Monday, 30 December 2013

MAX ALLAN COLLINS' WRONG QUARRY

The Wrong Quarry is the latest of Hard Case Crime's revival of Max Allan Collins' novels featuring the hired killer Quarry, who now has become a hitman with a difference: Quarry tracks other hitmen, identifies their targets, and then gets himself hired to kill the killers, before they kill the victim. And for a extra fee, he can eliminate the person who hired the hit in the first place.

This time he is stalking a killer named Ronald Mateski into a small town in Iowa, where a popular high school beauty queen has disappeared, and where someone appears to have hired Mateski to take out the police's top suspect. So Quarry, posing as a journalist, starts investigating the disappearance, and decides the killer's target is someone worth saving. For a price.

When the Quarry books first appeared in the 1970s, they were Collins' second attempt at criminal protagonists with single names, following the Nolan novels, about a professional thief clearly influenced by Donald Westlake (Richard Stark) and his Parker. What made Quarry different was the fact that he wasn't a thief who would kill when he had to, but a killer, who killed for a living. This is a step further along the road anti-heroes walk, and Collins upped the ante by doing the books in the first person, the classic private eye narration he would later use to such good effect with his Nate Heller novels.

The problem, obviously, is that the reader inevitably is drawn into identifying with the protagonist, seeing the world from his point of view, and the viewpoint of a psychopathic killer is a difficult one with which to engender empathy. So Quarry, in some ways is a kinder, gentler sort of killer—his current twist on the hitman business indicates that—and occasionally his tastes and world view seem very mundane for such a hard man. With Nate Heller, we know we aren't dealing with someone detached from the reality of the mundane world. But we don't imagine Parker browsing the wire racks of stores for western paperbacks, much less sharing the authors' names with us, as Quarry does. But Collins does a slick job of never letting us forget what Quarry really is all about—and the conflict between what he is and what we might want him to be is the key to the tension which animates the novel.

The second strong point is the period setting, in the mid 1970s, and the style, which is drawn from the Gold Medal and other paperback originals whose heyday was ending in those times. Collins is excellent in establishing not just the milieux, but also the world-view of the era—so when Quarry gets seduced by a sweet high-schooler it comes in a sort of garish overkill of wanton lust that surprises and even shocks a modern reader, as if that reader were back in the more modest world of those lurid paperbacks. There are a number of twists to the tale, and the eventual resolution actually reveals a character who's very much a modern-style villain, a serial killer who in effect hides in plain sight, behind the camouflage of the era's attitudes toward sex. It may be set in the 70s, but Collins is writing with the real flavour of pure 50s and 60s pulp, and The Wrong Quarry works brilliantly on those terms.


The Wrong Quarry by Max Allan Collins
Titan Books/Hard Case Crime, £7.99, ISBN 9781781162668

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Saturday, 28 December 2013

ARBITRAGE: RICHARD GERE PLAYS WALL STREET

As Arbitrage opens, hedge fund manager Robert Miller has it all. He's being interviewed about his successful investment career, he's headed back from a meeting to arrange the merger of his company with a major British bank (whose head is played by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, no less) and he heads home for a birthday celebration, surrounded by his family in a setting that reflects warmth.

But we learn quickly that things are not the way they seem. Robert heads off to see his mistress, a young French woman for whom he's bought an art gallery. The merger is not progressing as it should, and we discover he's had to take a $400 million loan to cover a bad investment in Russian copper mines. And then, late for the opening of a show at the gallery, Robert takes his mistress for a drive upstate, falls asleep, and crashes the car. She is dead, and he needs not to be involved. He finds a pay phone, and calls James, the son of his former driver, who owes him for the way he helped the family, and him with his own criminal charges, and gets picked up. He gets home, with bruises and maybe internal injuries, at 4:30 in the morning. The police, suspicious of the crash scene, soon track him down, and the pressures start to mount.

Written by first-time director Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage could be looked at as an indictment of the rich, or of the system that rewards betting against people (Miller made a killing forecasting the collapse of the housing bubble). But Jarecki is not following in the footsteps of his documentarian brothers Andrew (Capturing the Friedmans) and Eugene (Why We Fight); he already did that with his first feature, the doc The Outsider. At times the film recalls an older era of financial excess, reminding me of Wall Street or Bonfire Of The Vanities, but despite the fraud and the accidental death you cannot escape, this film is far more about the character himself, and about the way an audience cannot resist taking the side of a handsome hero who has the odds stacked against him, even when he is guilty, and even when he is revealed almost soulless underneath his charm.

He's lucky, in this sense, to have Richard Gere in the lead. Gere's always been underrated—his Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for this film was his fourth nomination for a Globe (he won, oddly enough unless you recall it's the Golden Globes, for Chicago), but he's never been nominated for an Oscar or a Bafta mask. Perhaps it's because of his looks, or the slightly ingratiating way he plays nice. In fact, there's a lot of Edward Lewis from Pretty Woman, in Miller at the start. But what Gere brings out are the same qualities that made his performances in American Gigolo and Internal Affairs so powerful—a combination of self-absorbed interest and ruthlessness under the surface. It's his real strength--conveying a reality different from the handsome surface that suggests likeablility, either the blankness of American Gigolo or the true venom of Internal Affairs.

