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‘G-Man’ review: Stephen Hunter’s ode to firearms hits the bull’s-eye

"G-Man" by Stephen Hunter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former film critic for The Washington Post. Photo Credit: Blue Rider Press

G-MAN, by Stephen Hunter. Blue Rider Press, 447 pp., $27.

Do you like guns? I’m not talking about the Second Amendment or gun control. I’m talking about guns as objects or artifacts. Do you think there’s something elegant about their lethal machinery? Are you fascinated by their knurled and deadly designs?

If so, you’ll want to add Stephen Hunter’s new novel, “G-Man,” to your summer-reading arsenal faster than a speeding — well, you know. The latest installment in the author’s popular Bob Lee Swagger series (basis for the movie and the TV show “Shooter”), this book is an ode to firearms and the fine art of gunsmithing that should’ve been printed in black powder and Hoppe’s No. 9 instead of ink.

It’s also a great story. Vietnam vet and former Marine sniper Bob Lee Swagger is among the deadliest in a long line of Arkansas gun fighters and war heroes. Now 71 and living handsomely off the proceeds from the sale of his family’s land, Swagger has one remaining mission, he tells his wife, to “wear out the rockers on this damned chair.”

But that all changes when an email from his family lawyer arrives. While excavating the foundation of Swagger’s old farmhouse, developers unearthed a mysterious tin strongbox containing an old government-issue Colt .45, a 1934-series $1,000 bill, an odd machined-metal cylinder, a map and an old Justice Department badge.

“Any FBI agents in the family tree?” Swagger’s lawyer asks Bob. “I think I would know, but I’m getting nothing.” And so we head back in time to find out.

The “year of all the gunfights,” as Swagger’s lawyer puts it, 1934 was a peculiar moment in U.S. history. Depression-era gangsters such as Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger were at least as popular as ballplayers Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Except, that is, with the men who hunted them — among them Bob’s grandfather Charles Swagger.

A World War I hero turned lawman, Charles was a cool-handed killing machine whose death-dealing talents and steadfast modesty earned him a spot with the feds chasing the great American bank robbers. But if granddad was such a hero, why is he, as one of Swagger’s pals puts it, “the man who never was” in official records?

“G-Man” alternates between the past and the present to unravel that knot. Along the way, we get vivid renderings of Dillinger’s notorious band of outlaws, including John himself and especially Lester Gillis, aka Baby Face Nelson, who emerges as the novel’s central and most empathetic antagonist. “They were young, beautiful, deadly gangsters after all,” Hunter writes. “The world knew, loved, feared, and, best of all, respected them.”

Hunter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former film critic for The Washington Post, gives us wonderful bits of the period’s underworld slang. For instance, a man who’s good with explosives, which is a must for one of Lester’s train jobs, is “a good guy with the soup.” A man with a machine gun can “hose down” a victim with a “squirt” of bullets. A pot divided up among five gangsters has been “stepped on” five times. And so on.

But this writer’s detailed descriptions of guns and their constituent parts, as well as his often sensual depictions of shooting, might be this novel’s most defining attribute. Lester, for example, loves nothing more than the “hydraulic surge of the gun’s recoil,” its “spew of spent shells, spurting gases.” For him, the “sweet smell of gun smoke” is “like an aphrodisiac.”

Hunter says that part of what compelled him to write this novel was the chance to take a shot at Michael Mann’s 2009 Dillinger film, “Public Enemies,” which he describes as a “movie desecration of 1934.” With “G-Man,” a ballistic celebration of that year, this author has hit a bull’s-eye.

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