Top 10 assassination plots in fiction

Plans to kill have a powerful appeal for narrative plotters, including novelist Jonathan Lee. Here are some of his favourites, from Hilary Mantel to Ian Fleming

What is it that makes assassination attempts so fascinating to fiction writers? I asked myself this as I was researching High Dive, my novel based around the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984 – an attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher that resulted in the deaths of five people and the suffering of many more. In coming up with a list of 10 assassination plots in fiction, there were so many novels and stories to choose from that I’ve had to make some unforgivable omissions.

Where’s Graham Greene’s The Quiet American? John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps? Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted, James Ellroy’s American Tabloid? Why such a proliferation of assassination plots from well-known writers? Perhaps anyone who spends his or her days building stories, forming a web of events, deciding who within that web may live and may not, is inclined sometimes to try and imagine what it must be like to hatch a real-world plot on an awful scale – one that might change the course of history. What would it be like to be Lee Harvey Oswald, holding a whole nation’s narrative in your hands?

In Don DeLillo’s Libra, his novel about the assassination of John F Kennedy, he writes that “the purpose of history is to climb out of your own skin”. To my mind that’s the purpose of fiction, too. It takes us to uncomfortable places, shows us people who are not like us, introduces questions we might rather not confront. I love these 10 works of fiction for their ability to push us so deeply into the lives of others.

1. A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The playfulness of this novel is announced by its title: James’s book is not brief, is not a work of history and encompasses many more killings than seven. It’s a wonderfully bold blend of experience and imagination, fiction and fact, centring on the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. James focuses on drawing the reader into a mass of ghostly voices surrounding “The Singer”: CIA operatives, groupies, journalists. “The dead never stop talking,” he writes, “and the living sometimes hear.” The judges of the Man Booker prize heard, and made this a worthy winner last month.

2. Libra by Don DeLillo

DeLillo gives us various versions of Lee Harvey Oswald: high-school dropout in New Orleans, disaffected marine in Japan, administrative employee at the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas. At all times Oswald is struggling to overcome his severe dyslexia, a battle that foreshadows a CIA archivist’s later attempts to make sense of thousands of pages of evidence.

3. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

I broke out in a cold sweat in 2014 when I saw it announced that Hilary Mantel was releasing a book with this title. I assumed she was writing about the same subject matter I’d been labouring away at for years. Instead, the piece that gives Mantel’s story collection its title is a fever dream in which a sniper invades a Windsor home with the intention of shooting the PM. Thatcher is recovering from eye surgery, wearing “big goggle glasses” in an attempt to shade herself from “the trials of the afternoon”, but even a world leader wrapped up in her own well-practised detachment is not safe, in Mantel’s coolly brilliant prose, from the unsettling effects of events.

4. The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

On a March day in 1908, a young Jewish immigrant named Lazarus Averbuch was shot dead by George Shippy, Chicago’s chief of police. It was claimed that Averbuch was an anarchist assassin sent to kill him. Hemon boldly pushes himself into the many gaps in this official account of events, imagining what the reality might have been.

5. HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor

A side-benefit of the success of this book was hearing people at London publishing parties saying, glasses of tepid white wine in hand, “No no, it’s called haitch haitch haitch haitch”, and then debating which letter was lower case. The novel reimagines Operation Anthropoid, the code name for the plot to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, through the eyes of a writer-narrator who is uneasy about this own “ignominious transformation” of history into literature.

a still from the 1984 film of Cal.
‘The impossibility of divorcing ideas from their human repercussions’ .. a still from the 1984 film of Cal. Photograph: Alamy

6. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Hanif’s debut novel, published in 2008, bustles with wit and sharp political insight. It explores the mysterious death of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, president of Pakistan from 1978 to 1988, in a plane crash that has been variously blamed on Zia’s power-hungry colleagues, the CIA, the KGB, Mossad and Indian secret agents. In the tradition of all great shaggy-dog stories, Hanif throws into the mix a few more potential sources of blame, including a clew of tapeworms and a mango-eating bird.

7. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Exploring the enduring impact of the Naxalite movement on one family, Lahiri’s plot moves between two linked killings: the assassination of a policeman and the eventual execution of the man to blame. The threat of extinction is everywhere in the book. Even the smallest mammals in the lowland can be found “burying themselves in mud, simulating death, waiting for the return of rain”.

8. Cal by Bernard MacLaverty

MacLaverty’s magnificent story of life during the Troubles has at its heart the moment when Cal, a young Catholic caught up with the IRA, assists in the assassination of a reserve police officer. He is told by men well-practised in violence that it is crucial to “think of the issues, not the people”, but the novel is a brilliant demonstration of the impossibility of divorcing ideas from their human repercussions.

9. The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman

Published in English in 2001, nine years before Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel prize, the novel dramatises the assassination of former Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo, known by some citizens as “the Goat”. Moving between the assassination itself and its effect on the country several decades later, The Feast of the Goat, with a narrative structure flexible enough to show the links between past and present, exposes a whole system of political corruption without ever quite tipping over into didacticism.

10. The Man With the Golden Gun by Ian Fleming

No list of assassination plots would be complete without a little 007. The writing in The Man With the Golden Gun may not be as compelling as it is in some of Fleming’s other novels, but the story is desperately addictive. Bond is sent to Jamaica to kill a Cuban assassin called Scaramanga, a character apparently named after a hated contemporary of Fleming’s at Eton. With a schoolboy’s taste for entertainment, Fleming takes his revenge with a few strokes of ink.


Jonathan Lee

The GuardianTramp

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