Jareck is also helped by the cinematography of Yorick LeSaux, which sets the feelings in contrasts, of cold glass offices, warm family rooms, harsh police rooms, and then blends them all together bit by bit. And it's bit by bit we see him lose his allies and his family: when his daughter (Brit Marling), who is CFO of his company and from whom he's concealed the book-cooking that hid his losses, finds out, he corrects her. They are not partners, he says. She works for him. He is a patriarch, he says, and he does what is best for everyone. All she needed was an apology, not a demonstration that all the platitudes were just platitudes.

There are moments when some feeling shows through, and because this is a thriller, he is allowed a triumph. After all, his first instinct, overcome, was to call 911 after the crash. He is about to turn himself in, and save James (a nice performance from Nate Parker) from jail for obstruction, when he has an idea which throws a monkey-wrench into the evidence the police have cooked against him. He realises his deal is being held up simply to lower the price, so he forces the issue, makes a deal he can life with, and guarantees his childrens' jobs. It's win-win.

And then, the one base he hasn't covered comes back to bite him in the neck. His wife (Susan Sarandon) who cannot forget the way he brought his affair nearly into the house, but who even more cannot forgive the way he treated their daughter. It's a neat twist, because the very family values he was trying to protect prove his downfall.

But the movie ends at a charity gala, his wife's work, where his daughter introduces him as her 'mentor, friend, and father'. He has lost everything, but everyone is smiling. The charity is the Robert Miller Oncology Center. It is as if he is a cancer himself.

Arbitrage (2012 US 2013 UK) written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, is on DVD release

PHANTOM LADY: THE NOIR FUNHOUSE

I watched Phantom Lady tonight, marvelling yet again at the way Robert Siodmak and cinematographer Woody Bredell create a series of weird shadow-worlds, as if Manhattan were a kind of fun-house, and we're looking at it in a distorting mirror, except when we see beautifully clearly, and it becomes threatening, scary. They would work their magic again two years later on The Killers, where the noir world is starker and harsher, more fixed into what we now imagine it to be. There's a fascinating comparison to be made here too: the fatalism of Swede at the start of The Killers and in the Hemingway story is matched by the fatalism of Scott Henderson, once he's convicted of his wife's murder. He tells his loyal secretary that he can finally sleep, now that he knows his future. This is perfect noir fatalism, helped by the fact that Curtis is perfect as a noir hero, nowhere near as smart as he thinks he is, including not being able to see the perfect woman right before his eyes. In the novel by Cornell Woolrich, you come to believe that Scott may be deluded, and the woman may not exist. In The Killers, Burt Lancaster as Swede is a different sort of fatalist—he's smart enough to know he made a mistake with a woman, and he knows he has to pay for it. There's no question of delusion, just of fatalistic judgement.

The story of Phantom Lady, in case you don't recall or haven't seen it (and there will be spoilers of a sort later) is that Henderson and his wife argued, he went to bar, met an unhappy woman in a funny hat, spent the evening with her, and came home to find the cops all over his flat and his wife murdered. He needs to establish his alibi, but the woman can't be found, and the witnesses deny she was ever with him. So his secretary Carol (or 'Kansas', as Scott calls her, because she's from Topeka) goes on the search.

Between Scott's gloomy night on the town and Carol's search, we are presented with a cross between an odyssey and sideshow (when you think about it, isn't the original odyssey a bit of freak show too?). The city takes on the character of a nightmare world, and the population turns out to be seriously unbalanced. Carol stalks the bartender who served Scott and the woman, shot brilliantly at the end of the bar, staring at him. In cheap disguise, she becomes a 'hep kitten' and hooks up with drummer (Elisha Cook, Jr.) who gave the woman the eye when she and Scott went to a show—Cook takes her to an after-hours jam session playing Gene Krupa hophead drums completely out of time, occasionally out of all semblance of dubbing the Krupa solo. Ella Raines is superb as Carol—not just in her disguise but in the way she hides her feelings from her boss, and the way, the first time she actually calls him 'Scott' it simply zips past him but satisfies her.

Thomas Gomez, always so threatening in noir, is good as the cop who tries to help her but the top-billing in the film went to Franchot Tone as Scott's best friend, who of course is the killer, though they try to make his entrance into a shock. The mere fact he's top-billed in such a relatively small is all the clue you need. Tone is well cast as a psychopath, because he looks more like Jiminy Cricket than a leading men, and he does overplay the twitches of his killer; it reminded me of a bigger version of Tim Robbins doing a retard in Mystic River. There's a sense, though, that Tone would have made a brilliant Cornell Woolrich, had anyone ever done a movie about him—and you could use those sleazy sets from Phantom Lady to shoot it: maybe this was Woolrich exploring the neighbourhood of his own imagination.

