The latest in an ongoing series by Pulitzer Prize winning film critic and author, Stephen Hunter, sees the return of former Gunnery Sergeant sniper, Bob Lee Swagger, and, following a very slow effort in Night of Thunder, a return to form in the series for Hunter.
I started reading Hunter after seeing Shooter, the film adaptation of his first Bob Lee Swagger novel, Point of Impact. While the movie took liberties with the time frame of the story (Swagger is an recent war vet in the movie, but a Vietnam vet in the books), I was drawn in to the series of books by Hunter’s prose and depth of the characters he was willing to build into the stories.
In novel form, Swagger is a cranky, private, Arkansan who is regularly drawn into situations requiring him to rely on his superior knowledge of firearms and hunting. And that would be the sniper style hunting of humans, not bluejays, squirrels or warthogs. Point of Impact follows the story of his being framed for the attempted assassination of the President of the United States, his subsequent escape and tracking down of the ones who framed him. The climactic courtroom scene is excellent and worth reading the entire book.
The second Swagger novel, Black Light, is told in two phases: the narrative of the death of Bob Lee’s father, Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger, is the first while Bob Lee’s investigation into that death years later forms the second. The book is well done and, despite 10,000 swear words (or so it seemed), captures a crass, rural side of 1950’s America, with all it’s poverty, violence and racial animus. Black Light was followed by Time to Hunt, which is one of the best novels I have ever read. This final volume of the initial Swagger trilogy ties together loose ends from characters mentioned in the first two books, most centrally, Swagger’s friend and spotter in Vietnam, Donnie Fenn, KIA by a Russian sniper the day before he was supposed to leave the country. Swagger himself was almost killed, receiving a steel hip for his trouble. While I’ve been reading novels since before I can remember, the 90 or so pages in Time to Hunt that describe Bob Lee Swagger’s Navy Cross winning actions at An Loc is as good a piece of American writing as has come off the presses in the last 20 years.
The 47th Samurai follows Bob to Japan to avenge the death of a friend, who’s own father was killed by Earl Swagger in his Medal of Honor winning action at Iwo Jima. This book seemed more to assuage Hunter’s interest in Japanese culture than a probable story for Swagger. Though enjoyable it was a slight step down from the first three. If I had happened on Night of Thunder first, I likely would not have read any of the others. It is more than 100 pages shorter than most of the other entries in the series, therefore missing much of the backgrounds and prose that made the previous efforts so enjoyable. Hunter admits in the afterward that he conceived the idea after going to a NASCAR race. It shows. There is very little interesting info about racing, driver Mark Martin is misidentified as “Mike” Martin, and every redneck, snake-handling, inbred, Appalachian, “Baptist” stereotype is in play with the criminal family who stand at the center of the story. I cannot imagine but that Hunter would like a mulligan on that volume.
Which brings us to I, Sniper where we find Swagger asked by his longtime FBI friend, Nick Memphis, (first introduced in Point of Impact), to give insight into the assassinations of four former 1960’s radicals, each of which was felled by a long range rifle shot. Another former Marine sniper, Carl Hitchcock, has been isolated by the FBI as the highest person of interest and, when a “shrine” of sorts is found in his North Carolina home, the investigation leads to a cheap hotel room where Hitchcock is found dead in a closet, apparently by his own hand. (Carl Hitchcock’s Vietnam history as the sniper with the most kills is a recurring item in the Swagger novels and is based on real life sniper, Carlos Hathcock.)
Not being satisfied with the cumbersome, time consuming methodologies of law enforcement, Swagger goes rogue, another theme of the books, to run his own investigation which ultimately leads him to the Montana ranch of one T. T. Constable (a toilet paper thin veiled caricature of Ted Turner), whose ex-wife, Joan Flanders (an even more thinly veiled caricature of Jane Fonda), where he again hunts men who believes themselves to be hunting the now 68-year-old Swagger. The writing, story depth and total length make it more like the books in the initial trilogy.
Like all the Swagger novels there are lengthy, detailed descriptions of guns, cartridges, holsters, equipment, long distance shot evaluation and shooting. Likewise, there are gory, explicit descriptions of what happens when a bullet traveling at 2,600 fps hits a head, heart or torso. If you like thrillers or firearms and can swim through some of the language and descriptions of the more sordid elements of society, you might enjoy these novels. If you don’t like reading about people dying violent deaths, you might want to move on to Karen Kingsbury.
You can purchase I, Sniper, The 47th Samurai, and Time to Hunt through the links below. You pay the same low Amazon.com price and I get a referral fee. Thanks!