This is a sprawling thriller in the example of Jean Le Carre or Frederick Forsyth, with multiple characters, exotic globetrotting locations and a core plotline that twists and turns and cliffhangs chapter by chapter.
Author Glen Carter, in his second novel (and featuring the main characters of the first), has a fresh revisitation on one of the most shocking political murders of the 20th century — the death of American president John Kennedy.
This pivotal event still has such resonance, as well as power to shock.
It was famously filmed and photographed by several people on the scene, especially Abraham Zapruder. Based on this and other evidence, the Warren Commission determined there was one shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, himself slain some hours later by Jack Ruby.
But, in theory — or conspiracy theory — many other interests and enemies have been configured into Kennedy’s death: the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, and the enraged response among Cuban exiles; the mafia’s determination to protect its territory from an anti-crime
crusading president; the perception that Kennedy intended to ramp down military activity in Vietnam; vice-president Lyndon Johnson’s own ambitions … insert your favourite Oliver Stone reference here.
And there is still the siren song of the American Camelot, a concept never endorsed by Kennedy but which gained much traction after his death. There was promise in his administration, and potential. What could President Kennedy have accomplished? Is there any way to realize his (possible) legacy?
“Last Witness” has a contemporary setting, but it’s also an alternative historical one. For on thing, Fidel Castro is dead, and a window has opened for American/Cuban reconciliation. More, American President Frederick Denton and the now Cuban President Pilious Ortega, now meeting amidst great secrecy and security, have known and liked each other since university. The prospect of an entirely new relationship between the two countries is very real.
That’s jumping ahead a bit, though.
“Last Witness” opens with Julio Rasconi, a Cuban/CIA operative engaged in the Bay of Pigs, a.k.a. Operation Pluto. He is betrayed and imprisoned.
Cut to present day. Retired FBI agent Ed Malloy, who was part of the investigating team in Dallas, receives a strange, compelling missive. Someone is trying to get him a piece of evidence, hidden since that Nov. 22, 1963. This turns out to be from Helen Storozhenko, called “the Babushka Lady,” who witnessed Kennedy’s death and took a photo, which no one has ever seen.
Malloy’s search soon brings him to the doorstep of TV journalist Jack Doyle and his wife Kaitlin, herself an investigative reporter. Although their different professions lend antagonism to their first encounters, they soon realize it will take all their varied skills to track and assemble the clues. As Malloy explains:
“There were plenty of cameras at Dealey Plaza but no one got the shot … How else could we even begin to take seriously the hypothesis of a second shooter on the grassy knoll? Don’t you understand? If it was a conspiracy, they were the luckiest sons of bitches in the world because, even though the place was lousy with cameras, no one got the money shot. No one.”
But now, it seems, maybe someone did.
There’s a lot of jumping around, in timelines and locations, and even almost halfway through the book, new characters are being introduced. It adds up to a lot of bad guys, with sundry evil-minded agendas, running around.
But Jack and Malloy are reliable anchors in the centre of an assortment of mysterious figures, like signal buoys bobbing around them. And their own stakes in the enterprise get notched up several levels when both are targeted for removal.
“Jack and Malloy huddled together in a booth at the back of the bar. … Neither of them ventured to say what they were both thinking. That if everything had gone according to plan, they would have died on that sidewalk in Little Havana.”
In turn, solving the murder of JFK becomes key to preventing another assassination — in fact two, as U.S. President Denton and Cuban President Ortega prepare for their historic meeting in Havana.
“Last Witness” is broad in scope, fast on its feet, and the scenes inside and about breaking and reporting stories for a major news source are especially well-positioned and authentic.
This is a respectable addition to the genre.
Joan Sullivan is a St. John’s-based journalist and editor of The Newfoundland Quarterly. Her column returns March 12.