Fever City by Tim Baker

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Reviewed by Annabel

I was only three when JFK was assassinated, remaining blissfully unaware of the events that etched themselves into the psyches of everyone old enough to understand what had happened back then. When it was the fiftieth anniversary in 2013, having experienced Princess Diana’s death and the collective grief and media frenzy, it was fascinating to explore JFK, particularly through Jonathan Mayo’s Minute by Minute treatment of what happened on radio and page. There was no room for conspiracy theories in that account – it was a purely factual rendition of what happened compiled from primary sources.

Ever since that fateful day, of course, the conspiracy theorists have had a field day pointing at everyone from the CIA to the Mafia to aliens. (A good summary of the main ones can be found here).

There aren’t many novelists brave enough to take on JFK and the conspiracy theorists – for instance, James Ellroy fictionalised the facts in American Tabloid, then Stephen King changed everything in 11.22.63. Now, Tim Baker has written a fantastic multi-stranded thriller based around a fiction of how it could have happened…

We start in the desert in New Mexico, 1964 and a man called Hastings is waiting for ‘them’ to come for him, but they hadn’t reckoned on him being so ready for them.

He runs across the ground, weapon at the hip, flashing back to the beaches, the wet sand, the palm trees; the sting of a bullet in somebody’s chest. They taught him well. He was young back then; methodical. It’s like the Jesuits. It stays with you Kill shots through all three cars. Re-kill shots. No one survived the first attack.

Having established Hastings as a hitman, probably for the mob, with a military past, we immediately move back in time to 1960.

Nick Alston gets a call in the night. A kid is missing, Ronnie Bannister – son of one of the richest and most hated men in the country. Old Man Bannister wants a private detective on the case. Captain Schiller recommended Alston. Bannister tells Alston about a previous blackmail demand on him:

‘You can therefore imagine my reaction when this man stepped forward, claiming to know the identity of Ronnie’s father and demanding payment for his silence.’

Where can we find his body? Is what I want to ask, but instead I play it safe. ‘And who was this man?’

‘Was, Mr Alston? Is. I haven’t had him killed. Not yet, at least. This man, Mr Alston, is called Johnny Roselli.’

I gag on the brandy.

‘I see you know of whom I speak.’

Choose your words carefully. ‘Mr Bannister, have you ever considered just paying Roselli and letting sleeping dogs lie?’

‘Sleeping dogs never lie; they always awake, savage and ravenous. You are not here to give me advice, you are here to find my son, and when you do, you are here to deal with Roselli.’

Fast forward to 2014 and Alston’s son is in Dallas researching JFK conspiracy theories. He is visiting an old lawyer who claims to have been involved on the periphery:

‘Patsies. Owald said it himself, in the station before they shot him. We were all patsies.’

‘How were you a patsy, Mr Granston?’

His laugh is more a shriek, a rasping intake of breath sucked through a web of mucus. He looks up at me, his eyes whittled with blood vessels. ‘Because I was the man on the car horn.’

Alston writes him off as an attention seeker, even when Granston says he knew his father when he was working on the Bannister case.  Alston has plenty more theories to explore – but then, he’s not really interested in JFK’s demise any more. Alston needs to find out what happened to his father and to see if he is linked in any way.

We return to Hastings, who starts to tell us the story of the plot to assassinate JFK. Hastings has no personal beef with JFK (or his dodgy father), instead finding him:

Not admirable but audacious. JFK was the first American president who look his country in the eye and said: I have a hard-on for power and it makes me want to fuck. Men got off on that. It made them feel good about their own dicks. Women got off on it too.

But then Johnny Roselli came along and hung a bull’s-eye on JFK’s hat. It occurred to Hastings: was this all because of Nick Alston?

All this by page 24 of over 400! I was already completely hooked.

The tone is set for the rest of the novel. Baker cunningly interweaves the three time-frames, which keep on intersecting as more facts come to light. You need to pay attention; with the same names appearing in all three timelines it can be confusing, especially as the chapters come thick and fast, most only being a handful of pages long. There is an awful lot of information to take in, but I just rolled with it and it comes around. There is a terrific late twist which, with hindsight, I can see was telegraphed early on, but submerged under keeping tabs on what was happening, I didn’t spot it at all. All very cleverly managed.

I really enjoyed the noir world of the two 1960s threads – the world-weary hitman ensnared by a plot that goes all the way to the White House and the hard-boiled detective who finds obstacles to his investigations and skeletons in cupboards everywhere he looks. Despite the violence, Baker successfully makes us bond with the hitman, putting him up against everyone else. This was unexpected – you’d expect to side with the P.I. first. There are teasing walk-ons for real people of the time, Marilyn Monroe, Nixon and J.Edgar Hoover to mention but a few, but they are mere distractions, adding to the authenticity but not really part of Baker’s own conspiracy theory which is what this novel is really about.

Baker’s noir style is great – I loved the way Hastings and Alston voice their internal thoughts. I also enjoyed his descriptions, which occasional veer into overdrive but paint a vivid picture:

He’d been waiting for the car for hours, watching the purple noon swell into the blinding yellow nothing of a phosphorescent LA afternoon.

Baker has constructed a viable conspiracy theory of his own in this well researched and most excellent debut thriller. It makes you think again about everything you thought you knew about JFK’s death. It also paints a picture of early 1960s American politics which ain’t pretty!

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books. Next stop in her JFK reading will be Nicole Mary Kelby’s novel The Pink Suit.

Tim Baker, Fever City (Faber and Faber, 2016),  978-0571323845,  432 pp., hardback.

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