This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books on 23 June 2017.
Bob Lee Swagger is getting older these days. It’s to be expected, of course, given that we’ve known him now for almost 25 years, ever since meeting him in Point of Impact (possibly better known to folks by its movie title, “Shooter”).
In this 10th in Stephen Hunter’s popular series, Bob is now 71 and taking inventory of the many ways his body is starting to betray him. Puttering around his Idaho homestead, he obviously needs a project. One lands in his lap when he hears about the strongbox that’s been unearthed on his family’s old place back in Arkansas.
The contents obliquely point to Bob’s enigmatic grandfather, Charles, but present a puzzle. In part, the box holds an old-but-mint-condition gun, an uncirculated $1,000 bill, an apparent treasure map, and a badge from the Division of Investigation — the short-lived name for what soon became the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was only called the Division for a single year, in 1934.
That year was both formative and legendary for the brand-new federal organization. In the teeth of the Depression, notorious bank robbers were using jurisdictional boundaries to evade local law enforcement, which demanded the use of a new federal force charged with the pursuit of these public enemies across all borders, to capture or kill.
A small problem, though: “Our Director…envisioned a scientific national police force, incorruptible, untainted by ego, vanity, and politics. Alas, as we have learned, that also meant untainted by experience, toughness, cunning, and marksmanship. Lawyers make poor gunfighters.”
Enter Sheriff Charles Swagger, steel-willed marksman who has already made his chops in battle during the Great War and by singlehandedly taking out three bad guys in a gunfight earlier in his career. Charles is a no-nonsense man who keeps a low profile, and G-Man inserts him into the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde in May 1934.
His desire to stay out of the papers puts Charles on the radar of the Division, which — after a disastrous gun battle with John Dillinger’s gang at Little Bohemia that April — understands it is in desperate need of men who know how to shoot.
Shooting, of course, is what the Swagger men know how to do. Bob grasps this well, though he never knew his grandfather, or even very much about him, since his own beloved father Leon never talked about him.
Bob finds the thought of Charles vaguely frightening; the one thing he does know is that his grandfather ended up a hopeless drunk. But the strongbox is a direct link to the man, and, really, who could resist trying to solve this mystery?
Hunter has some fun with the structure of the story, which follows three primary characters: Bob in the present sleuthing through scant clues to piece together what happened with his grandfather in 1934; Charles as he joins Melvin Purvis and Sam Cowley in the manhunt for Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and the rest; and Lester Gillis himself — devoted husband and father, and gun-crazy killer, who usually punched or shot anyone who dared to call him Baby Face, a nickname he despised.
Those three characters, along with their author, share an appreciation for well-made firepower, and parts of the book read like a dreamy-eyed love letter to the massive, manly guns of old — a Thompson machine gun with a full drum weighed something like 50 pounds — and readers are treated to an apprenticeship in gun-smithing and craft.
For the Swaggers, they find beauty in the precision engineering and craftsmanship, joy in the working of the instrument. For Les, holding a gun simply brings on a blood fever to use it. He is the most dangerous man among the outlaws.
Bob is a fascinating guy, but his detective work — and his being trailed by two nasty fellows who want what he’s got — can’t compete with our experience of riding shotgun with both the G-Men and the gangsters, which is where the story sizzles.
Our interest in the present is further hindered by the fact that we end up knowing far more than Bob does about what went on with Charles, so we can feel a little smug as we sit back and watch him try to piece it together.
Ultimately, there is something unsatisfying in how Bob finally learns the full story, on top of which we know he doesn’t learn the full story. Bob never gets to know Charles the way that we do — his principles and moral code, the high standards that drove him and the demons that plagued him. Only Charles knew that, and he wasn’t talking.
Perhaps, though, that unfinished business lays the groundwork for the next Bob Lee Swagger story. After all, there’s still plenty of Swagger left.