Watching the film though, I wondered for the first time why Raines needed to find the woman in the hat at all. In the trial montage scenes, the prosecution fixes the time of the killing at 8pm, and we know from the bartender he was in the bar at 8:05. He doesn't need the woman for an alibi. By the same template, his friend's alibi, that he was on boat sailing for Brazil at 8:30 should not have eliminated him either. I'm sure there's a reason why it doesn't just as convincing as Cook's drumming, or Tone's twitching. It doesn't matter—Phantom Lady is a film you can get lost in, at your own peril.

One other note: I watched the film on You Tube, where there's a sort of time-code bar at the bottom of the player. When Raines goes to visit Curtis, the guard tells them they can have only five minutes. It's 9:40 into the film. He comes back to tell them time's up at 11:40 into the film. No cuts or dissolves.That's only two minutes, anyway you shake it. That guard could get a job as timekeeper at the Royal Rumble.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

ROBERT CONROY'S 1862

Following on from the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, I chased down this alternate history novel I'd been meaning to read for a while. There's a long and distinguished tradition of alternate Civil War books; when I was a kid I read MacKinlay Kantor's If The South Had Won The Civil War—Grant dies in a horse fall just after Vicksburg, the South wins at Gettysburg, and the two separate nations become three when Texas seceeds from the Confederacy. Lee, as President of the Confederacy, frees the slaves, and eventually the US is reunited. I read Ward Moore's time-travel novel, Bring The Jubilee, in which the Union, again having lost at Gettysburg, is weakened and much industrial progress never happens (except, of course, for time travel). Harry Turtledove has approached the question from both angles; I've read his time-travel version, Guns Of The South, in which South Africans travel back in time to supply the Confederacy with automatic weapons to ensure a slave nation persists.

Robert Conroy's 1862 is a straight-forward alternate history, in which the blowback from the Union's seizing of the British mail packet Trent, carrying two Confederate ambassadors, grows into a declaration of war against the US, helped by an aggressive Lord Palmerston and a nebulous 'promise' from Jefferson Davis that the South would abandon slavery.

Conroy's take on the ensuing conflict is ingenious, helped by Lincoln and Winfield Scott recognising early the unique abilities of Ulysses Grant. How realistic this is, given the political troubles Lincoln faced, as set out in T. Harry Williams' Lincoln And His Generals. Grant's ambiguous standing within the regular army, is another interesting question, but there is no doubt it makes a huge difference. Grant leads a force against Canada, while the Union forces are able to hold back Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and the judicious use of snipers has disastrous results for the Confederacy. Thus, the British entry, rather than speed up a Confederate victory, has unexpected results.

Some of this depends on a relative and surprising degree of inaction from Davis and Lee, in effect the opposite of his take on Lincoln. One might wonder whether the Confederate plan would have been so passive when joined by their British allies. But Conroy has thought out his alternate scenario well, and it is for the most part convincing. Even his story framework—because you need a relatively neutral (and usually fictional) character through whom the story can be told—works well: Col. Nathan Hunter winds up in the exact centre of the Union decisions, and at the fronts when it matters, without the reader feeling he's been manipulated excessively.

Where the novel is let down is in the writing, which is rarely more than utilitarian, and sometimes lapses into a general sort of anachronism. It's not so much the modernity of Nathan's love-interest, which doesn't actually seem that much out of place—though the introduction of a lascivious French ambassador's wife helps lubricate the narrative—but the tone of conversation, rather less formal than we might have thought. But that is secondary, because Conroy's concern is with background and facts, and he takes great pains with the details. Once the book gets going, it proceeds at great pace, and is an extertaining diversion, and one of the best of the war's alternate histories.


1862 by Robert Conroy
Ballantine, 2006, $7.99 ISBN 0345482379

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

THE PRICETAG OF TRAGEDY: THE NEW YORK TIMES & CANTOR FITZGERALD

In a New York Times article today about the $135 million settlement of Wall Street investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald's lawsuit against American Airlines for negligence on 9/11 the reporter, Benjamin Weiser, led his third paragraph thus:

'No amount of money, of course, could compensate Cantor or its families for the losses on Sept. 11'.

While the platitude may be, in the sense of all platitudes, true, in the context of a newspaper story, it's statement stands as opinion, not reporting. Indeed, were the platitude true in any but the abstract sense, no one would file such lawsuits at all, since the compensation received would be worthless.

But the reality is that Cantor, who had offices in the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and lost 658 employees, about two-thirds of their work force there, claimed they had suffered 'unspeakable losses' and went on to delineate the unspeakable at sums as much as $1 billion, after insurance recovery, specifying $800 million for 'interruption of business' (that is, because of losing their employees) and the other $200 million for property damage. Unspeakable indeed. Currency, it turns out, is America's real currency of grief.

