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By Stephen Hunter

Dell Publishing Company, Paperback, 596 pages (April, 1999) $7.50

Reviewed by Chad M. Supp (11/99)

You can find Stephen Hunter's novel, TIME TO HUNT, under the heading of "Mysteries & Thrillers." Unless you are one of the impossibly rare on-line consumers in this country who have not purchased an item, or at least browsed through the selections, of, you have seen these words used to describe a particular category of fiction offered on their web site. I suspect that the reason mysteries and thrillers are lumped together in this category, despite being two separate genres of fiction, is because one often complements the other. Good mysteries will provide a thrill or two, and good thrillers usually contain elements of mystery. Due to my reluctance to perform any type of research whatsoever, I do not know the literary definitions of a mystery or a thriller, but I can provide my own, by putting them into a context that I can easily relate to: baseball.

The mystery author is a technical pitcher specializing in off-speed pitches, curveballs, sliders, sinkers, screwballs, and the occasional "spitter." His primary function is to hide the ball until the precise moment when the pitch is to be revealed, causing the batter to swing fruitlessly at the apparent trajectory of the ball, which has, of course, drastically changed during the ball's short flight from the mound to the catcher's mitt.

An author that claims to pen thrillers need not bring such a repertoire of pitches to the mound. The ultimate goal is to deliver the ball to catcher, through the strike zone, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Occasionally the thriller author will toss a change-up, or a knuckleball, to throw off the batter, but make no mistake, this person's objective is to "bring the gas," "drop the hammer," and "throw the heat."

Stephen Hunter throws heat.

Prior to reading TIME TO HUNT, my only knowledge of Stephen Hunter was through the Tony Kornheuser Radio Show on ESPN's Radio Network. Mr. Hunter is a film critic for the Washington Post and calls Tony's show on a weekly basis to talk about all of the horrible movies that are currently at the box office. In return for this service, Tony plugs Mr. Hunter's novels, often citing DIRTY WHITE BOYS, POINT OF IMPACT, and TIME TO HUNTas the most intriguing selections. Being a believer that Tony Kornheuser is the quintessential radio host, I have no problem buying into his recommendations.

TIME TO HUNT is the fourth installment in Hunter's Bob Lee Swagger series. Breaking my cardinal rule, I chose to read this novel, instead of starting with the first installment and reading each book in the proper sequence. The first half of TIME TO HUNT covers events that took place before the time period of the first novel, POINT OF IMPACT, so I don't think I was deprived of necessary plot or character information. Gunnery Sergeant "Bob the Nailer" Swagger was the best Marine sniper in Vietnam. Lance Corporal Donny Fenn was his spotter and best friend. During their final tour as soldiers in the "Land of Bad Things," they become military legend by engaging an entire division of marching North Vietnamese Army regulars, and preventing the siege of an unprotected American outpost. The apparent result of their actions: they become the targets of the only sniper in the world that is better than Bob Lee.

The first half of the novel takes place back on the home front, during the height of the resistance movement against America's involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. Donny Fenn is the central character at this point, a short-time Corporal, having survived a tour of duty in Vietnam. Donny seeks to serve out the final months of his enlistment as the leader of a team responsible for performing the burial rituals for returning soldiers that were not as fortunate as he. Donny's life becomes more complicated when he is forced into undercover service to spy on a possible military informant that could be leaking information to the anti-war movement. To make matters worse, Donny's fiancÚ becomes involved with the resistance, and he develops a friendship with the world-weary leader of the movement, Trig Carter. The character of Trig acts an alter ego to Bob Lee, and the two serve as subconscious ying-yang mentors to Donny Fenn. In the literary vein of "man is brutally punished for standing up for his principles," Donny soon finds himself back in the "Land of Bad Things" for a second tour of duty. Thousands of miles from the woman he loves, Donny falls under the tutelage of the most feared American killer in all of Southeast Asia, Bob the Nailer.

The chapters that carry the story through Vietnam move at break-neck speed, providing excellent action sequences, descriptive narrative of the jungle surroundings, and convincing military dialogue and terminology. Hunter takes the opportunity to make Bob Lee Swagger shine, showing him in his true element, as a cool, confident, methodical man, doing the job that his God-given talents have destined him for. Bob Lee Swagger in the present day is a recovering alcoholic with a divorce under his belt, living under the curse of unwanted fame, and haunted by the ghosts of too many dead men. In contrast, young Bob Lee in Vietnam is king of the jungle, driven by duty and the memory of his father, quickly earning his legendary status among the Americans and Vietnamese, kill by kill.

The pleasant surprise of the Vietnam chapters is the time and consideration Hunter devotes to the North Vietnamese. He paints them with a neutral brush, not presenting them as villains or evil communist puppets, but as soldiers with a purpose, fighting the forces of foreign intervention. TIME TO HUNT's underlying message about the war in Vietnam (all novels concerning Vietnam must have a message--it's a rule) is loud and clear: this war was bad for every individual it touched, American, NVA, soldier, or protester.

When the novel switches to present day, Swagger's nemesis, the relentless sniper, is attempting to complete a mission that began over twenty years ago, targeting Swagger and his family. The present day chapters move a little slower than the Vietnam chapters, until they gather speed towards the end of the novel, culminating in the inevitable "sniper showdown." This being the first Bob Lee Swagger novel I have read, I was not used to the character of old and bitter Swagger. I missed the confident soldier from the earlier chapters, and resented the reformed alcoholic, manic-depressive, grump that is portrayed in the second half of the novel. Swagger, a man that refused to utter a negative slur about the men he was trained to kill in Vietnam, finds it difficult in the present to find anything nice to say to his wife or daughter. I know Hunter is demonstrating the effects that war and a life of killing have had on Bob Lee, but I really liked the character of young Swagger. It is my hope that, when Mr. Hunter returns to this character, he considers writing a novel that takes place in Bob Lee's past, before he becomes a mean, old man.

TIME TO HUNT is a thriller. Stephen Hunter throws fastballs through the chapters with blinding speed and accuracy. Towards the end of the novel, he tosses a few off-speed pitches and curves, but Mr. Hunter does not hide the ball very well. He projects most of his pitches early in the novel, and I had a fairly easy time figuring out the intended trajectories. When he does slip one by the plate, it usually floats outside missing the strike zone. For instance, the last few chapters contain several secrets that are revealed, much like a mystery, but most of the secrets are easy to figure out, and the few that are not carry the ring of an author trying too hard to surprise the reader. TIME TO HUNT was a very good thriller. Stephen Hunter should concentrate on what he does best: Throwing the heat.

TIME TO HUNT is also available on audiocassette and audio CD, narrated by Beau Bridges.

Other titles by this author include: THE DAY BEFORE MIDNIGHT (1993), POINT OF IMPACT (1993), DIRTY WHITE BOYS (1995), THE MASTER SNIPER (1996), BLACK LIGHT (1997), and TAPESTRY OF SPIES (1997).

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