Top recommendations for fiction, history and biography published in the half century since the Kennedy assassination
A Thousand Days
Arthur J Schlesinger (1965)
Published only two years into the long period of national grief and disbelief, this monumental work by a historian and Kennedy adviser – averaging out at around a page for each day Kennedy spent in the White House – understandably tends towards hagiography. However, it still satisfyingly explains to late-comers to the story the high promise and then deep loss that Kennedy represented to an American generation, and remains a useful corrective to the concentration on the politician's death rather than his political life. It is one of the two works to which most of the estimated 40,000 subsequent books about JFK are indebted in some way.
The Death of a President
William Manchester (1967)
This is the other. In common with Schlesinger, Manchester brings obsessive attention to the president's recorded actions – in this case the days leading up to the assassination – to create the sense of a writer and readership desperate to bring their hero back to life on the page. The subsequent tendency to distrust official accounts of what took place in and around Dallas – and a number of redactions made by the Kennedy clan before publication – have been used by some to devalue Manchester as a source, but the book has proper tragic force. The planned release in 2067 of Manchester's interviews with Jackie Kennedy Onassis is likely to give the JFK industry a new boost.
The Parallax View
Loren Singer (1970)
Better known as the basis for one of the greatest conspiracy thriller movies – Alan J Pakula's 1974 film – Singer's novel was among the first works to react to the widespread view that the Warren commission report into JFK's shooting was fiction by exploring what might really have happened: a reporter investigating the killing of a politician uncovers a vast corporate conspiracy. Singer also presciently caught the paranoia and suspicion among American politicians and voters that would soon result in Watergate and the fall of Nixon.
The Tears of Autumn
Charles McCarry (1974)
Written by a former CIA agent, this novel proposes that JFK's killing was a tit-for-tat assassination: commissioned as revenge for the Kennedy administration's alleged involvement in the murder of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1962. Combining poetic prose with psychological acuity – McCarry is the American Le Carré – the book plausibly incorporates its hypothesis into the known narrative involving Lee Harvey Oswald and is underwritten by our suspicion that McCarry's story may be informed by data picked up during his clandestine career. McCarry has argued that it it took a decade for JFK to be regarded as a fit subject for fiction and, in the same year, his friend Richard Condon released Winter Kills, a dark satire about the Warren Commission and JFK-related conspiracy theories.
Don DeLillo (1988)
Published around the time of the 25th anniversary of the assassination, DeLillo's novel daringly shifted focus from the victim to the killer, or alleged killer, as Oswald was increasingly considered by this time, as alternative versions escalated. In an author's note, DeLillo insisted that he was not attempting to solve the mystery, although the book's account of the shooting significantly departs from the official version. Libra's main aim, though, is to attempt through fiction a biographical portrait of Oswald, and it achieves this brilliantly. In depicting the plots and prejudices of the country's underworld in the 1960s, DeLillo, for me, comes in just ahead of James Ellroy's American Tabloid (1995), which climaxes in Dallas on 22 November 1963.
No Safe Place
Richard North Patterson (1991)
The death in Dallas was part of a chain of 60s assassinations (Robert F Kennedy, Martin Luther King) that led to a palpable tension and industrialised security whenever a politician went on the campaign trail, especially after the failed attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan in 1981. North Patterson, a former Watergate lawyer, wrote a series of novels about Kerry Kilcannon, the politician brother of a man who was slain on the campaign trail. This account of Kilcannon seeking the presidency, while knowing that he may have made himself a target, feels informed by the author's friendship with Senator Edward Kennedy and viscerally depicts the risks and tactics of running for office in a gun-mad culture.
A Season in Purgatory
Dominick Dunne (1993)
Thirty years after Dallas, the sentimental American protectiveness surrounding JFK was fading and his legend was increasingly tarnished not just by revelations about his own sex life, health and conduct but by scandals involving the wider clan: JFK's nephew William Kennedy Smith was tried and acquitted of rape in Palm Beach, another nephew, Michael Skakel, was tried and convicted for a Connecticut murder. Society journalist Dunne incorporated almost every available fact, rumour and speculation about the Kennedys into a wickedly gripping portrait of the Bradleys, a fictional Irish-American political dynasty.
Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery
Norman Mailer (1995)
Mailer was 40 when JFK died and therefore at the heart of the liberal-leftish generation for whom the young president represented a shift in attitudes. Kennedy – and his alleged lover, Marilyn Monroe – were recurrent reference points in Mailer's journalism and, in one of his best later works, the author exhaustively explores the character and background of the assassin. Drawing on KGB papers released after the democratisation of Russia, Mailer draws a portrait of Oswald that makes a fascinating companion piece to DeLillo's Libra and, for a writer instinctively drawn to conspiracy, comes to a surprising conclusion about whether Oswald was the lone gunman.
An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy
Robert Dallek (2003)
In the just-published My Autobiography, Alex Ferguson reveals himself to be an obsessive collector of books about JFK and cites this volume as his favourite. This is one of the ex-Man Utd boss's sounder judgments: walking 40 years behind the cortege, Dallek is able to avoid most of the sentimentality and family interference that hobbled earlier biographers. Frank about the subject's sexual appetites and health (which would probably have killed him if Oswald hadn't), the book also judiciously assesses the administration's political achievements.
Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy
Caroline Kennedy and Ted Widner (2012)
One minor consequence of what happened in Dallas was that any sort of after-office memoir was made impossible. Attended by the irony that the saintly JFK had employed in the White House the sort of taping system that later destroyed Nixon, this selection of transcripts serves as an accidental autobiography. This edition (with some audio recordings attached) brings the subject of so many other books hauntingly to life.