16 August 2014

A peek into the novels that thrill the American right

Thriller | I, Sniper | Stephen Hunter

Okay, I confess that the main reason I picked up this book was the juxtaposition of 'Bob Lee Swagger' and 'FBI agent Nick Memphis' on the back cover. Yeah, a book I came to because I've seen a movie of an earlier book in what I rapidly realised is probably a long-running series. Who knew?

Bob Lee is an ex-marine sniper, arguably one of the best, a Vietnam War survivor on the American side, now getting old and creaky in the joints. His friend Nick Memphis gets hold of some great breaks in the latest political assassinations case, and zeroes in on the culprit in double-quick time. As the SWAT team goes in, Carl Hitchcock, also an ex-marine sniper, is found dead of self-inflicted gunshots. Memphis suspects something is wrong because no case can ever be so quick, so clean, and so wrapped up. He asks Swagger to take a look so that he doesn't end up with egg on his face some years down the line. Swagger finds nothing wrong in the case, except his conviction that Hitchcock was not guilty (yes, he has evidence of sorts for this).

And then, suddenly, the anomalies pop out of the camouflage, and the case becomes complex. Bob Lee, that typical American hero in the tradition of Westerns, the good guy with the guns, goes into bad guy land to prevent them getting away with perfect murders. (And yes, there is a shoot-out with sixguns in California.)

It's really weird to read a book from the conservative side of American politics. There are snide references about leftists, sneaky scenes against the media, even a comment by Swagger that he gets all his news from Fox! Yes, apparently, intelligent people, too, can watch Fox News (which is discredited even all the way round the world in India as an unreliable news source—that should tell you something). Combined with missing subject-verb agreements in his speech (his term for it), it's a bit of a peek into a different set of assumptions than most books from the USA. I guess the Right doesn't get as much space as the Left, so it has to work harder. But Hunter wears the mantle lightly, and never quite descends to rants. The poking fun is done with a light touch. Sample the first sentence in the book: “The time has long passed in American when one can say of a sixty-year-old woman that she is “still” beautiful, the snarky little modifier, all buzzy with irony, signifying some kind of miracl that one so elderly could be so attractive.” What's a bit more of a tripping point for me was the terrifying detail about all those guns, detail so matter-of-fact that it scared me at times. Surely the USA is weird in its worship of guns? I'm grateful that we don't have the equivalent of the NRA where I live!

So, is it very much in the macho style popularised by the Die Hard movies? I didn't quite get the same vibe in the movie Shooter. And the book makes Memphis and Swagger even more rounded characters. So, no. It's rooted with the conservatives, but these are not as much stock characters as the Die Hard or True Lies movies. Books win over movies, again.

Hmm, where can I find more Stephen Hunter books, particularly about Nick Memphis, whom I like more and more?

And, oh yeah, there's a pun in the book title.

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