Judge Alvin Hellerstein noted that New York law does not allow an employer to sue for the wrongful death of its employees, and otherwise limited the companies damages. In a separate case, Hellerstein also dismissed a suit by World Trade Center Properties, who apparently had already received more in insurance settlement than they had already lost.

Cantor employees were already compensated either from the federal fund set up for 9/11 victims, or from their own lawsuits. Hellerstein has been the point-man for suits filed by victims' families, survivors, responders, property owners, and the like, all seeking compensation for things which, as Mr. Weiser reports, cannot be compensated. And many, like illnesses caused by the dust raised by the towers' crash, that can.

Had any suits against American Airlines gone to trial, they would have had to prove that the airline had been negligent in preventing a terrorist attack; American would have argued they had done everything expected and required by government experts (ie: by law) before the 9/11 gang used the planes themselves as weapons. The blame might have spread, from that point, to the Federal Aviation Adminstration, or indeed to various government agencies charged with fighting terrorism.

It's also curious that Cantor employees hadn't thought to sue the World Trade Towers, for not constructing a building that would better withstand collapse, or Cantor, for not providing better facilities and training for escape in emergencies. In the 20/20 hindsight world of victims, grief and compensation, it would seem only fitting.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

MICHAEL CONNELLY'S GODS OF GUILT

The Gods of Guilt, Mickey Haller's mentor 'Legal' Siegel reminds him, was Haller's father's term for the jurors in a trial, but, as he says 'there are plenty of people out there judging us every day of our lives for every move we make. The gods of guilt are many. You don't need to add to them.'

Mickey has just won a mistrial by using in court a manoeuvre that has nothing to do with justice and very little to do with law, one that he learned from Legal. He's just smuggled a french dip sandwich into Siegel's room at the old folks home, bending or ignoring the rules just as surely as they would have done in the courtroom. But Haller is about to have his own guilty gods visit him, when he gets called on to defend an accused murderer, an internet pimp named Andre LaCosse. LaCosse has been referred to him by the victim, whom Haller knew and defended under a different name, but who always called him her 'Mickey Mantle', the New York Yankee baseball star. Haller thought he'd saved Gloria Dayton, as he knew her, and helped her start a new life in Hawaii. Now she's lying dead in an LA apartment, and Haller can't escape feeling the obligation guilt invokes.

Even worse, he realises quickly that LaCosse is innocent, and as we know well Haller's worst nightmare is an innocent client. There is a great comparison to be drawn here with his half-brother Harry Bosch: Bosch is driven by his sense of justice, while Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer, is driven by a chaffeur in his town car. Harry is concerned with the result, Haller with the process. It's like the TV series Law & Order, which got it backward: the cops aren't the 'law' part, that's the lawyers. It's the cops who seek to establish order, and the lawyers who manipulate the law, sometimes in the name of justice, but more often simply to win their battle.

Mickey has another god of guilt driving him; his relations with his daughter are at an all-time low after the events of The Fifth Witness, and he needs for her to see him doing the right thing. Which means that Haller needs to prove his client's innocence, and that means he must become a detective himself. Which becomes both difficult and dangerous, as he discovers Gloria's death may be tied into her testimony against another of his clients, and may drag cops and federal agents into the mix.

It's a story that weaves deeper and deeper, with Haller and his team functioning like a 21st century version of Perry Mason and Paul Drake, in a far more dangerous world. The pace is frantic, and sometimes chaotic, just as you'd expect from the Lincoln Lawyer, but it works primarily because of the motivation: the plot is driven by Haller's own drives, and it is from his perspective that we see it. Connelly's greatest talent may be his ability to convey his stories through his characters, and to remain honest with their point of view, and he does that superbly here.

In my interview with Michael (see the previous post), he made one interesting comment. The producers of The Lincoln Lawyer movie remain interested in doing a sequel, but none of his follow-up books have seemed right to them, because they didn't have Haller himself feeling a sense of a mission, feeling that elusive need for justice which I mentioned at the start. This book does that, which is why Haller seems to move a bit into Harry Bosch territory. People have noticed that Connelly writes courtroom thrillers to match the best of them, but this isn't as much a courtroom novel as a real detective novel, with Mickey Haller needing to prove himself a detective. The pieces do fall together in the end, without gimmick, but it's the getting there that marks Michael Connelly's real talent as a writer.

The Gods Of Guilt by Michael Connelly
Orion £18.99 ISBN 9781409134343

note: This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

MC SQUARED: MICHAEL CONNELLY & ME, THE WATERSTONE'S INTERVIEW

It's always a pleasure to see Michael Connelly; Friday night I had a privilege to interview him in front of a sell-out crowd at Waterstone's Piccadilly. I had done something similar at the Prince Charles cinema a couple of years ago, but in this somewhat more intimate atmosphere, I felt a more relaxed approach worked even better, and with luck everyone (except those who didn't get to ask their question from the floor) left happy. I know I did.

The construction was simple: I asked questions primarily about two subjects: his latest book, The Gods Of Guilt, and the upcoming Bosch television series, the pilot of which just finished shooting and is being prepared for Amazon's direct broadcast service. I let those two topics take us wherever Michael wanted to go, and then opened the floor to many questions, very interesting and covering a broad range of Michael's career.

