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Stephen Hunter is the reigning master of the hard-edged, ultraviolent thriller. The best of his novels -- which, to my mind, include Point of Impact, Dirty White Boys, and The Day Before Midnight -- combine technical expertise, headlong narrative momentum, and an extraordinary sense of detail, which create indelible portraits of larger-than-life men who live -- and often die -- by the gun.
Hunter's latest, Hot Springs, is a period thriller set in the postwar boom town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, a corrupt, wide-open city known for the medicinal effects of its eponymous springs, and for its free and easy tolerance of gambling, prostitution, and illicit pleasures of every sort. The narrative opens in 1946 when Fred C. Becker, a newly elected prosecuting attorney, inaugurates a much-publicized crusade to clean up the city. Becker, a sleazy opportunist with grandiose ambitions, hires two highly qualified professionals to supervise his crusade. One is D. A. Parker, a legendary former FBI agent who once shot it out with Baby Face Nelson and the Barker Gang. The other is former Marine Master Sergeant Earl Swagger, a Medal of Honor winner whose tragic history forms the centerpiece of Black Light and who will go on to father Hunter's most enduring fictional creation: Bob Lee Swagger, known to readers of Point of Impact as Bob the Nailer.
Together, Earl and Parker assemble and train an elite cadre of volunteers -- youthful law officers from various parts of the country. Once out of "boot camp" -- an intensive period of training in weaponry and military assault tactics -- the volunteers, led by Earl, launch a series of increasingly violent raids against the gambling establishments of Owney Maddox, a former New York mobster who has transformed Hot Springs into his own private fiefdom. The conflict between Earl Swagger's raiders -- latter-day embodiments of the Jayhawkers of post-Civil War Kansas -- and Maddox, whose troops include a savage tribe of Arkansas hillbillies known as the Grumleys, rapidly escalates into a small-scale war. As the war progresses, casualties mount on both sides, reaching their peak in a pair of spectacular, vividly described set pieces: a fierce pitched battle in a local black brothel and a nocturnal massacre in a Hot Springs railroad yard. Eventually, both the novel and the war culminate in a primal confrontation in the Arkansas woods, a confrontation that can only end with a single man left standing.
Hot Springs is a big, broad-shouldered narrative that offers a generous display of Stephen Hunter's characteristic virtues. The action sequences are, as always, crisply written, carefully constructed, and absolutely authentic. Hunter's portrait of 1940s Arkansas, with its farms and tenements, its bathhouses and bookie joints, is evocative and convincing. The characters -- most of them imaginary, many of them drawn from life -- are consistently credible. Included among them are an ambitious, embittered turncoat named Frenchy Short; the assorted members of the savage -- and inbred -- Grumley clan; the crusty veteran gunfighter, D. A. Parker; an imported Irish hit man named Johnny Spanish; and the aptly named Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, whose visit to Hot Springs provides him with the template for a gambler's paradise that will eventually be called Las Vegas.
But the real heart of Hot Springs, the still point around which every other every other element revolves, is Earl Swagger, a mournful, melancholy figure with a complex history and a superhuman affinity for the requirements of warfare. Hunter's exploration of Swagger's character and of the forces -- chief among them a violent, abusive, unforgiving father -- that helped create that character, give this novel its emotional and psychological depth, lifting it well above the level of its more generic competitors. Readers already familiar with the ongoing saga of the Swagger family -- a family marked by tragedy and by an innate propensity for violence -- will find this latest installment both revelatory and irresistible. Newcomers will find it a self-contained -- and perfectly acceptable -- starting point. Hot Springs is Stephen Hunter at the top of his considerable form. Popular entertainment rarely gets much better, or more viscerally exciting, than this.