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Book Review: Pale Horse Coming by Stephen Hunter

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Stephen Hunter’s Pale Horse Coming is the second in his Earl Swagger series, following Hot Springs. As with the first book, I listened to the abridged audiobook read by Jay O. Sanders.

The plot gets tangled from the beginning, but I trust Hunter’s writing implicitly. I may be confused for a while out of the blocks, but by the end of the race I know he’ll put all his cards on the table and I’ll know everything. Part of the excitement of this book is trying to figure out everything that’s going on behind the scenes. I had most of it, but Hunter is a master storyteller that threw some surprises and curves my way.

Before I get into the book, I want to talk about Jay O. Sanders’s reading. I found the man absolutely amazing in both books I’ve listened to. Sanders has an ear for Southern dialect and thinking that’s unparalleled. Growing up in Oklahoma as I have, I know when people are affecting the local accent without truly knowing it. Sanders talks the talk like a native. He should. He was born in Austin, Texas. His rendition of Earl Swagger is fantastic and I truly hope he does more of Stephen Hunter’s books. He’s a good fit for the series, just as Will Patton is a good fit for James Lee Burke’s novels.

It’s 1951 and Earl Swagger is an Arkansas State Trooper in this one. His friendship with Sam Vincent, an attorney, that compels him to action. Sam has been hired by a Chicago attorney named Davis Truegood to find out exactly what happened to an inmate of Mississippi’s infamous Thebes prison farm. Sam’s journey through the backwoods country is deftly portrayed and comes to life in Sanders’s narration. The modern world (relatively speaking) drops away in a short time and the atmosphere becomes grim and threatening.

In no time at all, Sam arrives in Thebes and begins asking the wrong kinds of questions. Generally those are the ones that end with a question mark, and even thinking them aloud can get you into trouble. The trouble with the small town sheriff oozes with menace, then things turn even more nasty when Sam realizes he can’t just walk away from the situation and let it go. After he returns in the still of the night to get some paperwork so he can start an investigation, the sheriff frames him for murder.

By this point I was totally immersed in the story. I knew that Earl Swagger was going to saddle up and rescue his friend. That’s what a Marine Corps first sergeant who was awarded the Medal of Honor in Guadalcanal does. And Earl does it in fine fashion. Unfortunately, the rescue goes sour and he’s left behind when Sam makes his escape.

For weeks Earl is held at the prison, and he’s treated unmercifully. The warden’s favorite guard, a hulking goliath called Big Boy, tortures Earl to find out who he really is. Earl sticks to his story that he’s just a man named Jack Bogash who was scouting land to lease for deer hunting. This part of the novel kept reminding me of the Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke — only a lot meaner.

Eventually, though, Earl finds a means to escape. And when he does, he promises to return to the prison and destroy it, burn it to the ground and not leave a stick standing. If you’ve read and enjoyed Hot Springs, you know that a man like Earl Swagger is fully capable of exacting such a terrible promise.

I listened to the novel during several hours of a recent road trip, and I was clinging to every word. The images played through my mind like a movie, and they marched inexorably on to a fine and righteous vengeance. If you like strong male action-adventure novels, Pale Horse Coming is a great one.

The action, the tough-guy dialogue, the reprehensible villains, and the atmosphere of the backwoods Mississippi of the 1950s is awesome. This book would make a good movie, and now that Hollywood has discovered the Swagger family (Bob Lee Swagger in Shooter starring Mark Wahlberg), I can only hope that someone realizes that another great movie franchise would be about Earl Swagger.

Stephen Hunter’s main career focus has been on being a film critic. He’s noted for being a demanding viewer, first for The Baltimore Sun then for The Washington Post. So far he’s written seven novels about the Swagger family. The newest, The 47th Samurai, hits the bookshelves on September 11, 2007 and stars Bob Lee in a story that ties back to Earl’s days in World War II.

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