Introducing him, I reflected back on nearly twenty years of knowing Michael, since I wrote a review of Trunk Music for the Spectator (calling Bosch the strongest series being written) and then met him a few months later at a reading in Melbourne, Florida. I was lucky enough to write an afterword for Crime Beat, a collection of his journalism, and mentioned my perception of Michael having a journalist's eye for detail, and the meaning beneath, along with the rare ability to detach, and see things clearly, while still maintaining empathy and compassion. To me that's what marks his books, beneath their hard-boiled shell.

I also recounted how, when meeting Michael for lunch in Tampa the day before the Super Bowl I was there to broadcast for the BBC, I discovered he was already credentialed for the press center. When we were sitting there Dick Stockton, a well-known American announcer, yelled 'Hey Mike' and came running over, and just as I was impressed he remembered me so well, ran right past to embrace Connelly, who, I discovered, has a devoted following among NFL players and coaches. I also mentioned that he is the only person I know who has thrown out the first pitch in two different major league parks: the Rays, where he lives in Tampa, and, last summer, at Yankee Stadium. The sight of Michael in Yankee pinstripes was something I admired against my better instincts as a Boston Red Sox fan, but admire it I did nonetheless.

A couple of points stood out for me from the discussion. I started with the difference between Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, putting it to him that Bosch was driven by justice, and Haller was driven by a chauffeur. This may a quip that gets repeated (not least by me, as I've already done it once!).

I also asked about the way Gods Of Guilt turns Mickey Haller into more of a detective than a lawyer, and Michael explained how he wanted a story driven by Haller's need to find the truth because he feels guilty he may have let a former client down. He also mentioned how Haller's standing with his daughter is at an all-time low when the book begins, and he's driven to get one right, for her sake too. He explained nicely the parallels between Haller and Bosch and their daughters, reflecting back to his own daughter, and his empathy for the feelings being a part-time father might engender.

We then talked about Bosch, the series, and the relative amount of control he's had (working with co-producer and writer Eric Overmeyer, a veteran of Homicide, The Wire, and Treme). This was particularly crucial in the casting of Titus Welliver as Bosch. Welliver has had some excellent supporting roles, in Deadwood and The Good Wife on TV I've seen, as well as in Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo in cinema. Michael talked about the casting process, and how they were lucky to get Welliver at the last minute. He also mentioned Welliver is a Connecticut boy; turns out we were both born in New Haven, exactly ten years apart, to the day. My feeling is that Welliver will be able to convey Bosch's obsessive drive, despite the fact that, as Michael pointed out, the hardest thing to transfer from writing to film is the internal conflict.

The casting also presented another dilemma. Bosch has aged in real time during the series (unlike, say, Spenser, who remained a Korean War veteran well into the new millennium) and with Welliver they would have to play him in his mid-40s. Financial constraints meant they would be setting the show in contemporary LA, which meant Harry needed a new back-story (gone would be the Vietnam war, for example). So choices were made: Jerry Edgar would be his partner, Harvey '98' Pounds would appear, but in a slightly different role, and the family issues, which are so important, would be lost.

Finally, Michael made an important point about his work habits. He defines himself as a writer: he may an element of creative control over the Bosch series, but that doesn't mean he is going to become a producer. Between the filming, and the tour for Gods Of Guilt , he confessed he hadn't written much, and it was making him nervous. Connelly defines himself, in part, by his work ethic. To be a writer, you have to write, he said, and that's what I am. That is what he does as well. And does it as well as anyone in the field. By the time you read this, Michael will likely be back to his trade. Until next spring, if and when the LA Dodgers offer him the chance to throw out the first pitch.

NOTE: Photo of Michael and me at the Waterstone's interview taken by and c. Ayo Onatade for Shotsmag Confidential.


Thursday, 21 November 2013

THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION IN PRINT: THE LONDON LIBRARY ESSAY

Note: I wrote this essay for the current issue of The London Library magazine (number 22,Winter 2013), which is not generally available, so I offer it here, with some small changes. The original issue is available at londonlibrary.co.uk

