In I, Sniper, Stephen Hunter's latest thriller, a Vietnam War hero is assumed to be a crazed killer, but a veteran FBI agent smells a rat.
As the agent and his colleague dare to challenge the media's "narrative," he delivers a wonderful rant that combines critiques of the mainstream press that Thomas Sowell and Bernard Goldberg have advanced:
"The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It's so powerful because it's unconscious. It's not like they get together every morning and decide 'these are the lies we tell today.' No, that would be too crude and honest. Rather, it's a set of casual non-rigorous assumptions about a reality they've never really experienced that's arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they've chosen to live their lives. It's their way of arranging things a certain way what they all believe in without ever really addressing it carefully. It permeates their whole culture. They know, for example, that Bush is a moron and Obama a saint. They know Communism was a phony threat cooked up by right-wing cranks as a way to leverage power to the executive. They knowSaddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction, the response to Katrina was f—-ed up, torture never works, and mad Vietnam sniper Carl Hitchcock killed the saintly peace demonstrators. Cheney's a devil, Biden's a genius. …The story was somewhat suspiciously concocted exactly to their prejudices, just as Jayson Blair's made-up stories and Dan Rather's Air National Guard documents were. And the narrative is the bedrock of their culture, the keystone of their faith, the altar of their church. They don't even know they're true believers, because in theory they despise the true believer in anything. But they will absolutely de-frackin-stroy anybody who makes them question all that. …"
And this from a fellow who's not only a former journalist but also a Pulitzer Prize winner (for his film criticism).
As this long, hard winter (sorry, Al Gore) winds down, here are a few red-hot reading choices to help you stave off that last bit of cabin fever by five authors who dare to challenge the intelligentsia's conventional wisdom.
I, Sniperby Stephen Hunter
"Someone once defined a newspaper gun story as 'something with a mistake in it.'"
While I, Sniper (Simon & Schuster, $26) ostensibly is about iconic hero Bob Lee Swagger taking down snipers who have killed several Vietnam-era radicals and framed a war hero for the crime, Hunter's crosshairs are really on the mainstream media in general and the New York Times in particular.
Hunter, a former film critic for the Washington Post, obviously is fed up with the media's narrative about Americans who love their guns and the warriors who fight for our freedom.
After someone has taken out an actress who collaborated with the North Vietnamese and made a fortune out of exercise videos, then shot two Chicago academics who were '60s domestic terrorists (yes, the resemblance is intentional), FBI agent Nick Memphis has this exchange at a press conference:
"Do you have any opinions, special agent, on the use of 'trained killers' in the military and the risks such men pose for society when they return to civilian world? I mean this seems to dovetail neatly with the report released by the Homeland Security Agency some months ago that –"
"You must be from the New York Times."
"Yes sir," the young man said.
This is Hunter's sixth novel featuring Bob Lee Swagger, a combination of Sergeant York and Jack Bauer whom Hunter uses as an archetype of the small town, gun-handy American who does his duty as a matter of course and confounds the bad guys with toughness and know-how.
While the political jabs and media commentary are fun, I, Sniper's main goal is to entertain, and it does. In many ways this could be considered the ultimate Swagger tale. If this, indeed, is the final adventure for the 60-something hero with the stainless steel hip, it would be a fitting sendoff.
Though if Bob goes into retirement, I will certainly miss lines like this:
"I sure wouldn't want to be in your shoes," said Bob. "I can't help out with the papers. Never read 'em. I get my news from Fox."
The Midnight House by Alex Berenson
Speaking of New York's Old Gray Lady, former Timesman Alex Berenson certainly hasn't adopted the paper's narrative that the United States under George W. Bush became a lawless nation of torturing and liberties-violating rogues.
In the press material for The Midnight House (Putnam, $25.95), his latest best-seller, Berenson says:
"If you take a fair-minded view of what the United States has actually been doing the last eight to ten years, you really can't conclude that is torture. When you've got one set of lawyers arguing that someone can be held in a room that is 46 degrees, while another set of lawyers argue it must be at least 48 degrees, you'd be hard pressed to say we're torturing people."
Berenson also doesn't cotton to the so-called experts' insistence that harsh interrogation techniques don't work on terrorists. In The Midnight House, he proposes an effective secret interrogation base in Poland where a group of interrogators goes considerably farther than Americans have actually gone — and his main concern is what the adverse effects might be on the good guys, not the bad 'uns.
The Midnight House has been disbanded by the "new administration," and someone is killing the retired interrogators one by one. CIA agent John Wells, on a well-deserved vacation after saving the nation from yet another big terrorist strike is put on their trail.
