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Book Review: The Third Bullet – by Stephen Hunter

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by Stephern HunterThere are pros and cons regarding the consequences of reading a mystery series out of order.  I have found that very little is lost in reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series in the order the paperbacks became available at the Goodwill, while James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories stand up much better if read in order of publication.  An out-of-my-backside explanation might be that the cooly taciturn, seemingly unflawed, ultra-violent Reacher is such a concrete, two-dimensional character (read that: uncomplicated) and the darkly brooding, deeply flawed and ultra-violent Robicheaux such a philosophical three-dimensional character, that the latter is so much harder to define in story than the former.  Where that leaves Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller, Stuart Woods’ Stone Barrington or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, I don’t know, but having read Stephen Hunter’s The Third Bullet (Simon & Schuster, 2013) the eighth novel in his Bob Lee Swagger series first, then reading the series in order, leaves me appreciating Burke’s Dave Robicheaux all the more.

But, that is not to say that Hunter’s Swagger is not an interesting, if not compelling, fictional figure. Hunter based Swagger loosely on Arkansas-native Carlos Hathcock, a well-known Marine Sniper made famous in the Vietnam war.  That said, it also does not mean that Swagger is a poor man’s Robicheaux–no matter how much I want to think it so.  Hunter is not the poet that Burke is, a fact amply reflected in his protagonist Swagger.  Burke’s Robicheaux is a Louisiana Catholic, educated, ruminating metaphysicist, whose feral doctrine is dense and diffuse violence that is barely contained. Swagger, in contrast, is an unchurched, uneducated Arkansas rube lacking a pedigree as sexy as that of the Cajun Robicheaux.  Swagger is painfully aware of his class position and fully resentful of it.  His violence is more dense and disciplined than Robicheaux’s, concentrated in his sniper’s distillation of death.  His violence is best titled by Time to Hunt (Island Books, 1999), where Robicheaux’s is best titled by Burke’s Burning Angel (Hyperion, 1995).

The two men have in common a diamond-hard intellect that enables each to see deeply into their respective antagonists. Robicheaux’s is informed by a culture of beauty, decadence and decay, where duty is disguised by an almost indecipherable moral code, while Swagger’s is educated by duty, fully illuminated by honor and tempered by “the thousand yard stare” acquired by those dealing in death in war.   Both were affected by The Land of Bad Things, Vietnam.  Gunnery Sgt. Swagger, all patient business and Lt. Robicheaux, conflict’s playwright,  are both are alcoholic, that de rigueur affliction that has become a metaphor for the time-honored rotten spot in the human soul.  Both men were spectacularly wounded in action, requiring lengthy convalescence. Both men are obsessive and ruled by their obsessions, though Robicheaux is much more id driven.  Both men have no fear dealing out or receiving punishment.  Both are significantly flawed, Swagger with his duty sickness and Robicheaux with his violent and driven nature.  As readers, aren’t we all glad for it?

Hunter’s most recent Swagger installment, The Third Bullet debuted in January 2013, ready for the 50th anniversary of the the John F. Kennedy assassination.  Stephen King most recently took an inventive swing at the subject with 11/22/63 (Scribner, 2011), resulting in one of his more satisfying reads since Insomnia (Viking, 1994).  But King’s tome is hardly the only or most notable fiction to consider the Kennedy assassination. Don Delillo’s Libra (Viking, 1988), Norman Mailer’s “non-fiction” Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (Random House, 1995) and James Ellroy’s tour-de-force American Tabloid (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), all suggest to one degree or another, conspiracies surrounding the assassination.  With his The Third Bullet, Hunter adds his two-cents, but in a most creative way reaching back to characters from his first Swagger novel, Point of Impact (Bantam, 1993) and deftly incorporating them into the present story, tying the “crime of the century” up in a beautiful bow.

SPOILER ALERT:  I am liable to blow the plots of all the Bob Lee Swagger novels.

The Third Bullet opens with the vehicular homicide of a college professor/author James Aptapton (fashioned after Hunter himself) on the streets of Baltimore.  The action then moves to Cascade Idaho, finding protagonist Bob Lee Swagger keeping largely to himself since having been introduced to his son, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Ray Cruz and saving the world (something typical of Swagger stories).  This relationship was established in a single sentence spanning forty years hurriedly-explained research by Swagger, who was picked to help bring the seemingly rogue Cruz in from the cold for Nick Memphis and the FBI.  Imagine, out of all the snipers in the Marine employ, Cruz would just happen to be Swagger’s son.  This revelation smacks of the same revealing that Swagger had a bad-seed brother, Lamar Pye, in Black Light (Island Books, 1997).  Pye resulted from a “youthful indiscretion” by Swagger’s father Earl and a vulnerable breathe of white trash, Edie Pye, shortly before he was killed by Edie Pye’s husband, Jimmy Pye.  Got that…it’s all Arkansas.  But I digress…

Swagger was also, in addition to making his son’s acquaintance, at the same time saving  the United States political hierarchy by spoiling, just in the nick of time, a Afghani plot to cut the head off of the infidel American political machine in Dead Zero (Simon & Schuster, 2010).  It is no surprise Swagger seeks that space beneath the radar.  Back to the story, Aptapton’s wife arrives in Cascade seeking  the reclusive Swagger.  After Swagger plays hard-to-get, through the wife’s persistence, Swagger decides she is legit and decides to hear her out.  She provides him with a story fifty years in the making surrounding one of the single biggest events of the 20th Century, that ultimately fails to interest Swagger until she mentions a certain bicycle-tire imprint on a now long-lost, oil-stained overcoat found in the elevator shed of the Dal-Tex building.  Swagger does an about-face with no further comment, making his way where?  Dallas, Texas of course, specifically, Dealey Plaza.  The Dal-Tex Building sets across Elm Street from the Texas School Book Depository from where Lee Harvey Oswald reputedly shot President John F. Kennedy, Friday, November 22, 1963.

