Three Bullets by RJ Ellory

Camelot revisited…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

It’s the summer of 1964 and the Democratic Convention is on the horizon, when they’ll have to decide whether they will support President Jack Kennedy as their nominee for another four years. Scandal is beginning to swirl around him, though – over vote-rigging and corruption in the last election, over his increasing health problems and questions about his mental stability, over the many women with whom he is rumoured to have had affairs. When young journalist Jean Boyd is found dead, her mother can’t believe the official line that Jean committed suicide. So she asks Mitch Newman, an old lover of Jean’s, to look into it. Mitch’s investigations will soon take him to Dallas where, back in the previous November, Jean had been following a lead relating to the President’s visit there…

If you’re confused, don’t be. This is an alternative history, based on the premise that JFK did not die in November 1963. Ellory speculates as to how the Presidency would have played out if Kennedy had remained in office – would the scandals of which we’re all now aware have become front and centre during his re-election campaign? Was he fit, physically and mentally, for another four years? Would the Democrats have stuck by him if he lost the Camelot glamour that inspired a generation? Would Jackie have been able to tolerate another four years of his blatant philandering? All interesting questions, and Ellory’s research felt solid to me so that, although he perhaps takes some aspects a little further than my credibility was wholly willing to follow, it nevertheless felt mostly chillingly possible.

The other strand of the story is Mitch’s investigation into Jean’s death, and unfortunately this worked less well for me. Mitch has never got over Jean although they split up when they were barely adults, and we are treated to endless descriptions of his feelings of guilt, loss and self-loathing, all of which bored me to distraction. Ellory even chooses to include several of the love letters Mitch sent to Jean after their break-up, all of which reveal nothing more startling than that he was sorry and still loved her. (Poor Jean – if she was anything like me, she probably only read the first three…) Ellory repeats and repeats how Mitch feels today, how he felt back then, how he felt when he was in Korea during the war. The book could have lost ninety per cent of all this, and been considerably better for it.

RJ Ellory

It’s a pity because otherwise this strand is interesting too. Basically, it’s the story of the real assassination, only changed to reflect the fact that in the book the assassination doesn’t come off. But real people show up – Jack Ruby, Lee Oswald, etc. – and Ellory treads a line between the official account and the various major conspiracy theories. I’m not hugely knowledgeable about the details of the event, but it all seemed to tie in well with what is known as far as I could tell.

It all leads up to a satisfying thriller ending, which again teeters precariously on the edge of credibility but doesn’t quite fall off. The whole presents a dark, dark picture of the Kennedy clan, exaggerated in places (I assume) to achieve a thriller effect, but sadly mostly only too believable. If you can put up with all Mitch’s endless regrets or, like me, skim read past most of them, then the what-if? features make this an interesting and enjoyable read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion.

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Book 3 of 20

23 thoughts on “Three Bullets by RJ Ellory

  1. What a pity about the Mitch side of the story. I am old enough to have been caught up in all the Kennedy hype and glamour and now wiser enough to be aware of the sand it was built on. I could enjoy parts of this, but like you would probably get bogged down in the breast beating.

    • It was a pity because he really is an excellent storyteller when he doesn’t get too carried away in his characters at the expense of moving the plot forward. I’m just a few years younger, so I don’t remember JFK’s assassination (I’d have been a toddler) but I do remember the kind of adulation the Kennedys got for years, and then all the scandals gradually coming out. I do recommend this – I began to skim the parts about Mitch’s feelings and all the rest is well worth reading.

  2. That’s a really interesting premise, FictionFan. I know what you mean about stretching credibility; I like to keep my disbelief right next to me when I read. But it sounds as though the plot is believable enough to keep the reader interested. And it sounds like an interesting blend of politics, thriller and mystery. I think those personal ‘relationship’ ruminations would pull me out of the story, too, but the rest sounds good.

