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Swagger's latest thriller kills off 'Hanoi Joan' actress

The smart, twisty "I, Sniper" is not a typical thriller. And that's because Stephen Hunter is not your typical thriller writer.

For starters, he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning former film critic for the Washington Post, and this knowledge bleeds through the text in colorful fashion. Take, for example, this description of a crime scene, one in which a famous actress named Joan Flanders has been found shot to death:

"It wasn't long before the police arrived and set up crime scene operations, and not long at all after that when the first of what would become more than three hundred reporters and photographers arrived on the scene and the whole two blocks of downtown East Hampton took on an aspect that resembled none of Joan Flanders' twenty-eight films but vividly recalled those made by an Italian gentleman named Federico Fellini."

Perhaps a Fellini namedrop in conjunction with flashbulbs and media fanaticism is a tad obvious -- the word "paparazzi," after all, dates back to its usage in the Italian filmmaker's 1960 classic "La Dolce Vita" -- but I doubt you'll find him referred to in a Grisham novel.

Then there is the Flanders character herself. We greet her on page one -- she is dispensed with on page two -- and it's not too difficult to interpret on whom she is based. A 68-year-old, still beautiful star ("Botox? Possibly"), she was "twice royalty: her father, Jack, had been one of the major stars bridging the pre- and post-war era -- She was pure Hollywood blueblood, second generation." She was infamous for having been pictured seated on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery, won an Oscar, briefly married a billionaire mogul, also made a fortune as an exercise guru. The initials "J" and "F" only seal the deal.

On the second page, an executioner -- a sniper, to be precise -- strikes quickly, although, Hunter mentions, "he spared her and America the disturbing phenomenon of a head shot."

Flanders' death is followed by three more strangely linked killings: a married couple known for radical anti-war activities turned legitimate college professors, and a dated anti-establishment comic. All have been hit by snipers' bullets, all were known as prominent members of the American left, and all seem to have been killed by the same man: Carl Hitchcock, a Vietnam vet dubbed "the most famous sniper in America."

But all seems too neat for Bob Lee Swagger, the hero of "I, Sniper" and a long-running protagonist in the works of Stephen Hunter. Swagger, like Hitchcock, was a noted 'Nam hero, a sniper and a quietly powerful force of nature with a talent for killing.

"I, Sniper" is my first Swagger novel, and I must say, he's a compelling, atypical presence; it's no wonder Hunter has used him in five other books. He's not overly flashy, and he's aging fast. He also knows how dangerously effective a sniper is. "Bob had seen corpses his whole life," explains Hunter, "and had donated more than could be counted to the cause of universal extinction for meaningless reasons. He knew what bullets did to flesh and bone. . He knew what grotesqueness the collision of supersonic bits of copper-covered lead and human matter was likely to produce, and there'd been little grotesqueness of that sort he hadn't seen."

It won't come as any surprise to regular thriller readers that Swagger finds evidence of a much larger conspiracy, and that the Ted Turner-stand-in ex of Joan Flanders (T.T. Constable) is involved. Constable is appropriately larger than life, a man of strange obsessions who also force-fed the masses the odd, foolish endeavor known as "old movie colorizing."

As droll as Constable is, it is Swagger who keeps our interest. "It was said that Swagger was retired and lived a quiet life." Not the case, of course, which is good news for readers. "I, Sniper" is a brisk read, ideal as a bit of afternoon escapism but also grimly detailed. (Hunter's description of "tactical culture," and its adoration of the idea of the sniper, is chilling.) It all leads to a swift, almost Bourne-ish, conclusion.

But my favorite moment of the text is the final line of Hunter's acknowledgements. It shows its author's wit and mischief better than any other: "And for the record," he writes, "I love Turner Classic Movies!"

Christopher Schobert is a freelance Buffalo critic.

***

I, Sniper: A Bob Lee Swagger Novel

By Stephen Hunter

Simon and Schuster

432 pages, $26