Review

Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination

by Jim Lehrer

I was only 4 ½ years old when President Kennedy was killed, so I don’t remember anything about the incident. Of course, the assassination created a huge sensation then, and it’s still talked about and debated now.

There are hundreds of books on the topic. In fact, a number of them have come out this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the shooting. I usually shy away from reading books about the assassination, but this one sounded unique and intriguing. Well-known journalist and author Jim Lehrer decided to take a different route and turn the story into a novel. He incorporates some factual elements, but for the most part, what he writes is pure fiction and offers a much-needed fresh perspective on the event.

"I very much enjoyed TOP DOWN; the writing is lively, and the “what if?” angle makes for an intriguing premise."

TOP DOWN deals mostly with the life of Van Walters, one of Kennedy’s Secret Service agents, who was supposed to keep the President safe. Kennedy’s limo was equipped with a Plexiglass top, made to create a protective layer for the President in case of rainy or inclement weather. Because that fateful day started out with some precipitation, the Plexiglass top had been snapped into place in preparation for the parade. But when the weather cleared up, the order was given by the Secret Service agent for the “top to be down” that day. Hence the name of the book and the premise for Lehrer’s story.

Walters was racked with guilt, blaming himself for Kennedy’s death. He kept thinking that if only he hadn’t given the order to remove the Plexiglass shield, the President would never had been shot at. Or, if a bullet had been fired, it would have ricocheted harmlessly off the shield. Others disagreed with him, saying that the shield would have shattered from the force of the impact of the bullet, causing a shower of lethal shards that would have killed more people. But Walters couldn’t be consoled. He became despondent and suicidal, and had to be put on medication. After five years of self-doubt and torture, the once-robust bodyguard had wasted away to a shell of a man, with no will to live.

His daughter, Marti, in a desperate move to save her father’s life, got in touch with Jack Gilmore, a reporter who was there when the “top down” order was given. Marti convinced Gilmore to stage a test involving a rifle and a Plexiglass dome. But will the experiment work? And, even if it does, will it be too late to save Walters’s life? (You’ll have to read the book yourself to find the answers to those questions.)

I very much enjoyed TOP DOWN; the writing is lively, and the “what if?” angle makes for an intriguing premise. It’s also a rather short read, weighing in at only 187 pages. However, in my opinion, the ending is a bit weak. I’m not alluding to the final scene between Marti and Jack, but the event that took place prior to that. Of course, you can read the book and judge for yourself.

Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on November 22, 2013

Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination
by Jim Lehrer

  • Publication Date: October 8, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400069165
  • ISBN-13: 9781400069163