THE KENNEDY ASSASSINATION AT FIFTY: STILL HAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

If you are of a certain age, you will remember. It was 50 years ago, 22 November 1963 and, with respect to Philip Larkin, a moment more influential than the Beatles’ first hit. We were sent home from school that Friday afternoon; President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been killed in Dallas. We watched Sunday’s live television news coverage as Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin, was gunned down by Jack Ruby. Life magazine declared Oswald guilty, its cover showing him posed with rifle and Marxist pamphlets. JFK’s Camelot, the 1,000 days of the New Frontier, the ‘best and brightest’ in his service, the beautiful wife and children, had been struck down by a misfit would-be communist defector. Everything seemed open and shut.
The commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren endorsed that simple explanation. But rather than calming the nation, the Warren Report raised more questions than it answered. Over the past half-century, the debate has become a mire of investigation, speculation and disinformation, with more than a thousand books written on the subject, some utterly bizarre. Were shots fired from an umbrella? By a gunman from a nearby manhole? By a Secret Service agent? Are some of the crackpot theories published deliberately, to discredit serious research? In the movie JFK, the director Oliver Stone put Winston Churchill's words into the mouth Joe Pesci, playing David Ferrie, the bizarre pilot who was likely part of an assassination conspiracy: 'It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.'
The literature of the Kennedy assassination has appeared in three waves, each reflecting the tenor of its times. The first was a reaction to the Warren Report of 1964. The second was inspired by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) investigation, begun by the US House of Representatives in 1976.. The third was prompted by Stone's film, released in 1991. Now, the fiftieth anniversary of the killing has inevitably prompted more writing, including a great deal of material published electronically. Much of it is simply rehashing the work of others, sometimes indiscriminately; approach it with care.

The Library's collection of assassination material is limited, though the official version is well represented. The US government printing of the Subject Index to the Warren Report and hearings & exhibits (New York 1966) would be a difficult and frustrating place to start especially without Sylvia Meagher's Accessories After the Fact  (1967), which is not in the collection, but is based on her cataloguing the evidence buried, unindexed, within the Report's 26-volume appendix. Meagher's title reflects the reaction of that first wave of books to the Warren Report, the two most important being Mark Lane's Rush To Judgment (1966) and Harold Weisberg's Whitewash: The Report on the Warren Report (1965). Lane was a lawyer appalled by the Dallas investigation; he wrote an article about it and ended up being hired by Oswald's mother Marguerite to represent her dead son. Weisberg was a former Congressional researcher who kept chickens on his Maryland farm, and whenever his work was derided he would be called a 'chicken farmer'. A Haverford College professor, Josiah Thompson, spent so long analysing the forensic evidence for his groundbreaking Six Seconds In Dallas: A Micro-Study of the Kennedy Assassination (1967) that he gave up academe, and became a private detective.

The first researchers were described as 'critics' because they were really investigating the anomalies and questions left unanswered by the Warren Report, which seemed to be designed to validate the theory of the lone, crazed assassin, Oswald, firing three shots from the Texas School Book Depository. Testimony that didn't fit that scenario was dismissed, overlooked or discounted – from the dozens who rushed up the grassy knoll, from where they were convinced shots had been fired, to Texas Governor John Connally, seated in front of Kennedy, who insisted he and the President  were hit with separate bullets, which would invalidate the ‘magic-bullet' premise, of one shot that went through both Kennedy and Connolly and cause multiple wounds in both men, before the second, fatal bullet also fired by Oswald. Then there was the enigma of Oswald himself, the Marxist Marine with Intelligence training, who defected to the Soviet Union and returned with a Russian wife at the height of the cold war without attracting the negative attention of the US government. Oswald showed an uncanny ability to turn up in two places at once, and to agitate on behalf of communism and Cuba, as he did publicly in New Orleans, while surrounding himself with fervent anti-communists. The Warren Commission simply ignored the mafia, who had ample reason to want Kennedy dead; Jack Ruby’s mob connections, which went back to his childhood, were swept aside, and the possibility he knew Oswald before he assassinated him was yet another  unexamined loose end. Ruby died in jail, before telling what he called the real story; in his two-volume work, Forgive My Grief (1966–7), Penn Jones, editor of a local paper outside Dallas, catalogued the unusual number of suspicious deaths of assassination witnesses. It was fertile ground for the roots of conspiracy.

The Warren Report was accepted immediately by the mainstream media; and when the word conspiracy is suggested, its proponents can be held to an impossible standard. Those who doubt Lee Harvey Oswald was the gunman, or acted alone, are first dismissed as crackpots, then expected to defend every crackpot theory of the assassination—and there are dozens of them—as well as every other conspiracy theory extant. The theorem appears to be, if any conspiracy can be shown to be absurd, all are invalid. Meanwhile, even as various 'official versions' of other major world events are proven one after the other to be lies, a long line which proceeds through real conspiracies such as Watergate to Iran-Contra to Saddam's WMDs to illegal surveillance, each is similarly dismissed as a well-intentioned mistake, an unfortunate coincidence, or an exaggerated misunderstanding, requiring the next official version to be accepted at face value.

In what now seems an instinctive recognition of this burden of proof anomaly, early fictions approached Kennedy's murder metaphorically: Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), Loren Singer's The Parallax View (1970), and Winter Kills (1974) by Richard Condon, author of the The Manchurian Candidate (1959), whose stand-in for Kennedy is assassinated on the orders of his mob-connected father. In fact, the idea of a conspiracy was nothing new: a Kennedy-like President had been overthrown by a military coup in the 1962 novel Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II. Ironically, the movie of the book was made with Kennedy's co-operation, overriding protests from the Pentagon; it would not be released until 1964.

