An aging, charismatic cowboy with a unique set of skills seeking a cause to champion. A dedicated WW2 sniper, subsequently dishonoured and forgotten. A real and present-day WMD threat, chillingly described. Overlooked events in the dog days of the fight between Nazi Germany and the Red Army. The working day grind of an intelligence analyst in a national security agency. All these aspects form the story of ‘Sniper’s Honor’ to create a deceptively clever, multi-layered thriller. You don’t notice how smart is it because you’re rattling through the chapters, desperate to find out what happens next…
The result is both an historical military novel and a ripping read. It’s a ‘boys are back in town’ Bob Lee Swagger story to please long-term fans of the series, but it’s also easily accessible to newcomers. It’s stuffed full of gun tech, military expertise, bone-shattering ballistic description and the ‘feels right’ attention to detail which in the hands of some writers turns to stodge, but which Stephen Hunter delivers with aplomb.
The short chapters switch between half a dozen different perspectives, split between the modern day and 1944. Back then, the German army is in retreat and the SS are settling scores by wiping out civilian settlements in eastern Europe. A Red Army sniper – one of several women who undertook that role – has been despatched to eradicate a particularly unpleasant Nazi officer before he flees overseas to sanctuary. But she has been betrayed…
…in the modern world, Bob Lee’s interest is piqued when a reporter friend starts tugging at this thread, looking for a story. At first it feels as if they’re just carrying out an in-depth news investigation but pretty quickly it becomes clear they’ve trodden on sensitive toes, and the ghosts of the past are wrapped up with a plot in the present.
Bob the Nailer is long past his prime, but Hunter neatly sets up a situation where his specific skills can still credibly save the day. You’re never quite sure how the plots are going to resolve which keeps the tension and momentum all the way to the final pages. Hunter also brings us an interesting cast of well-developed characters. This isn’t one of those novels in which Bob is the only ‘proper’ person – there are half a dozen major players in the WW2 segment, all intriguingly realised with plausible back stories (and several of them could easily sustain their own spin-off stories).
There’s one or two less convincing plot devices in the 21st century segments, like the cosily-convenient, cavalry to the rescue which Bob can summon on a sat phone. But the sneakily witty, behind-the-scenes segments at Mossad more than make up for the odd, eyebrow-extending MacGuffin.
Certainly, if you’ve read all of the sprawling Swagger series then you’ll spot the differences from the early books. The recent episodes have lost the bitter grit and visceral intensity of the Earl Swagger stories. Sniper’s Honor is obviously written by a mature author about a mature protagonist, and it relies more on polished and perfected technique to ratchet up the tension, rather than directly engaging the reader’s emotions. The result is more of an intellectual entertainment than an emotional one… which is no bad thing. After a couple of wobbly episodes (they would be 47th Samurai and Night of Thunder), Stephen Hunter has more than rediscovered his mojo. His next novel is another historical crime investigation which is going to be extremely interesting. Roll on, ‘I Ripper’ …
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
‘Sniper’s Honor’ by Stephen Hunter is available as a paperback and ebook