by Anthony Summers
McGraw-Hill, 640 pp., $17.95
The question of who killed Kennedy puts off a lot of people. It is easy to see why. For one thing, cranks and eccentrics have dominated much of the debate, so it is hard to know which theories ought to be taken seriously. What, for example, should one make of the notion that there may have been “two Oswalds” wandering around for a while? This brings up a second problem. Even more than with Watergate, the assassination demands familiarity with an endless round of details. How many grains should a bullet lose if it passes through two bodies? How long would it take to walk from Oswald’s room on North Beckley to the side of the Tippit staying over on East Tenth? Or who was the “Leon”who visited Sylvia Odio’s apartment two months before Kennedy’s murder? If someone even passably expert gets going on such subjects, everyone else’s eyes glaze over.
But the main reason for the weariness is that if Oswald was not able, no one has come up with a clue suggesting who else may have been firing away. Nowhere do any of the investigations offer even a hypothetical hint on the identity of another marksman. And neither does Anthony Summers. Yet it would be sad if for that reason Conspiracy were dismissed as “just another” assassination book. It is an important piece of work, both for what it shows about the assassination and for the lucidity that Summers, a British television producer, has brought to the subject.
If Summers does not offer a name, he does the next best thing. To start with, he establishes, more convincingly than previously seemed possible, that Oswald was in no position to do any shooting at all. That done, he provides a chilling explanation why certain people decided Kennedy had to die. Indeed, they did more than come to that decision: they carried out a plan which in fact achieved that end. For all its melodramatic overtones, “conspiracy” is the only word we have to describe the case Summers develops. So he asks at the out set that we suspend our initial disbelief. As indeed we must, when told that the plot was a conjoint effort of anti-Castro’ Cubans, persons employed by the CIA, and representatives of organized crime.
Farfetched and overplotted though such a scheme may seem, Summers succeeds in coming across as an author one can trust. He makes use of eye-witness accounts, some secured by the Warren Commission and the House Assassinations Committee, but the most persuasive from his own interviews with people who were never approached before. When the evidence is ambiguous, he admits that this is the case. If there are facts we simply do not have, he leaves the spaces blank and builds the best he can around them. Moreover, the book is exceptionally well written, with all the tone and tension of an Eric Ambler thriller.
Summers begins with a simple question. Where, in fact, was Oswald at the …