Like all of Berenson's books, The Midnight House is well-researched, intelligent and suspenseful. Unlike the others, this is not an action-packed yarn where Wells saves the world from terrorists. Rather, this is more of a whodunit with a jaded look at the bureaucracy that "Homeland Security" has become.
This book is less Vince Flynn and more John LeCarre — if LeCarre weren't such a pedantic bore, that is.
The First Rule by Robert Crais
Under the media's current narrative, private military companies like Blackwater are the bad guys du jour. In Robert Crais' excellent series of private eye novels, PMC contractor Joe Pike has mostly served as the dark Doc Holliday to series hero Elvis Cole's Wyatt Earp.
The First Rule (Simon & Schuster, $26.95) is the second novel featuring Pike, an ex-LAPD patrolman, former Marine, current gun shop owner and sometime mercenary whose protective instincts would even impress Sandra Bullock's character in The Blind Side.
Crais' recent books have tended to stress the human need for family and the vital role of fatherhood, but Pike here takes on Serbian mobsters whose first rule is the direct opposite — family is nothing next to the criminal brotherhood. But when the criminals kill a family that Pike loves, they learn a new primary rule: don't incur Pike's wrath.
The first rule for mystery or suspense fans should be read all the Robert Crais you can get your hands on.
Hollywood Moon by Joseph Wambaugh
In the dark days of the '60s and '70s, when "pig" was the word of choice for police among elite radicals, real-life L.A. cop Joseph Wambaugh changed the mainstream narrative with such powerful novels as The New Centurions and nonfiction masterpieces like The Onion Field. The books were dark enough to appeal to critics but also told the truth about policing in a turbulent era. Wambaugh helped restore cops to their rightful place as American literary heroes (and led to a lot of cops taking writing classes hoping to emulate him.)
Hollywood Moon (Little, Brown, $26.99) is the third book in his series about the LAPD's wild and woolly Hollywood Station. As Wambaugh examines the near-impossibility of doing good police work under the federal oversight placed on the LAPD after the Rodney King riots, he offers a collection of riotous, bawdy, tawdry and tragic vignettes that one might hear a few beers into a good night in a cop bar; the yarns ofter are tied together with one overriding crime or group of criminals.
In Moon, a hen-pecked identity thief decides to recruit his clueless gopher to kidnap his ruthless wife and find out where she's been hiding all the money they've been scamming.
Think of the usual Wambaugh antics taking place under a full moon, and you'll get the picture.
Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton
I had to laugh at some of the critics who lamented that Pirate Latitudes (Harper $27.99), Michael Crichton's last novel, which was posthumously discovered in his computer, was "not up to his usual standards." Most of these were the same blowhards who lambasted Crichton for trashing their narrative of man-made global warming in his provocative bestseller, State of Fear.
Crichton's final novel, however, contains neither a political point nor a warning about the dangers of arrogant technology. Instead, it's just a swashbuckling entertainment about a British privateer attacking a Spanish stronghold for king, country–and a 50 percent share of the booty.
Pirate Latitudes has the feel of a very polished first draft or the novelization of an action-packed miniseries, rather than a completed Crichton novel — which makes sense, since it wasn't. Still, it's a fast moving, thoroughly enjoyable adventure; think The Guns of Navarone meets a Wilbur Smith sea-going swashbuckler. While it may not be as good as either, or up to Crichton's normal standards, it's a good, if imperfect, way to say bon voyage to one of the more dominant writers of his generation.
The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton
As long as we're talking about books that have no relation to the topic at hand, I'd like to take a point of personal privilege. I've long been an admirer of Steve Hamilton's Alex McKnight mystery series set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, describing it as Travis McGee in a cold climate.
After a lackluster stand-alone novel set in upstate New York, Hamilton returns to Michigan for an utterly original thriller set in Milford, one of my favorite small towns in the Detroit metro area.
In The Lock Artist (Minotaur, $25.96) Mike, a mute teenager, is known as "The Miracle Boy" since surviving an infamous atrocity as a toddler. He comes to the attention of an organized crime boss because a high school prank reveals his skill with locks of all kinds to the wrong people. (On the plus side, it also brings him into contact with the girl of his dreams.)
Like all top thriller writers, Hamilton takes this unusual situation and relates it to everyday emotions and common fears and insecurities, from the longing to fit in, to the satisfaction of being really good at something.
As silent Mike tells his story in flashback from his prison cell, the reader finds an uncommon connection with this anti-hero and will root for him to find redemption. Even the most jaded mystery readers who think they've seen it all will love this one.