Bob Lee Swagger and the truth about JFK

In his new thriller, "The Third Bullet," novelist Stephen Hunter sets his sights on an American tragedy that's also the most famous gun mystery of all time — the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

The questions surrounding the shooting as JFK rode in a motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, have never been fully put to rest. And the controversy is certain to intensify as the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaches this fall.


As the novelist tells it, the decision to enlist his fictitious super-sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, to determine whether the gunman acted alone or as part of a conspiracy began as a joke.

"I believe alcohol was involved," Hunter says. "A second later, I realized that it wasn't a joke but a really good idea. A novel would be a perfect vessel for all the things I've been thinking about over the years and polishing in my deep brain."


In "The Third Bullet," Swagger is brought in to find out who mowed down thriller novelist James Aptapton under suspicious circumstances. Aptapton — a-not-so-thinly-veiled stand-in for Hunter himself — had been writing a book about the Kennedy assassination.

Now in his late 60s and with a bum hip, Swagger takes his investigation to Dallas and Moscow. At night, he wrestles with the ghost of the man he refers to as "that pathetic little creep," Lee Harvey Oswald.

Of course, Hunter wouldn't be Hunter if his novels didn't take potshots at both sides of the debate, from Warren Commission members to conspiracy buffs.

The author began crafting novels during the 15 years he spent reviewing movies for The Baltimore Sun. But it wasn't until after he retired 2009 from The Washington Post (where he captured the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for criticism) that Hunter turned his energies full time to his fiction. Both his exhaustive knowledge of ballistics and his characteristic mischievousness were on abundant display during a recent conversation at a downtown pub about his 22nd book.

You obviously put a lot of work into creating a plausible alternative conspiracy theory for the novel.

There must be millions of people who are at least familiar with the gigantic mega-theories of conspiracy and find them extremely troubling and grotesque. But at the same time, the conclusion of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone is a disappointment.

I hope this book discovers the appropriate distance between the two and comes up with more of a sense of the possible. I tried to give the conspiracy a real-world sensibility: It's improvised. It's sloppy. Mistakes are made. Radical midcourse changes are made. There are arguments and bitterness between the participants.

How much do you believe your own hypothesis?


We aren't anywhere near being able to answer the question of who killed JFK. I was unable to come up with any physical evidence that proves Lee Harvey Oswald innocent. But it's still entirely possible that the Warren Commission report's findings are 100 percent true.

We have more work to do. It doesn't matter so much what Lee Harvey Oswald is capable of, but what the rifle is capable of. Can the scope even be zeroed for that kind of shooting? We don't know, because the FBI did a terrible job of investigating the assassination.

We should start by taking the rifle over to the National Archives and turning it over not to ballistics experts, but to a panel of snipers and hunters, men who have shot for blood with telescopic sights during field conditions. It's eminently doable, and it wouldn't take a 500-man, trillion-dollar investigation.

One of the hopes of this project is that it will create a spurt of that activity.

Your book references friends and former colleagues. Wisecracking beauty and loyal widow "Jean Marquez," for instance, is your wife, Sun reporter Jean Marbella. And Swagger, of course, has the same last name as the late Sun photo editor Weyman Swagger. But who was literary analyst Susan Beckham modeled after?

Anne Tyler. I met her once, many years ago. She made a brilliant observation about thrillers in one of her novels.


One of her typical eccentric characters says something like: "I can never believe those elaborate plots that depend on a sentry looking west at 4:02 p.m. Suppose that sentry looked east at that moment instead. You can never depend on where a sentry's eyes are looking."

I, of course, write many plots that depend on a sentry's eyes looking west at 4:02 p.m. So I invented the character of Susan Beckham in gentle fun, in the spirit of play. This may be the only thriller in which Anne Tyler has ever appeared.

I'm actually much more like a character in an Anne Tyler book than I am like a character in a Stephen Hunter book. I'm the dotty uncle with uncertain hygiene and a gun collection who takes tots from the vodka bottle every afternoon.

You seemed to enjoy writing your own demise. So let's take it a step further: If you are mowed down as part of a contract killing after we leave this restaurant, how should Jean go about avenging your death? Your fictional wife tracked down Bob Lee Swagger. Your real wife doesn't have that option.

Probably, she'd celebrate with a vodka martini. I have no answer for that question, so I will have to make sure I look very carefully before crossing the street.

One serious question: Did the recent school shooting in Middletown, Conn., change your position on gun control?


I remain a committed Second Amendment gun-rights guy. The shooting was appalling and tragic, but I don't see how any gun law could have prevented it. Connecticut already has among the stringent gun laws in the nation.

I'm also not crazy about putting armed guards in schools. A lot of these proposals seem like tinfoil hats, or protections against threats that aren't really there. The math is that shootings in schools are incredibly rare, and to make a policy to move all these resources to prevent a one-in-a-million happenstance doesn't make any sense to me.

About the book

"The Third Bullet," by Stephen Hunter will be released Tuesday by Simon & Schuster, Inc. $26.99, 483 pages.