Friday, 17 April 2009

PHILLIP KERR'S THE SHOT: A Forgotten Friday Entry

It may be an exaggeration to say that most of Philip Kerr's work, apart from the Bernie Gunther series, has fallen through the critical cracks. But if I, a crime-fiction critic and a Kennedy assassination junkie, could miss The Shot, Kerr's novel about an assassination attempt on JFK, when it was published ten years ago, I think it's fair to characterize it now as overlooked, if not forgotten. Having said that, it's a novel more clever than good; a book of two halves in more than one way.

Structurally, it begins with a bang, as we meet Tom Jefferson carrying out the assassination of an ex-Nazi in Buenos Aires. Perhaps it is Kerr's familiarity with Nazi stories that gives this scene its resonance, but it is carried off with panache, and Jefferson is a protagonist of admirable amorality. Lately, I seem more and more to be referring period pieces set in the early Sixties to Mad Men, but picture Don Draper with a sniper scope, and you've got Jefferson. He returns to America, to entertain a proposal from the Mob and CIA, brokered by Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana, that he assassinate Fidel Castro. So Jefferson heads of to Cuba to reconnoiter, cozying up to made men. In fact, it may be time for a period gangster show, set in this time period. Call it Made Men.

Anyway, the guano gets in the air conditioning when Tom's wife, Mary, who's been working for the Kennedy campaign, is taped having sex with the priapic Presidential candidate, and then turns up dead. And Tom appears to blame the Kennedys. And reneges on his deal with the mob to kill The Beard. From this point, Kerr begins turning the tables. Jefferson is not what he seems to be, and neither are a lot of the other people. But rather than ratchet up the tension, this reversal has the opposite effect. Jefferson moves, for the most part, offstage, and is replaced as protagonist by Jimmy Nimmo, a Miami cop and ex-FBI man, mobbed up, and hired by Giancana to stop Jefferson from killing JFK, who at that point they still believed was their boy. Ironic, isn't it?

Nimmo is almost the kind of amoral manic operator James Ellroy specialized in, but he never really establishes himself as a character, as opposed to a plot device. Where Jefferson's cold came through, Nimmo's heat does not. And the story itself comes to a halt as, Kerr begins to display his para-political research. The problem is, he does it through his characters, delivering deep background about the CIA's relationships with the mob, or the FBI's COINTELPRO operations, or assassinations and regimes changes, by having characters who should know all this stuff explaining it to each other. The idea that Dick Bissell, running plans for the CIA, wouldn't know who'd been deposed and who was in power in Guatemala is a bit hard to take. This middle section drags on, through endless meetings, which exist not so much to drive the plot forward as to demonstrate the depth of Kerr's historical nous. But as I said, it's a book of two halves: neither taut thriller nor expansive alternate-historical epic.

As the moment for Kennedy to die comes closer, Kerr swerves again, and then follow a couple of twists which, again, are clever rather than satisfying. It's a disappointment, because he's done the research, he understands the ethos of all the players involved, and he's very good on their relationships. But there really isn't that much tension; it's plot device not exploding device. Early in the book, as Jefferson staked out Castro, and came up with a fool-proof plot, complete with fall-guy, we recognised with a nod and a wink that Kerr was referencing the JFK killing. And after his twists are finished, we realize that the mob will be referencing it some time in the future; in fact, Kerr goes out of his way to make sure we see how clever he's been.

The Gunther books were far tighter structurally, and what was particularly interesting about them was their insight into the Nazi era from the inside, as it were. The fact that we knew the ultimate outcome had no bearing on Gunther's own investigations. But more important is the question of tone. The Gunther books are written to emphasize the bleak danger of normality. The Shot, on the other hand, while trying too hard to get us into the era, can't get the tone right, as if Kerr is confounded by the normality of the Eisenhower era, whether it too is bleak, dangerous, or something else. Too often its gangsters talk like bureaucrats ('he has some narcotics deals going down in Cuba that have to be out of the way first') and his spooks sound like professors and students.

But they aren't very good bureaucrats or professors. They get Santo Trafficante's name wrong, they think Calvin Coolidge was a Democrat, and someone ought to tell someone that Kennedy was not the 'state Senator for Massachusetts' before becoming president, and the park in Washington near the Key Bridge is not the Francis Scott park, it's Francis Scott Key (so's the bridge) and he wrote the national anthem while the Brits were shelling Baltimore. I make these points lightly, but with a serious intent; the book wears its historical research on its sleeve (there's even a chapter titled 'On The Trail Of The Asasassins', a knowing reference to one of Jim Garrison's book). But when it's that easy to spot howling errors of fact in a subject I know well, if generally, one begins to wonder how much credence one should give to accepting other historical settings.

But as I said, atmosphere is more important that fact when you're trying to convey the reality of an era, and the atmosphere of The Shot, in the end, feels too contrived. Mary Jefferson is killed with a drug overdose administered in the same way as Marilyn Monroe's was, if you accept she was killed rather than suicided. Since I once titled my review of a book on the subject 'The Enema Within' I suppose I shouldn't be critical of Kerr's having one of his characters crack the same joke (although I did get there first). But it's the wrong kind of cleverness from the wrong character, in a book that, in the end, tries to be too clever for itself. It's a pretty good try, but in the end, any number of people have re-created this era with more veracity, and that's not just a question of which president was which, or who actually did shoot JFK.

The Shot by Phillip Kerr, 1999

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