The assassination has been examined in court only once, when New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison prosecuted a local businessman, Clay Shaw, director of the International Trade Mart, as part of a conspiracy to kill the President. Garrison got involved when he investigated Oswald's time in New Orleans.  His investigation received no co-operation from federal authorities and was undermined actively by some of them. His media portrayal was so negative he received, in a landmark court decision, a half-hour right of reply on national television. A similarly negative depiction, however, dominates novelist and playwright James Kirkwood's book American Grotesque (1970), which cast the trial as a persecution of Shaw because he was gay.

But Garrison did manage to show the Zapruder film in court. Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the assassination was purchased by Life magazine immediately after the killing,  and promptly locked away. When Life printed stills from the film, frame 313, showing the impact of the fatal shot on Kennedy, was out of sequence, making it appear that Kennedy's head was driven forward, not back, by the impact. A similar honest mistake occurred when the stills were reprinted in the Warren Report. To anyone viewing the film it is obvious that the fatal shot forced Kennedy's head backwards violently, and frame 313 shows the impact spray at the front of the head, while the supposed point of entry in the back remains untouched. The best early work on the Zapruder film was done by Robert Groden, whose two illustrated volumes, The Killing of A President (1993) and The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald (1995) remain valuable reference works.

By the early 1970s, despite polls already showing a majority of Americans doubted the Warren Report, conspiracy theories might well have been forgotten were it not for Richard Nixon (who was in Dallas himself on the day of the assassination) and the Watergate scandal. In the wake of this, three separate government investigations probed America’s intelligence services; one of them, the House of Representatives’ Pike Report, included the revelation, as shocking in 1975 as it was again this year, that the National Security Agency was spying unlawfully on the communications of American citizens. The House refused to issue this damning report; it was leaked to the reporter Daniel Schorr and published in The Village Voice. But rising distrust of government prompted Congress to form the HSCA, and a second wave of assassination literature, which studied conspiracy on a wider level, followed. Key books were Robert Sam Anson's They've Killed the President: The Search for the Murderers of John F. Kennedy (1975); Carl Oglesby's The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies from Dallas to Watergate (1977); and Government by Gunplay: Assassination Conspiracy Theories from Dallas to Today (1976), the collection of essays edited by Harvey Yazijian and Sid Blumenthal. An important later addition on the same theme was Peter Dale Scott's Deep Politics and the Death of JFK (1993).
The HSCA concluded the 'likelihood' of a Kennedy conspiracy, but was notably reluctant to blame anyone but the Mafia, as detailed in The Plot to Kill the President (1981) by HSCA chief counsel G. Robert Blakey and Life journalist Richard N. Billings, one of the men who bought the Zapruder film. Committee investigator Gaeton Fonzi detailed the derailing of other avenues of HSCA’s investigations, and of its original chief counsel, Richard A. Sprague, in The Last Investigation (1993); Fonzi attributed Sprague's removal to his insistence on establishing and investigating the involvement of the intelligence community in the assassination. The HSCA hearings prompted more suspicious deaths, most notably mobsters Sam Giancana, killed before he could testify, and  Johnny Roselli, found floating in an oil drum in Miami’s Dumfoundling Bay the day before he was due to make his second appearance before the committee.
Oswald’s interface with the intelligence community features in the two best novels written about the assassination. Often labelled 'the American Le CarrĂ©', Charles McCarry was a former spy, and his Tears of Autumn (1975) links the killing to the CIA-backed assassination of South Vietnam's President Diem, while Don DeLillo's Libra (1988) shows a typically obsessive DeLillo protagonist endlessly researching the ultimately unknowable:  “Think of two parallel lines … One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It's not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny.”

The recently published new edition of Not In Your Lifetime (2013, originally 1998) by Anthony Summers, began life as Conspiracy, published in 1980. It was the best single-volume study to date, a compendium bolstered by prodigious original research, and has gone through five updates, including as: The Kennedy Conspiracy  (1989). Summers has streamlined his theories over the years, but still suggests that Kennedy's killers were a mix of the Mafia, disaffected CIA agents and Cuban exiles. All three groups had reasons to want Kennedy out of the way, interests which coalesced around Cuba, where the mob has lost its hugely profitable casinos and whorehouses, and the CIA and Cuban exiles wanting to eliminate the communist Castro felt betrayed by Kennedy in the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. The official investigations in the 1970s revealed that the CIA and Mafia had indeed worked together, not least to get rid of Fidel Castro. Even Lyndon Johnson had complained about the 'goddamn Murder Incorporated' the CIA was running in Latin America. Summers suggested that Murder Inc. had come home.

