist, and she’d been working on a big story down in Dallas. Did she really take an overdose when her single-minded devotion to her scoop threatened to end her career? Motivated by loss and guilt, Mitch starts to pull together the pieces of an extremely sinister puzzle, attempting to redeem the wretched mistakes of his past without drowning in a bottle of bourbon.
Mitch himself could so easily be a genre stereotype straight out of central casting; he ran away to find his fortune as a war reporter in Korea, and he ran right back again when the going got tough. But Ellory takes those superficial characteristics and gives them real substance – and then confounds our expectations with genuinely unpredictable revelations from Mitch’s history.
Just when you think you have the measure of the man, Ellory sideswipes your assumptions with a barbed observation – like, for instance, the understanding that Mitch was prepared to do far more for his lost love now that she was dead than he ever did for her in life. Perhaps, he seems to be suggesting, we should value what we have – rather than dwelling upon what we’ve lost…
The author also delivers judicious comments about the nature of leadership, the office of the president and the expectations of the people. But none of this social and political debate slows the story, which is an engaging, rapid read. I was hooked from the opening chapters and couldn’t resist barrelling through the whole book in two, massively indulgent, immersive sessions. I could kinda see where the story was heading, but the payoff was just about perfect.
If you’ve not tried one of Ellory’s American crime-thrillers before then I recommend you start with this one. It’s accessible and intriguing; an absorbing experience with a tight plot and well-crafted characters. Maybe the writing isn’t quite as lyrical or as inventive as in some of his other novels – but the storytelling is superb.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Three Bullets by RJ Ellory is available at Amazon