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Mightier Than the Pen

Stephen Hunter puts journalism into his field of fire in his latest entertaining thriller

Alex Fine

By Bret McCabe | Posted 2/10/2010

Stephen Hunter's I, Sniper(Simon & Schuster) is a ridiculous book. No harm there--many great genre outings are ridiculous books. Elmore Leonard is the king of the ridiculous. Ridiculous can be obscenely entertaining.

Ridiculous can also offer excoriating satire, and parts of Sniper take aim at Hunter's previous career. The former Baltimore Sun and Washington Post Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic stirs up another solid twisty plot here, continuing the adventures of his star creation: former Marine Gunnery Sergeant Bob Lee Swagger, a decorated Vietnam sniper who maintains a soldier's sense of duty and honor in a world that increasingly shows little care for either. The Swagger introduced in 1993's Point of Impact is now a sixtysomething man who remains as fighting-shape sharp and tight as he can. (In this reader's mind, he looks like Lee Marvin circa The Delta Force here.) He's still a Zen-master of marksmanship--if other crime writers have the firearms knowledge that Hunter does, they don't employ it in quite the same sensuously rigorous and detail-oriented way. Consider Swagger the bullet whisperer--just don't call him that to his face.

And once again, Swagger finds himself right in the middle of a shooting situation through which only he can accurately parse. Another Vietnam-era sniper, Carl Hitchcock, has been taking out high-profile '60s counterculture celebrities after discovering he no longer holds the Vietnam sniper record for the most number of confirmed kills. And once those people--Oscar-winning actress turned fitness guru Joan Flanders, Ivy League activists turned '70s underground radicals gone academia-respectable Jack Strong and his wife Mitzi Reilly, and headlines-riffing comedian/liberal monologist Mitch Greene--are dispatched in the book's opening pages, Flanders' ex-husband, billionaire media mogul T.T. Constable, presses the right political buttons to get FBI brass to lean on its investigator, Hunter recurring character Nick Memphis, to close the case before the press starts dragging "Hanoi Joan" through the mud.

All the forensic evidence points toward Hitchcock, but the i-dotting and t-crossing Memphis wants to be certain. So he asks Swagger to go over the forensics, and the reasonable doubt he uncovers pushes him back into investigative mode, looking into a high-tech private security firm called Graywolf, digging into the life of the recently deceased independent liberal journalist O.Z. Harris, and dodging bullets when two gunmen take aim at him and a Chicago detective.

The obvious real-life analogues of novel's supporting cast--Jane Fonda, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, Mort Sahl, Ted Turner, I.F. Stone--only makes Sniper more fun, as these ripples of the familiar add verve to Hunter's pop-culturally aware writing. He's always written with a great drive, pushing his plot along with a taut but flowing momentum. In Sniper, he's also winningly spicing his realistic world with enough popular confetti to keep the talky bits breezy: a young female FBI agent gets nicknamed Starling (which could very well be casual SOP FBI speak for young women agents for all I know), TV procedurals such as CSI get drummed, a young private-security muscle successfully turns No Country for Old Men into a punchline, and a shootout plays out just like a classic Western--only the armed men start out 1,000 yards apart.

These amusing allusions start right at the title: I, Sniper recalls both Mickey Spillane's 1947 I, The Jury--in which Mike Hammer grapples with a psychiatric front for prostitution and heroin traffickers because they, somehow, are responsible for the murder of a buddy from the war--and Robert Graves' 1934 I, Claudius, which somewhat cynically details the life of a powerful man. Both plot ideas come into play in Sniper, and Hunter's comic touch with everything from movies to TV to literature adds a zest of mundane life to his FBI and military realism. Plus, his corkscrewy humor often scores out-loud laughs: "'Bobby Lee Swagger,' the name sounded like someone had run an algorithm on every NASCAR driver in history," observes reporter David Banjax, the fictional New York Times reporter in the novel. He's looking into Memphis' background when the agent refuses to close the case on Hitchcock, and Hunter serves up some of his most comical drumming for the reporter. Banjax imagines his investigation as a John le Carré novel, and daydreams about his work bringing down the government, putting the bad CIA cell in prison, winning the Pulitzer, and writing a best seller. The last name isn't all that subtle, either.

A minor subplot here has Hunter taking dead-eye aim at journalism, specifically daily newspapers, that fuels what one FBI agent calls "The Narrative," a mainstream-media deconstruction that deserves to be excerpted in full:

As a jolt of mainstream-media skepticism, it's a brisk blast. Plenty of the ongoing What's Wrong with Journalism discussion focuses on the business of journalism, the problems of mass-media ownership, print vs. web revenue streams, falling readership, etc. Here's a former journalist himself suggesting that it's not just the business model of newspapers, but something wrong with the herd mentality of the people who write the news that is flawed, too. It's a fair consideration, but coming as it does in a narrative so cleverly spiced with pop cultural awareness, though, it comes off a little bit like Andy Rooney starring in The Matrix.

Again, it's only a minor subplot, which does introduce some entertaining twists--rare is the thriller that lets a plot point turn on journalistic hubris--but for the most part I, Sniper remains a thoroughly fast-paced and enjoyable thriller. And if you're looking for highly intelligent and artful firearms talk mixed with '60s/'70s political conspiracy chat, look no further.

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