Friday, 22 July 2011

STEPHEN HUNTER'S 47TH SAMURAI: A Forgotten Friday Entry

The 47th Samurai is not the first time Stephen Hunter has paid homage to movies; the Earl Swagger novel Pale Horse Coming referred explicitly to The Magnificent Seven (and to Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes). This should not be surprising, since Hunter is also a film critic who has championed the action/adventure movie, but unfortunately this tale of a sixty-year old Bob Lee Swagger embarking on a quest for revenge in Japan has to be taken with a huge amount of tongue in cheek. Hunter signals this when he's listing samurai movies – it's as if he's giving you Quentin Tarantino's young adulthood to follow, and though he isn't into the wholesale exaggeration that QT built his Kill Bill films on, Hunter still has a few problems to overcome.

The main ones concern Bob Lee, first because part of the story requires him to remain relatively anonymous in Tokyo, which is not an easy thing for any gaijin, and the other because Bob Lee's samurai training is of necessity too short, a fact about which everyone in the story reminds us, but being aware is not the same as being convinced.

The real problem is that Hunter attempts to encourage the suspension of disbelief by using facts—constantly giving the Japanese terms for weapons, fighting moves, techniques and parts. I noted in my review of I Sniper (2009--you can link to that here) that Hunter's writing was becoming more 'device-centric', and that as a result Swagger himself was turning into a plot device, rather than a character. This book was published the year before that one, but you can see it moving in that direction. In truth, however, when you look at Hunter's pre-Swagger work, you can see that it is the action thriller that interests him, and perhaps the historical emphasis was a detour.

That's dangerous because the strong points of the Swagger series (both father and son) have been personal as well as historical. Point Of Impact, which introduced Bob the Nailer, was conspiracy-based and began filling in Bob's personality; Black Light, the second novel, in which Bob investigates his father's death and White Springs, the first Earl novel, are perhaps his best books, and their core is character crossing corruption. There's some of that here; the sequences on Iwo Jima are particularly strong, if a bit reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's films, and of course the parallels of the Swagger men as American samurai is not subtle, but it is effective. So too is the relationship between Earl and his Japanese adversary during the war, and between Bob Lee and that man's son afterwards.

So, in the end, the question is whether you smile when Bob Lee assembles his own 47 samurai (the tale of the 47 ronin being the classic Japanese samurai story) or whether you feel it's all too contrived. As usual, Hunter's combat scenes always convince, and when he brings a twist or two into the plot it's never telegraphed, even if Bob Lee always saw it coming. It's got more meat than, say, I Sniper, and it flows along—the only question is how much you want to surrender to the ride.

The 47th Samurai by Stephen Hunter
Arrow Books 2008, £6.99 ISBN 9780099519232


George said...

I liked the first couple Bob Lee books, but gave up on the later ones. As you point out, Hunter seemed to go "device-crazy" and forgot about character development.

Randy Johnson said...

I've had this one almost since it came out, but never read it. Not sure why, but it may be a simiar reason to George's.

Michael Carlson said...

I just watched Shooter again, which is not a bad action film at all, and it's surprising more movies havent been made from the Swagger books...