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Not Hunter's best, but still kicks everyone else's ass...
on 1 January 2004
While head and shoulders above the rest of Hunter's supposed rivals in the thiller genre, this is probably Hunter's weakest novel since 'Time to Hunt'. Like that work, this feels like a series playing itself out and a writer occasionally just going through the motions. It does not suprise me that Hunter himself was blocked after his last masterpiece 'Pale Horse Coming', and the idea for this novel came not from him but from his agent. His heart just doesn't seem quite in it.
That all said, even sub par Hunter slaughters any other writers in the thriller world. As stark and explosive as his previous books, this also features more of the sardonic humour familiar to readers of Hunter's Pulitzer Prize winning movie criticism. Earl Swagger himself appears at times as a peripheral character, and occasionally suffers - appearing less stoical and taciturn as stolid and grumpy. But Hunter compensates with some other great characters: a wonderfully Machiavellian Meyer Lansky, a hilariously incompetent young Fidel Castro, plus fictional figures like bungling Mafia hitman Franke Carbine and sadistic Cuban torturer and gun-toting maniac Ojos Bellos. Best of all is the return of Frenchy Short, Earl's former protege gone bad, now a seductively amoral rising star at the CIA, and the new character of Speshnev, the Russian operative sent to protect Castro. Speshnev is in many ways a Russian Earl Swagger - a hardened veteran of a litany of wars, and man out of time, spurned by his booses at KGB, sprung from imprisonment for this thankless task. But in contrast to Earl, Speshnev appears charmingly cynical and hilariously laid-back. Diffident and slyly humourous, the Russian appears in stark relief to the occasionally stolid Earl. Indeed Speshnev is such a wonderful creation, perhaps Hunter should consider a novel focussed solely on this deceptively deadly agent, or maybe mixing him up with the compellingly complex Frenchy Short and his relentless rise through the CIA.
The Earl Swagger series seems now completely played out (barring prequels of his wartime exploits), and perhaps it would have been best to have left him at the searing conclsuion of 'Pale Horse Coming' (as Bob Lee should have been left with 'Black Light'). Hunter himself says he is writing a mysterious non-fiction work, anyway it is time this writer of unique talent stretched his wings.
A flawed work, but a nonetheless blissfully enjoyable one for all it's limitations. Stephen Hunter is, and will remain, among the best writers at work today, and the unrivalled master of the thriller world.