    • Not being an expert on all the ins and outs of the Kennedy scandals or the assassination theories, it all still felt plausible enough to keep me onside, and I was often unsure where he was exaggerating – the real story is so larger-than-life to begin with! He is a great thriller writer when he sticks to the plot, but unfortunately sometimes he seems to get a little too involved in his characters’ back stories…

  3. Now I wonder what inspired the author to write this alternative history. I can’t help thinking of an Amazon show, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which explores an alternate timeline of WWII.

    • I always think alternative histories can be interesting when they’re done well and based close enough to the real story to be believable. I enjoyed Robert Harris’ Fatherland which is also based on the idea that Germany won WW2.

  4. Alternative histories don’t often appeal to me but I rather like the sound of this one – shame about the Mitch strand though. I’ve watched a few TV progs about the Kennedys – fascinating to speculate what would have happened if the assassination had failed.

    • I often enjoy them so long as they stick pretty closely to the known and believable, especially about the characters – this one did that very well, I thought. But yes, the Mitch strand brought it down a notch for me – too much of it. It’s interesting to see how politicians used to be able to hide stuff from the public – now we pore over every detail of their lives. Can’t imagine why anyone becomes a politician!

  5. Not sure this would appeal to me, though I can appreciate the parts of it that worked for you. As with so many books, it portrayed a different and difficult time. I can’t help wondering if people back then were content to hide their heads in the sand when it came to their heroes; unlike today, when everybody seems to want every juicy tidbit somebody can dig up!

    • That’s so true, Debbie, and I did find myself contrasting how easily JFK seemed to be able to hide all the stuff he was getting up to, with today, where we practically expect a report on what our politicians have for breakfast each day! I’m not sure it makes us any happier to despise and distrust our politicians quite as much as we do (although some of them deserve it… 😉 )

  6. Oh, dear. I’m afraid I’m not a great fan of alternative histories. I’m not particularly enamored by the Kennedys, either. (past or present) That said, I did love Stephen King’s time travel novel 11/22/63.

    • I quite enjoy them so long as they stick pretty closely to the truth, especially about the personalities of the characters. No, I’m just too young to have idolised the Kennedys – by the time I was paying attention lots of the scandals were already seeping out. I haven’t read the King version – *whispers* I’m afraid I never get on with Stephen King’s style…

  7. I can see why you would be annoyed by Mitch’s endless mooning and moping. The rest does sound interesting though. I still have never read 11/22/63 by Stephen King, which pretty much everyone seems to like.

    • Yes, I don’t think thrillers are every really helped by lots of stuff about how people feel. Action! That’s what we want! 😀 But otherwise this one is very good on the actual Kennedy stuff – frighteningly believable. I haven’t read the King either… I fear I’m not a fan of his style. *hides from the angry hordes of King fans* 😉

  8. I find the premise of this interesting. Like you, I can appreciate an alternative history when done well. You may remember earlier this year I read Annelies, a story about if Anne Frank had lived. It was quite the flip of the coin from this story, though. I think I may just have to add this one. Lovely review, FF!

    • Oh yes, I do remember your review of that one! I quite enjoy alternative histories if I know the real history fairly well, and if the author doesn’t change the basic personalities. That aspect is done very well in this one, I thought…

    • Then you should enjoy this – he’s an excellent storyteller (apart from when he gets bogged down in his characters’ feeeeeelings) and it felt very well researched to me… 😀

  9. Have you read much Ellory before? I know lots of people love him, but I’ve never read even one of his books! I like the idea of re-writing the story of the assassination though, that interests me…

    • I’ve read a few – loved some, and not loved others quite so much. Sometimes he sticks to the plot and then he’s a great thriller writer, but sometimes he gets diverted into the background of his characters and then it gets a bit bogged down, especially since it’s quite often about their war experiences. He’s still one of the best out there though, even when he’s slightly off his top form…

  10. I like alternate histories though I don’t feel any particular draw to JFK and his story. It all sounds sort of sweetly naive and old-fashioned though when you compare to the current American president.

    • I like them so long as I know the history well enough to know what’s true and what’s invented, and also if the author doesn’t change the characters too brutally. Ha! At least back in those days our leaders were able to hide what they got up to – now we can’t escape it… 😉

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