Night of Thunder
by Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster / 304 pages / $26
With his white hair and unsteady gait, 63-year-old Bob Lee Swagger seems like a bumbling old man, certainly no match for the armed robbers and murderers he finds in NASCAR country. But in Stephen Hunter's latest thriller, Night of Thunder (in stores Sept. 23), nothing is what it seems.
Known for his cinematic language, action-packed suspense and multifaceted characters, Hunter delivers all three in his latest. Formerly of The Baltimore Sun, Hunter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post film critic and best-selling author, writes page-turners pumped with muscular verbs as in "It was Iron Mountain, and 421 slashed crookedly up its angry hump."
This novel's gripping though somewhat far-fetched story line concerns an outlaw gang from Appalachia. With connections to the local drug kingpins, the gang leader plans to hijack an armored car carrying about $8 million. When Swagger's daughter, Nikki, a newspaper reporter researching a story on a crystal-meth superlab, comes close to discovering the planned robbery, she must be stopped. Brother Richard is hired to do the job.
Brother Richard is a mysterious, Mephistopheles-like villain and a former NASCAR pro. An assassin by profession, he recently had cosmetic surgery giving him a new look with a "curiously dead" expression on his face. Calling himself Sinnerman, he's Swagger's nemesis and has survival skills that match Swagger's own.
Bob Lee Swagger had been a gunnery sergeant and the third-ranking Marine sniper in Vietnam where his talent for shooting (87-plus kills) earned him the nickname of Bob the Nailer. But after being gravely wounded, Swagger retired from the Marines and several years later married the widow of his best friend and spotter, Lance Cpl. Donny Fenn. Although he tries to keep a low profile and enjoy his life as a rancher and family man, Swagger is continually being drawn into violent confrontations, which he survives because of his resourcefulness, cunning and grit. (Swagger's the hero of four previous Hunter thrillers, including Point of Impact (1993), which was made into the film Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg.)
Brother Richard's partner in crime, the Rev. Alton Grumley, is a hell-and-brimstone Baptist preacher who manipulates Bible quotes to promote his own agenda. After noting women's attraction to men of the cloth, he found his true calling to be sex. Married seven times, he extends his affection to young boys and prostitutes. His numerous sons and daughters have criminal tendencies and are none too bright. With an appetite for alcohol and money, Reverend Grumley runs a Baptist revival camp in the Tennessee and Virginia mountains - the epicenter of the story - where participants do more than study the Bible.
Night begins with an automobile accident that leaves Nikki Swagger clinging to life. When Swagger receives a phone call saying that his daughter is comatose in a Tennessee hospital, he leaves his ranch in Idaho and flies East. Not knowing whether Nikki will survive and whether she will be able to identify the car, driver and circumstances of the accident, Swagger must determine what's happening, why it's happening and whether it will continue to happen - which he does with the help of Nikki's smashed-up laptop.
But he's thwarted by his own preconceived notions and by the ineptitude of the local police - among them, Detective Thelma Fielding, who seems to have ulterior motives.
On the plus side, Swagger is driven by his love for his daughter, which adds humanity and depth, making this story much more than just another shoot-'em-up thriller. Just how much is suggested in Hunter's acknowledgment that Nikki is drawn from his own daughter, Amy, who's also a newspaper reporter. With his previous Bob Lee Swagger stories mining the father-son connection, Hunter masterfully plays the father-daughter card in Night.
Hunter's chapters alternately get into the heads of Swagger and his antagonists. Although we're privy to insider information, the characters see the action only from their own perspective, which is usually wrong. As the plot develops, readers learn the real story. Meanwhile, each side tries to checkmate the other. Just when it seems that all is won or lost, Hunter shifts gears. Add Hunter's sense of rhythm; his fast-paced, evocative language; and his talent for the just-right metaphor, and you get this can't-put-down tale of robbery, murder and paternal love.
Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University. She is co-editor of the newly released anthology of memoirs, "Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability."
"He hit the brake, felt the car slide, saw the great whiz of dust white in the headlamp beams as he slipped to shoulder, felt the grit as the stilled tires fought the gravel and ripped it free, but the skid was controlled, never close to loss, and as the car slowed, he downshifted to second, lurched ahead and caught the angle of the turn just right, pealing back across the asphalt and leaving the dust explosion far behind as he found the new, perfect vector and powered onward into the night."