There is a tacit clue included above from the earlier Point of Impact.  The clue would be readily noticed had these first and latest books not been separated by twenty years.  If read in order, the clue might tickle a memory in the reader just enough to sound familiar, yet not fully identifiable.   It is a clever device and one I completely missed (and thus was unable to savor) because I read the books out of order.  Hunter slowly develops the connections between the two novels, and these connections become more integrated and more clever, making a story more compelling than any of the Swagger stories between Point of Impact and The Third Bullet.  In addition to Swagger, there are two other principles in the story:   Hugh Meachum and his older cousin, Lon Scott, wheelchair-bound gun author and  champion bench shooter.

Hugh Meachum was a principle in the Clandestine Services section of the CIA, the section in charge of the real spycraft and espionage.  Meachum was the logician setting up and executing “operations.” In one such operation, central to Point of Impact, Meachum sets up a classic “patsy” or “fall guy” assassination scenario with a South American Archbishop as the target, Lon Scott as the shooter and Swagger as the patsy to be held responsible for the killing. This is the 1993 event referred to in The Third Bullet, that resulted in the death of Lon Scott, known as John Thomas Albright at the time (after having faked his death in 1964, reemerging as Albright).  Scott/Albright was shot by Nick Memphis while Scott/Albright was setting up to assassinate Swagger.  Like Scott/Albright, Meachum was to fake his death, disappearing that same year, 1993.

What Aptapton’s wife was calling a “bicycle-tire imprint” on the coat found in the Dal-Tex building, Swagger immediately recognises as possibly a wheelchair tire imprint from Lon Scott’s chair.  Swagger recognises that the same espionage method employed on him in 1993 could have been committed to Lee Harvey Oswald thirty years earlier.  Swagger reasons that as the Scott/Albright death and emergence was so poorly executed, that it would be more than possible, with his history in the CIA Clandestine Service, for Meachum to also disappear while keeping an eye on his 50 year secret, protecting himself.  This is the premise for the death of Aptapton and a subsequent attempted vehicular homicide on Swagger after he began to get close to the truth.  Swagger rightly surmised that it was Meacham trying to kill him.

The remainder of the book is told from both the perspective of Swagger tracking down Meachum and Meachum putting his experiences down on paper from Russia where he has been living as his spy alter ego KGB agent Dimitri Ixovich Spazny (there is a story behind this name and identity that is pretty clever but will remain unrevealed here).  The two men trade book chapters until Swagger, once again as he has for every novel, cleverly pulls his bacon out of the fire while almost dying in the bargain.

Presented in the form of the “Memoirs of a Case Office,”  Meachum lays out his logistical culpability in the Kennedy assassination.  Originally, he identifies Oswald as a potentially useful operative after he learns of Oswald’s assassination attempt of right-wing nut retired General Edwin Walker.  Meachum, a tacit pacifist, views Walker as a potent motivator to the otherwise weak Kennedy, particularly regarding communism.  Meachum’s fear is that Walker will publicly goad Kennedy into entering Vietnam at the expense of American lives.  He develops a project where Oswald will be set up as a patsy while Lon Scott assassinated Walker while the General is giving a talk at Texas A&M, thereby eliminating the pressure on Kennedy to “get hard on communism.”  Meachum approaches Oswald and places him under his leading discipline.  At this point, Meachum is going rogue, paying for his project out of black funds allocated to another project.  The Walker hit is scheduled for Monday, November 25, 1963.

It is here that “a willing suspension of disbelief” must be found.  It just happens to be coincidence that Oswald works at the Texas School Book Depository when, on November 19th it is announced that Kennedy will make a political trip to Dallas and will pass the Texas School Book Depository at 12:30 PM on Friday, November 22nd.  Meachum quickly retools his plan to kill Kennedy rather than Walker, hoping to avoid Vietnam altogether, reasoning that Vice President Lyndon Johnson would rather be the next FDR pushing the issue of Civil Rights rather than getting mired in a jungle war in Southeast Asia.  that is so ironic as to be funny.  Meachum, Scott, operative Jimmy Costello and the patsy Oswald go on to make a history resistant to the Warren Commission’s Report and every conspiracy theory to come later, at the same time making the story both compelling and, at least, possible.

A majority of reader criticism of The Third Bullet orbits around the relatively small body count compared to other Swagger books.  To be sure, the Swagger stories between Point of Impact and The Third Bullet fairly pale to these bookends to the point that they could be considered downright silly.  But, then, this is entertainment and Hunter’s Swagger is at least interesting if only two-dimensional.  The place for these stories is the fallow periods between Burke’s Dave Robicheaux stories or, his Hackberry Holland stories (which are simply Dave Robicheaux stories set in Texas).  I will certainly read the next Bob Lee Swagger Novel for the same reason I would buy the newest Rolling Stones studio recording…both are better than the majority of the genre available.  And, I suspect, that is a good enough reason.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • Bbt

    An S4 injury would not have made Lon wheelchair bound.
    Did the author mean L4?