At their best Stephen Hunter's novels of Earl Swagger, and then Bob Lee Swagger, have been grounded in a sort of historical realism, with the Swaggers playing hard-jawed stoic heroes. Sometimes, less successfully, they've borrowed tropes that reminded us of Hunter's other career as a film critic, specialising in violence. Occasionally, Hunter can seem like a small-calibre Tom Clancy, with his obsessive detail about ballistics.
Sniper's Honor combines elements of all three facets of Hunter's work, for better or worse. Much of it tells the story of a Russian woman sniper, called the White Witch by the German soldiers she torments. A reporter friend of Swagger's has discovered her in an old Russian picture magazine, and he gets involved with her in trying to find out what became of her, as she simply disappears in the middle of the war. The story moves to the Ukraine, to battling partisans and the Nazi SS, and out of that grows a connection to a more modern story, of plutonium making its way around the world.
Hunter evokes The Terminator in his epigraph, and sees the story as Swagger reaching out to the White Witch across time, but truthfully that is the least convincing part of the story.
Our aging hero has picked himself up out of his country retreat enough times; his family has been understanding beyond the call; his endurance is remarkable. And when it's done over a crush, or a feeling of professional respect across genders, somehow it falls short as motivation. But the story moves well, Hunter does manage to ratchet the suspense in both time lines, and there is a twist which works on a sentimental level, though it seems almost as unlikely as a similar one in Steig Larsson. You'll see, because if you like Hunter's work you will read it. Bill Clinton arrived in London once carrying one of Hunter's novels as he got off the plane; I sold a review to the Telegraph based on the photos of that arrival. I was already hooked on the writer, it should need less than a president to hook you too.
Sniper's Honor by Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster, $9.99, ISBN 9781451640236