Saturday, 3 July 2010

I, Sniper; Stephen Hunter forgets that you can't go back to the basics this often

I've blogged before about Stephen Hunter's slide from good all round thriller writer to someone I regret reading every time I buy the latest book, and there's no pressing need to go into all that again. In that last post I ended with a grumble about my misgivings at Hunter's next book, which appeared in paperback this week and which I read instead of doing what I ought to do, which is to finish Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a much better written and far more interesting book which I keep putting down despite its quality.

The good news is that the rest of I Sniper is neither as hateful as its first chapter, nor as tiresome as its predecessor. The bad news is that it's still not all that good, and if you're Irish, it's downright annoying in parts. Hunter has settled into a simple-minded rhythm in his books; his hero has to confront a challenge, the challenge will be encapsulated in an over-arching villain and his compellingly competent henchman, and the hero will overcome first the henchman and then the villain despite being in a position of overwhelming disadvantage. This is all very well and good, except that there aren't really that many variations on jeopardy you can play when your hero's principal schtick is long range rifle shooting.

Bob Lee Swagger was introduced in Point of Impact, which has a double resolution in which the hero must dispatch his enemies and then defuse a frame-up. Both resolutions are well paced and cleverly done, not least because both of them were new ideas which hadn't been done before, but also because they were carefully built to look like one thing and turned out to be something slightly different. The enemy dispatching deal in Point of Impact depended on Swagger manipulating his enemies to trek to a point where he could be sure of being able to shoot them from long range. Lots of misdirection, both of the characters and the reader, was required to come up with a satisfactory climax in which the villains, the hero and the reader all found themselves outsmarted by the writer. The only problem with such tricksy writing is that you can only do it once. After that your readers are expecting it, and you can never hope to pull off that same trick again.

Hunter tries anyway, and in I, Sniper, his heroes have to do much the same things as they had to do in their very first book together, except not as well, and not as surprisingly. I was galloping along through the book, which is perfectly all right if not worth reading again, and then we hit the end game and I thought, here we go again. And indeed, here we went again. The pitcher was taken to the well, and for me at least, this time it broke.

Oh well. The other problem is that Hunter's lost the knack of villains. His ubervillain is a paper thin disguise of Ted Turner, who has every right to feel aggrieved at what's done to his character (in every sense of the word) in the course of proceedings. The competent henchman is that most implausible of notions, the stage Irishman turned SAS operator. There's no readily apparent reason for the henchman to be Irish, although it seems that Hunter went out drinking one night with Mick Lally and decided that it would be great to try capturing Lally's manner of speaking on the printed page. Speaking as someone who spent ten years being paid to impersonate a plausible stereotype of Irishness, I don't underestimate the difficulty of capturing the peculiar mixture of wordiness and incoherence which characterises most Irish people in casual conversation, but Hunter makes the classic mistake of assuming that intelligent Irish people will all talk like bit players from Ulysses. In real life, Irish people swear a lot, and talk too much, but for the most part there's nothing grandiloquent about us. There's a big difference between talking too much and talking in paragraphs. The one thing which Hunter gets right about the character is calling him Anto; what he gets dead wrong is the idea that anyone called Anto would take the time to explain, in ten dollar words, that Anto is short for Anthony. The whole point of calling yourself Anto is that life is short. If you were the kind of person who took the time to explain your name to people, you'd call yourself Anthony, with great - and grating - emphasis on the "h" in the middle.

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