Friday, November 07, 2008

NIGHT OF THUNDER by Stephen Hunter

Night of Thunder is the fifth novel to feature Vietnam sniper Bob Lee Swagger. The first three—Point of Impact, Black Light and Time to Hunt—were published in the mid- to late-1990s. The series was seemingly over when last year saw the release of a film—Shooter—based on Point of Impact and a new novel The 47th Samurai, which sent an aging Bob Lee to Japan on an errand of honor for his long deceased father.

The two recent titles are a departure in style from Swagger’s roots. The novels are shorter and a have cartoonish literary flair; the prose is hipper, and the plots are looser and much larger than life. The style of the early novels was very much in the mold of the 1980s Tom Clancy-style thriller; long, vast amounts of technical information, a wide stage, and an unhurried pace. It should be noted that Hunter’s work has always featured strong action and solid pacing, something many of Clancy’s novels, particularly his later work, did not showcase. I favor the three earlier novels in the Swagger saga, but that’s not to say Night of Thunder or The 47th Samurai aren’t enjoyable, because both are entertaining modern thrillers.

Nikki Swagger, Bob Lee’s daughter, is a police reporter for the Bristol Courier-Herald. It is her first job out of college and she is hot on the trail of a story about the rampant methamphetamine trade when late one evening she is knocked off the road in a hit and run. When Bob is notified of the accident his daughter is in a coma and the doctors are uncertain when Nikki will come out of it. Bob Lee is concerned not only for the life of his daughter, but for the rest of his family as well. It could be what it’s reported, a simple hit and run, or it could be payback from his past.

When he arrives in Bristol Bob hires the Pinkertons to protect his daughter and then starts his own one-man investigation. He traverses the city—in the throes of a major NASCAR event—and the backwoods to discover what happened to his daughter. He confronts a publicity-seeking Sheriff, a cult-like religious crime family, a NASCAR race team, and bunches of rednecks in his search. He also expends a few rounds of ammunition and gets in more than one fight.

Night of Thunder is an enjoyable thriller that, while not to the standards of the early novels, is packed with action and a sense of urgency. Bob Lee is his tough warrior self prone to do things alone and hard. He is good with a gun and still pretty good without one as well. The prose, at times, has a cool lyrical quality:

“It was that old-time religion, fierce and haunted, harsh, unforgiving. It was Baptist fire and brimstone, his father’s fury and anguish, it was Negroes in church, afeared of the flames of hell, it was the roar of a hot, primer-gray V8 ‘Cuda in the night, as good old boys in sheets raised their own particular kind of hell, driven by white lightning or too much Dixie or too much hate, it was the South arising under red snapping of the flag of the Confederacy.”

The plot is swiftly executed with a sure hand. There are no loose-ends, but there are a few plot twists that rely too heavily on coincidence and at least one that was incredulous; a problem with many modern thrillers. I guessed the major twist less than halfway through the novel, but the writing and action was strong enough to keep the story interesting and fresh.

Night of Thunder is not one of Stephen Hunter’s best, but it isn’t bad either. If you enjoy a wild and bigger-than-life thriller that flies straight, hard, and fast with a hero that can hold his own in a fight—a throw back to the old West gunfighter, really—you will want to read this one.

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