Stephen Hunter's latest novel G-Man, in the Bob Lee Swagger series, is a roaring good read.
Bob Lee Swagger is a Middle America Dirty Harry. He is a blunt, tough cop who knows his guns and how to use them. He is a purely American character of fiction we wouldn’t like to be on the wrong side of, but oh how we want to hear about what he has done to those who prey on us.
As the tenth Bob Lee Swagger novel, G-Man is Stephen Hunter’s Lonesome Dove, a big sort of book that takes well-established characters, especially Bob Lee himself, and puts them on an action-packed mission of self-discovery. Where it leads is a warning to us all about digging into the past to understand ourselves.
To explain why Hunter took the saga of this family into the past Hunter refers to himself as a “cranky old man” as he says that “ire” from Michael Mann’s pathetic 2009 movie version of Public Enemies(Johnny Depp as bank robber John Dillinger, come on!) prompted him to sit down and write G-Man. This book flashes back and forth from the present, as Bob Lee Swagger digs into the past and rouses old ghosts, to the gangster age of Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde as Swagger’s grandfather is recruited to do something FBI agents weren’t so good at, out-shooting Tommy gun-toting gangsters.
Hunter was, of course, a movie critic for much of his career. He won a Pulitzer for movie criticism when he worked for The Washington Post. So movies, as manifestations of culture, are a big deal to Hunter. That's how a bad Hollywood version of America’s gangster-era ticked off a talented writer enough to make him give us a roaring good book.
The story begins as Bob Lee Swagger sells the Swagger family farm in Arkansas. When developers begin tearing down the farmhouse they find a steel case filled with 1934 memorabilia belonging to Charles Swagger, Bob Lee’s grandfather. Swagger’s father, Earl, had refused to talk about Charles, so the discovery of Charles’ well-preserved Model 1911 pistol and more starts Bob Lee on a quest to find out what happened to his grandfather.
As Swagger searches into the past, and to the hidden facts about his grandfather’s role in hunting gangsters, he unearths things others want to know. This past-to-present plot isn’t jarring, but rather is riveting.
This is the tenth book of the Swagger series and it answers questions that anyone who has followed the Swagger family saga want to know. Honestly though, after I first met Stephen Hunter in 2010, I was so enthralled by him—he is a natural story teller with an engaging demeanor—I picked up his 1993 novel Point of Impact, his first of the Swagger series, and couldn’t get into it. Hunter opens the novel with a deer-hunting scene to establish the Bob Lee Swagger character, but though it is wonderfully written, he gets key details about hunting and whitetail deer wrong—such as saying whitetail bucks have “harems” of does. It made me mistrust and dislike the book and I put it down.
Later, after finding that Hunter is a writer who physically explores what he writes about, such as the guns he writes so well about, I picked up other books in the series and was, again and again, grabbed by Hunter's writing and his characters.
In G-Man, here is how Hunter describes the Swagger lineage of tough, gun-savvy men: “The Swaggers, on back over the years, men with guns. And the men of the last three generations, Charles, his son Earl and his son Bob, they had it in spades and were, each of them, defined by war. Throw in Bob’s son, Ray, now at the FBI, defined by the War on Terror in the world’s brutal sandboxes. That made four straight. They all had it, that Swagger singularity that set them apart, curse or blessing, as circumstances dictated. Who knew where it came from, that odd gift to take a firearm, understand it, and make the first shot count—always.”
In the book Bob Lee decides he has to answer one question, even though he is warned to let the bloody past stay buried six-feet down. He wants to know: “Who was Charles F. Swagger.”
As Hunter masterfully pulls the thread that unravels this action-packed story it's hard to stop reading, as you just have to find out what Swagger discovers.
(My latest book, out this summer, is a thriller called Kill Big Brother, an Orwellian nightmare that leads to a real answer about the future of our freedom.)