Three Bullets

Written by Roger Jon Ellory

Review written by Ali Karim

Ali Karim was a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.

Three Bullets
Orion Publishing
RRP: £19.99
Released: March 21 2019

The latest work from this literary crime writer is most unusual. It is a hybrid, merging conspiracy with an alternative retelling of history. It retains Ellory’s ability to tell a story that provokes thought and is genuinely hypnotic. The most incisive fiction holds a prism to our perceived reality helping us to grapple with all we see and feel, and Ellory’s saga is torn from that stable.  It is also exceedingly weird, an unusual novel that will stay with you like the memories of that motorcade, the Texas Book Depository and the sound of gunfire.

Akin to Stephen King’s 11.22.63, the real world characters that circled the events on that fateful day in Dallas are woven with fictional ones, to tell a story. Many writers have used the backdrop of the 1963 assassination for novels such as Don DeLillo in 1988’s Libra, Charles McCarry’s 1974 masterpiece The Tears of Autumn, and of course the extraordinary November Road by Lou Berney - but in those cases the President died. Ellory however takes an alternative route in his novel. He poses the question: what if the 35th President of America did not die on that day? He probes the consequences and sequence of events that would follow like a trail of fallen dominoes, hit by an unexpected gust of wind.

Ellory’s fascination of all things Americana, and all things that lie beneath the veneer of reality is on full display in this intriguing scenario. Heavily researched as well as imagined, we have all the leading figures that existed at that time. Striating the narrative we have Jackie, the Kennedy brothers John, Bobby and their family, their political entourage within the Democratic Party, and its Congress the DNC. We have the unholy duo of Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby as well as the shadowy figures of the underworld, and the machinations of the security apparatus. There’s also exploration of the sexual appetites of John F Kennedy (and others), as well as their political stance confronting a changing world. However, these characters from history are the backdrop behind a more complex story, one of a fiction that reads like fact, and is a love story of sorts; but all placed within the confines of a parallel universe – one where Kennedy did not die on the 22nd of November 1963.

It’s a time of lament for journalist & photographer Mitch Newman, as he’s back from Korea, a changed man. He’s greeted by a disturbing phone call from Alice, the mother of his former fiancée. She tells him that the woman who was the love of his life, Jean Boyd has taken her own life. This shakes Mitch, though he broke off the relationship; that act still haunts him as he tried to re-establish the bond, but failed. Mitch Newman like many of us only miss something, when it’s gone as Joni Mitchell once sang.

Meeting up with Jean’s mother, Mitch delves into the circumstances of his former lover’s suicide. There are aspects of her death that deeply trouble the photographer-journalist. The pills she used, coupled to a story she was working on (as she too is a journalist), doesn’t make sense in Mitch Newman’s troubled mind. Redemption is his solution to counter the lament and regret that burns within him. There are shades of James Ellroy (no relation) as well as Don DeLillo in the writing, but in the hands of Roger Ellory – it’s the story that matters beyond the style of writing.

The narrative takes sinister turns as there are others who have also been investigating the work of Jean Boyd. Connections to the Kennedy brothers’ campaign for re-election gathers momentum, as does those who oppose their stance toward civil rights, the creeping liberalism et al, so the road leads toward Atlantic City.

Ellory cleverly runs his small-scale tale of loss, guilt and a chase for redemption (the couple, Jean and Mitch); while running in-concert we have the geopolitical stage set for the control of the White House. The backdrop also features the intrigues of the 1960s, when change was blowing in the wind, a cold one. At times I became lost in this alternative reality, like I did when I read Brendan DuBois’s Resurrection Day, which also featured that period, and retold events from a parallax view.

Ultimately Three Bullets boils down to a tale of obsession, and the actions of the obsessed. It’s one of the finest novels from RJ Ellory, because it is so damned weird, and so unusual as a reading experience. However, it is firmly a crime novel, and it would be an act of criminal negligence to miss this tale of ‘love’, of what ‘might have been’, and ‘what was lost’.

Don't it always seem to go,
That you don't know what you've got till it’s gone

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