A Thriller That Asks, What if?
This year will mark the 49th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and I’ll be re-reading Thomas B. Sawyer’s novel, THE SIXTEENTH MAN, for the umpteenth time. This is a novel that is still as timely as the event itself, what with real-life stories still in the news. For one, former Secret Service Agent Clint Hill, who was charged with safeguarding Jacqueline Kennedy, has written his memoir of those times and that day in particular.
Sawyer’s novel grabbed me from the first page and wouldn’t let go. All the time I was reading, I had the feeling he knew something I didn’t, perhaps knew what really happened on that dreadful day in Dallas. What if … what if …
From the Synopsis on Sawyer’s web site:
“Dr. Matthew Packard’s relationships and his career are at crisis points when he’s almost killed in a motorcycle accident in Muleshoe Canyon, near Moab, Utah. The mishap results in his discovery of an ancient burial shaft containing sixteen male skeletons. Fifteen of them date back 100,000 years, dramatically older than any human remains ever found in the Americas….”
From Chapter One:
“He’d been staring at nothing in particular. But then he saw it. Another skull – somehow different from the first one. Packard reached down, brought it up to eye-level, dusted the rear surface. ‘Okay, I’m examining another cranium. This one doesn’t appear to be as – wait a minute…’ He had turned it so that he was looking into its face. ‘This one, there are a few hairs attached. And the teeth – Christ, they’ve got silver fillings.’”
In alternating chapters, Sawyer tells two stories separated by more than 30 years in time.
First story, set in 1963: Tracking an errant wife whose husband wants evidence for divorce, a private eye accidentally photographs a small group of men with rifles, one of whom is a dead ringer for Lee Harvey Oswald.
Second story, set in present time: A dirt bike accident dumps an archaeologist near a rock fissure that leads him to a pile of skulls and bones. Fifteen sets of bones appear to be thousands of years old, but the sixteenth skull still has some hair attached, and there are silver fillings in the teeth.
Sawyer weaves these stories together so smoothly that hair on the back of my neck stands up when the story threads cross. The ending, on a narrow cliff in Muleshoe Canyon, is a knockout.
Sawyer writes: “Random events. Causes. Effects. Paths crossing, tangents briefly met, then curving away. All of it so incredibly random, and yet — what — fated?”
I think: It’s fiction. That didn’t happen. But what if? What if?