It’s a daunting task for an author to take on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and tell us something we don’t know, much less make us see something in a way we hadn’t already over the past 50 years. Yet James Swanson accomplishes both. “End of Days” is a fresh, modern contribution to the literature about one of the most heartbreaking crimes in history.
At the outset, it’s important to note what Swanson doesn’t do in “End of Days.” To his credit, he doesn’t reiterate the various conspiracy theories regarding the assassination, but relies on careful research to find evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and proceeds from there. Swanson distills, rather than rehashes, familiar background information: He covers in a single paragraph Kennedy’s health problems; his World War II heroism on his boat, PT-109; and his wedding to Jacqueline Bouvier.
What Swanson does accomplish is far more interesting. He highlights many of the less-remembered but critical facts surrounding Oswald’s actions before and after the assassination. For example, how Oswald had attempted to kill another public figure, Maj. Gen. Edwin A. Walker, almost eight months before he shot Kennedy, but missed by less than an inch after the rifle bullet nicked a window frame, altering its trajectory. How Oswald abused his wife, Marina knew about his attempted murder of Walker, but didn’t go to the police for fear of his retaliation and possible deportation to her native Russia. How Oswald, after shooting the president, fled the crime scene on a city bus because he couldn’t drive, but the agonized crowds and chaos in Dealey Plaza had snarled traffic, so he ended up taking a cab.
How hours after the assassination, Oswald shot and killed a Dallas police officer, 39-year-old J.D. Tippit, who had stopped him for questioning because he fit the general description of the Kennedy assassin. How after Oswald’s arrest, he was interrogated by the Dallas police for 12 hours, during which he denied murdering Kennedy and Tippit, but enjoyed being the center of attention and was “surly, defiant, arrogant, defensive, and self-pitying.”
“He admitted nothing,” Swanson writes. “He actually seemed to enjoy the attention as he toyed with the Dallas Police, FBI, and Secret Service interrogators. Oswald insisted he was innocent. . . . He claimed he did not even own a rifle.”
This is more than just a collection of trivia. These facts offer insight into Oswald’s character and help Swanson consider the most galvanizing question about the assassination, or in fact, about any murder: Why did he do it?
I won’t detail Swanson’s conclusion, because I’d rather let him explain.
More important, “End of Days” offers a new way of looking at the Kennedy assassination. Swanson renders the crime in a detailed, sometimes minute-by-minute account, and he imagines both Kennedy’s and Oswald’s thoughts and actions leading up to the shooting, bringing a suspenseful, crime-story sensibility to the narrative. And Swanson casts his storytelling net wide enough to include Jacqueline Kennedy and Marina Oswald, describing their lives in the days before — and after those lives changed forever.
Swanson, the Edgar Award-winning author of “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” and other historical bestsellers, keeps his focus intimate and domestic, rather than grand or broadly historical — yet his scope doesn’t minimize the importance of Kennedy’s killing. On the contrary, it amplifies the crime and invests it with real emotion, drama and power. Swanson tells the truth as if it were a story, in novelistic fashion, but in a manner that feels more honest and poignant. “End of Days” reminds us that the assassination of a president was also the murder of a husband and father, and that the crime story cannot be separated from the family story.
Swanson grounds his narrative with the specifics of the setting and the time, down to the technological differences between the 1960s and today that affected how people absorbed the news. CBS News didn’t have the capacity to interrupt scheduled TV programming to get reporters on the air immediately after Kennedy was shot; even if it had, TV cameras needed 20 minutes to warm up. Swanson reminds us that home movies of the time, like Abraham Zapruder’s film, didn’t record sound and that the horrifying news of the assassination spread organically, from person to person, across the country and the world. Somehow these quaint details underscore the personal nature of the assassination and why its memory remains so indelible.
Swanson allows that during police questioning, Oswald predicted that people would forget Kennedy within a few days.
Time and history have proved him horribly wrong.
Lisa Scottoline is the author of 25 books, most recently the novel “Accused.”
END OF DAYS
The Assassination of John F. Kennedy
by James Swanson
William Morrow. 398 pp. $29.99