The late Philip Kerr is justifiably renowned for his magisterial series of fourteen historical books featuring the sardonic German copper Bernie Gunther. Kerr, however, was good enough – and confident enough – to write superior stand-alone novels. I read one such – Hitler’s Peace – earlier this year and if you click the link it will take you to the review.
Quercus has just republished The Shot, a 1999 novel by Kerr. We are in America and it is the late autumn of 1960. In the pop charts, The Drifters were singing Save The Last Dance For Me, and a youthful looking senator called John Fitzgerald Kennedy had just won the election to become the thirty-fifth President of The United States.
Just a hundred miles or so from the tip of the Florida peninsula lies the island of Cuba, but its traditional role as puppet state of America, complete with Mafia-owned casinos, sex clubs and hedonistic lifestyles came to an end in 1958 when communist rebels, led by Fidel Castro, finally overturned the regime of Fulgencio Batista. Cubans have fled in their thousands to Florida, while the American government looks across the waters for signs of Russian influence over the fledgling state.
Central to the story of The Shot is an American assassin who calls himself Tom Jefferson. We never learn his real identity. We only know that his aliases are always those of American Presidents, such as Franklin Pierce and Martin Van Buren. Tom is a military trained sniper who earns his living killing political targets by blowing off the tops of their skulls with a .30 calibre bullet.
As ever with a Philip Kerr novel, we are in a world populated by a mix of fictional characters and real-life figures. Among the latter are Jack Kennedy himself and the Mob boss Sam Giancana. Giancana hires Jefferson to assassinate Fidel Castro so that the revolution will collapse, and the mafioso can return to their old lucrative ways. Jefferson does his homework and seems all set to put a bullet in Castro’s head.
In the wake of 22nd November 1963, Jack Kennedy achieved temporary sainthood, and it is only relatively recently that his less-than-saintly private life has become common knowledge. When one of his exploits affects Tom Jefferson personally, the whole plan to kill Castro is turned on its head. Jefferson goes missing, and becomes the object of a manhunt by the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia.
This novel shows Philip Kerr at his wondrous best. The historical characters are made flesh in front of our eyes, while the fictional participants are vividly convincing. Kerr’s grasp of history is immense, and he serves up a winning mixture of The Day Of The Jackal and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The Shot is out now.