Wednesday, August 28, 2013


I first made my acquaintance with the work of Stephen Hunter on a Christmas Day of years ago. I had recently received an advance reader copy of his novel DIRTY WHITE BOYS and after opening all of the presents and consuming a hearty Christmas dinner, I retired to my room, sat down in my easy chair and started reading. I was hooked from the first page. DIRTY WHITE BOYS is a down-and-dirty, pedal-to-the metal crime thriller that absolutely defies you to try and stop reading. I guarantee you cannot do so. Highly recommended.

Since then, I've had the pleasure of reading many Stephen Hunter novels (remind me to tell you the story sometime of how he helped me on a story assignment for a law enforcement magazine I used to freelance for). The other Stephen Hunter novels that I've read include: THE DAY BEFORE MIDNIGHT, POINT OF IMPACT (filmed a few years ago as SHOOTER), BLACK LIGHT, TIME TO HUNT, NIGHT OF THUNDER and the magnificent Earl Swagger trilogy of HOT SPRINGS, PALE HORSE COMING and HAVANA. If you like action packed thrillers and have not read any of Stephen Hunter's books, I suggest you do so immediately. You won't be disappointed. I rank Stephen Hunter second only to the great Lee Child and his superb Jack Reacher series.

I recently read Hunter's newest novel, THE THIRD BULLET. It's what may be the last in the Bob Lee Swagger series. Bob Lee, first introduced in POINT OF IMPACT, is a Vietnam veteran, master sniper, the son of Earl Swagger (who served as a Marine in WWII and later an Arkansas state trooper) and a man crowding seventy-years of age. I don't know if Hunter can spin another Bob "The Nailer" adventure and make it believable. The character's just getting too old for this shit.

In BULLET, a thriller writer (a very loose analog for Hunter himself) is killed when he discovers new evidence regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963. The writer's widow seeks out Bob Lee and asks him to look into the matter. He travels to Dallas, enlists the aid of his F.B.I. buddy Nick Memphis and is soon up to his neck in the world of JFK conspiracy theorists. He also runs afoul of a killer who uses cars as his weapon of choice. Said killer is employed by the mysterious man behind the scenes who masterminded the greatest murder of the 20th century.

The trail of evidence leads Bob Lee to Moscow where he probes the files of the KGB with the help of a Russian mercenary. The two men quickly become the targets of a Russian mob and before you know it, they're all involved in a spectacular gun battle in a Moscow park. What does the Russian mob have to do with the death of JFK? Bob Lee is putting together the clues when the narrative comes to an abrupt and sudden halt while Hunter shifts gears and starts an entirely new story thread in a different authorial voice.

What we get for many, many pages that follow is the written confession of the man who engineered the Kennedy assassination. It's written in painstaking detail and takes us back to the world of the mid-century CIA, Lee Harvey Oswald and Dallas in 1963. It's an enthralling read as the killer recounts how he set Oswald up and just who the real killer was. Hunter keeps to all of the known facts in the case but adds just enough plausible speculation for how it might have happened to make the account of the mechanics of the assassination very believable.

The trouble is, that while we're getting the killer's memoirs handed to us, Bob Lee is not. He disappears from the novel for many pages and Hunter returns to him only sporadically throughout the novel until the final showdown at the end of the book. It's as if Hunter wanted to write two books. One, a present-day Bob Lee Swagger thriller (which takes up about half of the book) and the other, a richly researched historical novel about the assassination. They're both good stories but it's a bit jarring to start reading what you think is going to be a straight ahead Bob Lee Swagger adventure and suddenly discover you're reading something else entirely.

Plus, only the reader gets the story the killer tells. Bob Lee is not privy to all of the details that we are. He still figures things out and makes some amazingly accurate deductions based on the evidence that he's presented but frankly, the whole thing feels a little bit like a cheat to me.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. I know exactly where I was that day and I'm sure most of my readers do too. We are about to be deluged with books (fiction and non-fiction), television specials and motion pictures that look back on that tragic day. THE THIRD BULLET is an early contender in the Kennedy assassination sweepstakes and while it's not Hunter's best work, it's well worth reading. 

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