Author: Stephen Hunter
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books
Right up there with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher yarns, Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger novels keep making the top of my airport reading list. That is, next to Outside Magazine, when I can find it, because I figure it makes people think I’m ruggedly awesome. I’m currently between travels, but I still picked up The Third Bullet, the eighth entry in the series, on a whim when it was released earlier this year.
As I mentioned, I’d tackled the series before, so I knew what I was getting into. Hunter seems to love describing rawhide-infused gristle-and-gun-smoke characters almost as much as I love the tick-tock of a tightly plotted novel. The sense of place and time in some of these books has been topnotch, but, for the last decade or so, the characters have become so overwrought that all you get is the narrow smear of a gunslinger’s shadow obscuring the landscape with inky stereotypes.
I’ve never shot a firearm. However, considering the current U.S. debate on the matter and the fact that I finished The Third Bullet just as news reached the Internet regarding the untimely death of American Sniper author Chris Kyle, I felt I had to offer up at least a capsule review. Hunter’s Swagger is a sniper, you see. The best of the best, we’re told. We meet him in Vietnam and, over the course of several novels, follow him through the decades, sometimes backtracking to follow the adventures of his father and later moving ahead to meet his son. This is a family gifted (or cursed, as Hunter often reminds us) with an aptitude for violence and “making war”. It’s living in peacetime that presents a challenge to men like these.
As such, the sniper novel becomes a tale of slow anticipation. Psychology and understanding of the terrain are as important as physical skills and familiarity with the hardware. In the latter lies Hunter’s expertise. He surrounds the reader with men and women who hold encyclopedic knowledge of guns. While I plead silence on my stance on the subject, the over-engineered brilliance of these machines is something to behold when written about with the reverence of a hobbyist.
Unfortunately, Hunter sometimes trips up with the first element: psychology. “I wish I had a drink. I wish I had a cigarette. I wish I had a whore. I wish I had a mansion by the sea.” This is what passes for interior monologue in The Third Bullet. Bogged down by the sort of highly stylized good-old boy dialog that makes FX’s Justified sound like accurately reported speech, this latest offering tells of a man hunting for an absence: first an assassin, then a spy master. Soon, our hero gets drawn into a decades-long intrigue: what really did happen on that fateful day, November 22, 1963?
The Third Bullet becomes a globe-trotting treatise on the various JFK assassination theories. Swagger traces the events, critiquing the various ideas from the vantage of a man who intimately knows the hardware of killing. With the same skills he cunningly baits an operator still trying to cover his tracks after all these years. The two don’t meet for the entire book. They merely circle each other, waiting for an opportunity to trip a trap or pull a trigger.
As a craftsman, Hunter isn’t quite so on target, never quite reaching the genius of his own characters. He relishes in certain meta-textual gimmicks, such as having Swagger discuss the tricks of spy craft with a novelist and using their conversation as an opportunity to lecture on the various types of thrillers. In fact, the initial hook of the entire story lies in Swagger’s investigation of the untimely death of an aging novelist obsessed with crime and guns. Sound familiar?
Despite some heavy-handedness, the opening third of the book pulls you in with more than enough competence to satisfy as you plod through the rest. However, if you haven’t read any entry in the series before, I suggest you turn to Hunter’s output from the nineties instead of The Third Bullet. Swagger still shows ample (if guilty) promise as a protagonist, but, since 2007’s The 47th Samurai, in which he goes to Japan and pulls a Tom Cruise on his enemy by becoming a master swordsman, the franchise has been circling the airport looking for the right place to land.