Saturday, January 23, 2010

THE MASTER SNIPER by Stephen Hunter

You may have noticed, or maybe not, that it has been overly quiet around here the past few weeks. It's been a busy first few weeks of the year, but everything seems to be calming down and we--my wife and I--are getting back into the natural rhythm of life so, with a little luck, I should be back to getting two or three posts up per week shortly. Until then, here is a review I wrote a few years ago for an older Stephen Hunter novel.
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.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

NIGHT CALLER by Daniel Ransom

I recently read Ed Gorman's novel The Long Midnight (published as by Daniel Ransom) and was going to review it here, but James Reasoner beat me to the punch, and said pretty much what I wanted to say. Read it here. I have read a couple of Gorman's Ransom novels in the past few months; The Long Midnight and The Foresaken. The Long Midnight was terrific, and The Forsaken was entertaining.

Since I didn't want to re-write what Reasoner had already written I decided to dust off an old review of Ransom's Night Caller. A novel that I really enjoyed. It originally went live 21-Dec-07, and I'm still waiting for that television movie to come out. Here it is...

In the 1980s and 90s Ed Gorman wrote several novels under the pseudonym Daniel Ransom. The novels tended towards horror and science fiction—two of my favorite genres—but like everything Mr. Gorman writes there were heavy elements of both suspense and mystery; I should disclose that I haven’t read many of the Daniel Ransom novels, but the few I have read have been vintage Ed Gorman.

I recently read Night Caller by Daniel Ransom and I had a really good time with it. Sally Baines and her daughter Jamie are on vacation in the Midwest when their car breaks down on a rural stretch of highway. It isn’t long before a farmer gentleman rescues them with a ride into the nearest town: Haversham. He seems like a nice man, but he looks at Jamie strangely, and even more disconcerting, when they arrive in town Sally and Jamie see him eagerly pointing them out to another local. Their unease continues to mount when they are told their car won’t be ready until the following day. And things really begin to feel strange when they go to the local hotel—The Royal—looking for a room.

I’m not an expert—or even well read—when it comes to 80s horror, but Night Caller very much has an 80s feel about it. It’s small town horror with a twist of psycho, and maybe just a touch of Stephen King. The characters are amusing, especially a local doctor and a disgraced national television news reporter. The mother-daughter team of Sally and Jamie are central to the plotline, and they hold up well as the story unfolds. There is a large cast of local characters who keep the story fresh and Ed Gorman, as usual, adds more than a little mystery and suspense into the mix to keep it interesting.

Night Caller is, simply put, damn fun. It is a fast read—maybe 90 minutes of reading time—and fits the bill perfectly if you’re in the mood for light horror. And, if there are any producers out there, it would make a terrific television movie. Maybe something similar—in production values and theme—to one of those semi-campy Stephen King television movies of the 90s.

Saturday, January 09, 2010


Duel was an ABC movie of the week originally aired in November 1971. It was Steven Spielberg’s first crack at directing a movie, and he really delivered. It was filmed on location in thirteen days and the final product feels more like a feature film than a made-for-television movie. The camera work is impressive. There are several beautiful low-angle moving shots on the highway and an impressive freehand, documentary-style, scene shot in a truck stop.

The story is relatively simple—a salesman traveling a California highway passes a slow moving tanker truck. The driver of the tanker takes exception, and the rest of the story unfolds as the truck chases David Mann (the salesman) along the narrow two-lane highway. The driver of the truck is never revealed, which creates a sense of broad-based terror as the antagonist actually becomes the truck.

Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay, based on his novelette, and it is a taut and linear tale of a normal man trapped in a situation where only he can save himself. It is a little Alfred Hitchcock, and a whole lot Richard Matheson. The film is faithful to the novelette, but there are a few additional scenes and an extension of one—the truck stop scene was lengthened and improved over the story. Dennis Weaver—playing David Mann—creates an anxiety that is realistic; I saw a whole lot of myself in his reactions and behavior.

The original television version was released in a 90-minute time slot. The actual film clocked in at around 73-minutes, but it was lengthened to 90-minutes and released as a feature film in Europe. The current DVD is the 90-minute version, and my understanding is that Spielberg extended a couple scenes and added one. I haven’t seen the original version, but I really can’t imagine that it was any better than the longer theatrical version.

Duel is worth seeking out. The DVD is priced at around $10, and it is worth every penny. It also includes two lengthy interviews with Spielberg, and one with Richard Matheson. The original novelette should also be read. In fact, read it and then watch the film. It is available in two current editions: Duel: Terror Stories and Richard Matheson: Collected Stories, Vol. 3.