That view of conspiracy was somewhat at odds with those who suggested the assassination was, in effect, a coup sponsored by the military and the CIA. David Lifton's Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy (1981; updated 1988) examined JFK's autopsy, not carried out by forensic specialists at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, but  by military doctors at Bethesda Naval Station, and concluded not only that evidence was faked, but that there were two separate coffins shipped from Dallas to Bethesda.  The alleged motive, detailed best in John Newman's JFK and Vietnam (1992) and Oswald and the CIA (1995), was their fury at Kennedy's reluctance to pursue the Vietnam War and his willingness to sign a nuclear treaty with the Soviets. Such a conspiracy would have required organisation high up in the military command, though of course we cannot overlook many actions which might be attributable to the post-facto tendency of bureaucracieslike the CIA and FBI to cover up rather than reveal their own mistakes or embarrassing secrets. The cover-up can often take the form of conspiracy itself.

Newman was an adviser to Oliver Stone on JFK, which sparked the third wave of assassination literature. Based on Garrison’s experiences, with Kevin Costner playing the DA and Garrison in an ironic cameo as Earl Warren, the movie began attracting mainstream denunciation even before filming was finished. Stone brought the two conspiracy strands together: on the ground the mix of oddballs, former spooks, Cuban exiles and mobsters suggested by earlier research; and behind the scenes the military coup which is revealed to Garrison by the mysterious 'Colonel X'. ‘X’ was based on Fletcher Prouty, a former Air Force intelligence liaison to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and author of two books, The Secret Team: The CIA and its Allies in Control of the United States and the World  (1973) and JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy (1992). JFK: The Book of the Film (1991) by Stone and Zachary Sklar is a remarkably balanced volume that refutes accusations of the filmmakers’ ignorance of history. There are many reasons to disagree with some of its theories, but the impact of the film forced the passage of the JFK Records Act in 1992, which released a mass of previously classified documents to researchers, simultaneously providing a wealth of new information, and more layers of contradiction and confusion.

The Establishment response to the film was Gerald Posner's Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993), a prosecutor's selective brief against Oswald and in defence of the Warren Report, which was highly publicised and generous praised in the mainstream, who ignored widespread criticisms of its flaws, most notably from the irascible Weisberg, who published Case Open the following year. Even Norman Mailer called Posner only 'intermittently reliable', but nonetheless used Case Closed as the basis for his biography Oswald's Tale (1995). For Mailer, Lee's unhappy marriage to the Russian beauty Marina saw him shoot Kennedy in a fit of frustrated jealous envy; the handsome President who had what Oswald was denied by his own wife. In 2007, former Los Angeles District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi published Reclaiming History, a 1,612-page work, with footnotes on CD, which recapitulated Case Closed  but also added frequent attacks on the more absurd conspiracy theories, as well as denigrations of many of the more serious Warren critics. Bugliosi also produced a condensed version of his book, Four Days In November (2007) which gives his version of the assassination in narrative form, and served as the basis for the2013 film Parkland.

The most significant new fiction came from James Ellroy, chronicler of America's dark underbelly. Ellroy never sees America as innocent; looking at JFK’s presidency he said the 'real trinity of Camelot was look good, kick ass, get laid'. His conspiracy, as laid out in The Cold Six Thousand (2001), oozes with the sleazy reality of mobsters, ex-intelligence agents, Howard Hughes and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. A decade later, Stephen King's 11-22-63 (2012) dismissed doubters of the official verdict as being unable to accept Kennedy's death as an act of random absurdity. Like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, King sent a Maine schoolteacher back in time to stop Oswald. The time-travel story is better than the Oswald aspect, but he presents a brief but powerful imagining of the butterfly effect of Kennedy's survival in an alternate universe, where small acts have unforeseen consequences. King concludes: ‘It was almost certainly Oswald. You've heard of Occam's Razor, haven't you? … all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.'

But what is simple about Oswald? His portrait as detailed by Warren, Posner, Mailer, Bugliosi and King is itself most convincing in proving he was uniquely qualified to become someone's perfect patsy. Ray and Mary LaFontaine's Oswald Talked: The New Evidence in the JFK Assassination (1996) makes a strong case for Oswald as a failed government informer, ripe for the set-up. And, in 2008, James Douglass's JFK and the Unspeakable: Why he Died and Why it Matters put forward the strongest case yet for a conspiracy, including detailing an earlier, similar plot derailed only by the President having cancelled a trip to Chicago. Douglass's research in Dallas neatly marries conspiracies large and small. His 'unspeakable', in the end, is simply ‘The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, it is ourselves.’


Should the actual gunmen still be alive, and confess publicly to their crime, at this point it's unlikely they would be believed. Warren's defenders would dismiss them, and many conspiracy believers might conclude they were yet another late attempt at disinformation. But most of the protagonists of the story are dead, and 9/11 has become the ‘Crime Of the Century’ for new century, as Anthony Summers says, replacing the assassination as ‘a new milestone of national trauma.’  We may never know the truth. Meanwhile Oswald's ghost remains in death what he most likely was in life, a patsy who reminds us that history is not random, but it may be beyond our control. As Don DeLillo wrote, in an essay while researching Libra:

'The valuable work of theorists has shown us the dark possibilities, prodded us to admit to ourselves the difficult truth of the matter. No simple solution, no respite from mystery and chronic suspicion. Conspiracy is now the true faith.'