The scene outside New York's spooky old Dakota apartment building on the evening of December 8, 1980, was as surreal as it was horrifying. John Lennon, probably the world's most famous rock star, lay semiconscious, hemorrhaging from four flat-tipped bullets blasted into his back. His wife Yoko Ono held his head in her arms and screamed (just like on her early albums).
A few yards away a pudgy young man stood eerily still, peering down into a paperback book. Moments earlier he had dropped into a military firing stance - legs spread for maximum balance, two hands gripping his .38 revolver to steady his aim - and blown away the very best Beatle. Now he leafed lazily through the pages of the one novel even the most chronically stoned and voided-out ninth grader will actually read, J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.
The Dakota doorman shouted at the shooter, Mark David Chapman, "Do you know what you've done?"
"I just shot John Lennon," Chapman replied, accurately enough.
It was a tragedy of Kerkegaardian pointlessness. There was only one apparent way to squeeze any sense from it; write it off as random violence by a "wacko."
"He walked past me and then I heard in my head, 'Do it, do it, do it,' over and over again, saying 'Do it, do it, do it,' like that," Chapman, preternaturally serene, recalled in a BBC documentary several years after going to prison. "I don't remember aiming. I must have done, but I don't remember drawing a bead or whatever you call it. And I just pulled the trigger steady five times."
Chapman described his feeling at the time of the shooting as "no emotion, no anger dead silence in the brain."
His unnatural tone sounded all-too-familiar. British lawyer/journalist Fenton Bresler took it as a tip-off. Chapman was a brainwashed hit man carrying out someone else's contract.
"Mark David Chapman," writes Bresler, "is in many ways as much the victim of those who wanted to kill John Lennon as Lennon himself."
Prosecutors, as a loss for motive, opted for the cliché: Chapman did it for the attention- the troublesome American preoccupation with grabbing that elusive fifteen minutes of propels many a daily-newspaper-journalist-cum-pop-sociologist into raptures of sanctimony. But Arthur O'Connor, the detective who spent more time with Chapman immediately following the murder than anyone else, saw it another way.
"It is definitely illogical to say that Mark Committed the murder to make himself famous. He did not want to talk to the press from the very start. It's possible Mark could have been used by somebody. I saw him the night of the murder. I studied him intensely. He looked as if he could have been programmed."
O'Connor was speaking to Bresler, and publicly for the first time. Bresler's book Who Killed John Lennon? Offers the most cogent argument that Lennon's murder was not the work of yet another "lone nut."
Conspiracy theories abounded after the Lennon assassination, many rather cruelly fingering Yoko as the mastermind. Another focused on Paul who, by this line of reasoning, blamed Yoko for engineering his arrest in Japan on reefer charges. The Lennon conspiracy turns up on radio talk shows with some frequency, where hosts fend off callers with the "Why bother to kill that guy?" defense.
Only Bresler's thesis, that Chapman was a mind-controlled assassin manipulated by some right-wing element possibly connected to the newly elected (and not even inaugurated) Reagan apparatus of reaction, transcends the confines of pure speculation, extending into the realm of actual investigation.
Even so, Bresler's book a little too often substitutes rhetorical questions ("What does that steady repetition of a voice saying 'Do it, do it, do it,' over and over again in Mark's head sound like to you?") for evidentiary argument. We can forgive him for that failing. Bresler tracked the case for eight years, conducted unprecedented interviews, and...