Dave Lull reminded me that the new Bob Lee Swagger book by Stephen Hunter was coming out the other day, and I was on it like a fedora on J. Edgar Hoover. I had a good time with the book, though it’s not among my favorites in the series.
In G-Man, old Bob Lee finally sells off the family homestead in Blue Eye, Arkansas. As the house is being demolished, workmen discover a strongbox buried in the foundation. Inside are a pristine Colt 1911 pistol, a hand-drawn map, an old, uncirculated thousand-dollar bill, and a piece of metal that looks like a rifle suppressor, though Bob Lee can’t identify it right off.
Various clues indicate the box must have been buried by his grandfather, Charles F. Swagger, a kind of a mystery man. He was county sheriff, and a World War I hero, and an angry alcoholic. Bob Lee’s father Earl made it his life’s goal to be nothing like him. The Colt 1911 belongs to a batch that went to the FBI in 1934. Could old Charles have been an FBI agent for a while?
We are then treated to a two-stranded narrative. Part of it follows Bob Lee as he hunts down very cold trails to uncover his grandfather’s movements in 1934. The old man never spoke of any FBI work, and Bob Lee’s FBI agent friend, Nick Memphis, can find no record of him in the archives. But there are strange blank spots, hints that an unnamed Arkansas sheriff came to Chicago to teach agents how to shoot, but somehow got disappeared from the record.
Meanwhile, we learn what actually happened, as Charles comes to Chicago in pursuit of a new start and a new life. Tormented by PTSD and by deeper, darker secrets, he participates in the hunt for the Dillinger gang. He helps to put Dillinger away in Chicago, and is in St. Paul to witness the killing of Homer Van Meter. But through it all the great target is Lester Gillis, known to history as Baby Face Nelson. Nelson is a kind of alter ego to Charles, a man filled with anger who only feels alive when he’s shooting stuff up with a tommy gun. The men’s trajectories race to converge, bringing death to one and the death of dreams to the other.
The story is pure Stephen Hunter, with lots of action, good characterization, sly humor, and explosive violence. The ending didn’t entirely please me. It’s a not uncommon kind of ending, but one that I’ve never liked much. It’s hard to make this kind of resolution work, and for me it seemed a little contrived.
The most pleasant novelty in the book was the introduction of the modern criminal Grumley brothers, original and funny redneck characters. I hope we meet them again.
Not the best Swagger, but still recommended. Cautions for language, adult themes, and violence. Also a somewhat cavalier attitude toward religion in places.