The Third Bullet
by Stephen Hunter

Overview - Bob Lee Swagger is back in a thriller fifty years in the making . . .
It's not even a clue. It's a whisper, a trace, a ghost echo, drifting down through the decades via chance connections so fragile that they would disintegrate in the puff of a breath.

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More About The Third Bullet by Stephen Hunter
Bob Lee Swagger is back in a thriller fifty years in the making . . .
It's not even a clue. It's a whisper, a trace, a ghost echo, drifting down through the decades via chance connections so fragile that they would disintegrate in the puff of a breath. But it's enough to get legendary former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger interested in the events of November 22, 1963, and the third bullet that so decisively ended the life of John F. Kennedy and set the stage for one of the most enduring controversies of our time.
Swagger begins his slow night stalk through a much-traveled landscape. But he's asking questions that few have asked before: Why did the third bullet explode? Why did Lee Harvey Oswald, about to become the most hunted man on earth, risk it all by returning to his rooming house to secure a pistol he easily could have brought with him? How could a conspiracy that went unpenetrated for fifty years have been thrown together in the two and a half days between the announcement of the president's route and the assassination itself?
As Bob investigates, another voice enters the narrative: knowing, ironic, almost familiar, that of a gifted, Yale-educated veteran of the CIA Plans Division. Hugh Meachum has secrets and the means and the will to keep them buried. When weighed against his own legacy, Swagger's life is an insignificant expense--but to blunt the threat, he'll first have to ambush the sniper.
As each man hunts the other across today's globe and through the thickets of history, "The Third Bullet "builds to an explosive climax that will finally prove what Bob Lee Swagger has always known: it's never too late for justice.

  • ISBN-13: 9781451640205
  • ISBN-10: 145164020X
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publish Date: January 2013
  • Page Count: 485

Series: Bob Lee Swagger Novels

Related Categories

Books > Fiction > Thrillers - Historical

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2012-10-22
  • Reviewer: Staff

In bestseller Hunter’s solid eighth thriller featuring master sniper Bob Lee Swagger (after 2010’s Dead Zero), Swagger is living an isolated existence in a small Idaho town, where a widow seeking justice for her husband seeks him out. Novelist James Aptapton was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Baltimore, but his journalist wife, Jean Marquez, suspects the killing was intentional. For motive, she points to recent research Aptapton conducted in Dallas, where he was following up on reports that a coat stained with gun-cleaning fluid was found hidden in the Dal-Tex Building next door to the infamous Texas Book Depository. On November 22, 1963, that building could have housed a sniper other than Oswald. After accepting Marquez’s request for help, Swagger plunges into the byzantine world of conspiracy theory. Hunter develops some new angles on the JFK assassination, and as usual keeps the details about ballistics and weaponry accessible. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Jan.)

BookPage Reviews

Unlocking the mystery of a fateful day

It seems inevitable that Bob Lee Swagger, thriller writer Stephen Hunter’s retired Marine sniper, would one day find a place in the November 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Swagger isn’t the rumored second gunman, mind you, favored by conspiracy theorists as a more plausible presidential assassin than Lee Harvey Oswald. Quite the contrary; in his latest outing, The Third Bullet, the nation’s top fictional ballistics expert takes his best shot at solving America’s most baffling murder mystery—the assassination that marks its 50th anniversary this year.

As The Third Bullet kicks off, the widow of a prominent thriller writer very much like Hunter tracks Swagger down to his Idaho home to ask him to investigate the death of her husband, who was killed in a late-night hit-and-run that may have had links to the Kennedy assassination. Swagger heads to Dealey Plaza, connects with the JFK conspiracy underground, tracks the author’s killer to Moscow and eventually encounters a CIA operative named Hugh Meachum who provides a shockingly plausible alternate answer to the age-old question: Who killed JFK?

By Hunter’s own admission, The Third Bullet was a tough slog between a mountain of hard evidence and a valley of public doubt about what actually happened on that long-ago Dallas afternoon. To flesh out his storyline, the author immersed himself in the Warren Commission Report, took inventory of the various conspiracy theories, then set off like Swagger for Dealey Plaza to have a look for himself.

Fictional ballistics expert Bob Lee Swagger takes a shot at an age-old question: Who killed JFK?

“What I tried to do from the very beginning was establish hard data points, things that everyone knew and all investigators agreed had happened,” he says. “Then I tried to plot between and around them.”

As he looked down from the famous sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, then sat on the park bench directly below it facing the 90-degree turn that the Kennedy motorcade negotiated before the fatal shot, Hunter’s own hunter’s instinct interceded. The motorcade had slowed to a near-stop for the turn, offering a fish-in-the-barrel shot that even a mediocre marksman like Oswald could have made, compared to the much longer, extremely difficult shot at a moving target as the motorcade pulled away.

“I was stunned,” he recalls. “I looked up and saw the window was about 75 feet away and I thought to myself, good God, why did he not take the easy shot?”

That epiphany unlocked the central mystery of The Third Bullet: If not Oswald, who?

To find a plausible explanation, Hunter recalled a book written by ballistics expert Howard Donahue that theorized Kennedy had been killed by a rogue Secret Service agent shooting from a trailing car.

“It was a thoroughly absurd book and was immediately condemned to purgatory by sentient people, but he understood the science of what happens when a bullet is fired at a man,” Hunter says. In the case of the Kennedy assassination, the third bullet, unlike the previous two, exploded on impact when it hit and killed the president. How could that happen if all three bullets came from the same rifle?

To answer that question, Hunter introduces us to Meachum, a vainglorious Yale-educated veteran of the CIA’s Plans Division with his own secret plans. As frighteningly cold and calculating as Meachum’s story is, Hunter challenged himself by presenting it as excerpts from the man’s diary, his first foray into first-person narrative.

“I wrote that first and I really enjoyed that but there were all kinds of problems,” he admits. “A lot of the effects I get come from cutting and juxtaposing points of view, and it frightened me to get away from those points of view and be stuck in a single head, and yet I found the voice right away. In the end, my problem was shutting Hugh up, not getting him to talk. I discovered a lot of the plotting around Hugh while writing him.”

Hunter, who lives in Baltimore, wrote for the Baltimore Sun for more than 25 years before moving to the Washington Post, where he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for film criticism. He launched the Bob Lee Swagger series in 1993 with Point of Impact, incorporating an encyclopedic knowledge of guns and ballistics, and has gone on to write 17 thrillers.

Did conducting his own investigation into the Kennedy assassination change his view on what happened that dark day in Dallas?

“I suppose I confirmed my suspicions,” Hunter allows. “My theory of the world is that nothing works the way it’s supposed to work, so if anyone argues for perfection, they’re barking up the wrong tree. I wanted my Kennedy assassination conspiracy to be small and adept, but at the same time, mistakes were made, improvisations were made, the whole thing is thrown together on the fly and everybody happens to have a very good day on that day. To me, that was far more realistic than a theory that involves the CIA, Czechoslovakian intelligence and the Mattel toy company and their headquarters is under a volcano. You just don’t believe that.”

Does he agree with Stephen King, who concludes in his JFK speculative novel 11/22/63 that there’s a 99-percent chance Oswald did it?

“That’s how I felt when I started, but now I feel that figure is more like 95 percent,” Hunter says. “There’s a much larger chance than we know that something like [what] I came up with actually happened.”

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