I’ve been in a thriller mood recently, but most of what the current crop of thriller writers puts out doesn’t do much for me. Their writing seems flat, uninteresting, and their plots are full of holes and so unbelievable that I usually can’t get through the first fifty pages. It doesn’t help that many of them are 500 pages long or more. That’s why I recently read an older novel written by a thriller writer who has never disappointed me. The novel: The Master Sniper. The writer: Stephen Hunter.
The Master Sniper is an early novel by Stephen Hunter; it was originally published in 1980. It is a thriller of the Second World War—a sub-genre I love—and it reminded me just a little of Jack Higgins’ bestselling The Eagle Has Landed.
Captain Leets is an officer with the Office of Strategic Services, a paper-pusher really, who specializes in Nazi firearms. He, as everyone else, is waiting out the war. It is January 1945, and the Nazis are against the ropes. They still have enough muscle to do some damage, but the end of the war is in sight, and no one wants to take too many chances, and Captain Leets is no different.
That all changes when a strange report crosses his desk: a small shipment of Stermgewehr-44s—an assault rifle that was produced and requisitioned in the thousands—was sent from the factory to a place called Anlage Elf. Leets isn’t sure why, but something bothers him about this shipment of rifles. It’s not just the number of rifles being shipped, but no one has heard of the requesting agency, and why would the Germans risk shipping such a small amount of rifles across the country when the war is lost?
This sets up a mystery that Captain Leets will struggle to solve throughout the rest of the novel. He will go against his superiors, participate in a parachute raid of an enemy camp, discover things about himself that he doesn't like, alienate friends, and slowly, ever so slowly discover what the Germans are up to.
The Master Sniper is a rewarding read. The prose is quick and spry, while the plot is rich enough to keep you guessing until shortly before the end. Mr. Hunter ratchets the tension and suspense perfectly, and the characters are enjoyable and likable—Mr. Hunter does an excellent job of creating a likable hero, while also creating a villain who doesn’t seem terribly bad until the novel begins to unwind, and then he is unmasked as a truly despicable and dangerous person.