Unto the generations, the Swagger family continues to deliver for Stephen Hunter, who in G-Man revisits Bob Lee’s grandfather Charles, who as the book opens is sheriff of Polk County, Arkansas and there at the mowing down of Bonnie and Clyde in Arcadia, Louisiana.
So when a strongbox is found in a property back home in Arkansas that Bob Lee is selling, and it contains an FBI badge, a .45 coated in Cosmolene, a gun part and a treasure map, Bob Lee is intrigued, and with the help of Nick Memphis, his old buddy at the FBI, he begins to work on the mystery of what these things are, and why they’ve been buried and preserved.
Charles was a hero in World War I, and like all the Swaggers to come, an expert in weapons. So through a complicated bit of internal politicking within the already-political FBI, Swagger gets assigned to the FBI bureau in Chicago, where the fight against the big-name gangsters of the era: most crucially Baby Face Nelson, who is, in his own way, just as competent a gunman as Charles Swagger.
The period story is Hunter at his best; the Thirties Gangster era is perfect for his skills, highly-armed shootouts and teams working with almost militaristic plans. Hunter’s story is one of the best of many that have been part of a recent gangster revival. He’s done his research and gives us a new perspective on Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, John Dillinger and their cohorts, as well as the nascent FBI, already a bureaucratic nightmare ruled by the authoritarian J Edgar Hoover. Charles Swagger is not a fit in there, and his ethos as the lone gunman hero is closer in many ways to his adversaries than to Hoover’s G Men, though of course Swagger is on the side of good, though he considers himself flawed in serious ways.
The modern story is less convincing—as Swagger and Memphis piece together the puzzle from small clues, helped by a good bit of coincidence. And they are unaware, at first, that their investigation is being tracked. The resolution in the present is, of course, limited by the resolution of the past, but it is intriguing in another way. There is a secret lurking in Charles Swagger’s life, one that informs the flaws in his character, which drives his drinking, his brooding violence. The secret is revealed, but I suspect we have not heard the last of it, because we also learn that when Charles Swagger is killed, years later, the reasons remain unexplained, and Hunter may have laid the foundations for Bob Lee to solve that crime next.
G-Man by Stephen Hunter
GP Putnam’s Sons, US $9.99 ISBN 9780399574610
Note: This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets