Stephen Hunter's history of the Swagger family has, over the years, been engrossing. It was a Hunter novel Bill Clinton was carrying when he stepped down from Air Force One on a visit to Britain; it appeared in newspaper photos, and because John Coldstream remembered my offering a review of the book to him I wound up reviewing it for the Telegraph; the Times, meanwhile, to whom I'd forwarded the offer in the meantime, and who had put the photo on the front page, declined to even discuss Hunter's new noteworthiness.
The series was at its best when it was involved with historical facts, which was more when it starred Bob Lee's father Earl; things like the corruption in Cold Springs, Arkansas, or mob-controlled Havana in 1953 (I always thought the Swaggers and the JFK/MLK hits were a good match, but the timings just never worked out!) and it has always benefitted from the aptly-named Hunter's interest in guns and sniper lore. There is a fine line between interest and obsession, however, and although I Sniper is admirable in the way it integrates the minutiae of armament apparatus into its plot devices, it never seems to allow for the idea of a reader whose own interest may be slightly less technical.
The title itself is interesting. It refers, obviously, to Swagger himself, who is simply the best at what he does, even if he's been content to do it in obscurity. When a more-reknowned sniper goes off on what appears to be a deranged attack on 1960s war protestors, Swagger is called in by your friendly FBI sniper turned special agent, to check his own suspicion that something doesn't feel quite right. The key clue turns out to be a device called I Sniper, a computerised scope which doesn't actually exist, but, according to Hunter is eminently possible. Finally, however, one can't help but think that I, Sniper also refers to Hunter himself, and that Swagger, who in this book is all-seeing, all-knowing, all-American, and always moral, is a wish-fulfillment more than a brilliantly conceived character.
Here he seems much more of a plot device, two-dimensional apart from his macho capability and his devotion to honour. This is something critics of war (in general, in Iraq, in Vietnam, whatever) appear to lack, and that signposts the villainry in the story far too openly to keep it suspenseful. This is a shame, because Hunter's skill at having Swagger anticpate and outthink his rivals remains undaunted; were he to invest Swagger with a bit more depth, as he had in earlier novels, he might have been able to rachet the suspense higher. Less is more in plot sometimes.
What Swagger becomes here is a kind of thinking man's Rambo; meanwhile, the fate of Nick Memphis, the FBI sniper/agent who is set up by the villain is the most suspenseful part of the story. Hunter, once a film reviewer for the Baltimore Sun, seems to take great pleasure in making a Washington Post (the paper to which he moved from the Sun) journo the real villain of the piece, and the twist that resolves that story is perfectly judged, especially if you are a devotee of the small print of small arms.
I have followed Hunter with great pleasure for many years, but in the end I Sniper is a book for the already converted; it has the feel of a series novel, a plot-driven Ludlum or Clancy maybe, and it's too device-centric by half. Bob Lee doesn't lose his swagger, but it would be nice to have just a small glimpse of the man behind it.