By Stephen Hunter

Simon & Schuster

432 pp., $26

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Reviewed by Paul Davis

I, Sniper

begins with a bang. Four bangs, actually.

A deadly accurate sniper shoots and kills a 68-year-old actress and former anti-Vietnam War activist, and then follows up by shooting a couple of former 1960s radicals-turned college professors and a former radical-turned-comedian.

In this gripping and taut thriller, Stephen Hunter, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning movie critic for the Washington Post, brings out the big guns (pun intended).

It is obvious from the start that the story will lead to a confrontation between highly trained modern snipers equipped with state-of-the art technology and Bob Lee Swagger, the crusty Vietnam-era Marine sniper and hero of Hunter's series of thrillers, who is armed with a rifle carrying an older mil-dot scope, plus a considerable amount of true grit.

The FBI is called in to investigate the murders of the former radicals, and the federal agents quickly uncover forensic evidence and establish a timeline, motive, and opportunity that all point to a legendary retired Marine sniper named Carl Hitchcock.

As the FBI closes in on the Marine hero, he is found dead - an apparent suicide. Nick Memphis, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, is suspicious of the evidence that clearly points to Hitchcock. Memphis is troubled because the case's only anomaly is that there are no anomalies.

Bill Fedders, a slick and polished snake of a public relations man who works for media and business tycoon T. T. Constable, is pressuring the FBI director and Memphis to wrap up the case.

Constable, the former husband of the movie star-radical, is a highly competitive sportsman and egocentric publicity hound. (Sound familiar? All of Hunter's characters closely resemble real people in the media, the movies, the military, and the gun world, and I suspect he has great fun with this).

Memphis, with the director's backing, holds off on the final report while he pursues other leads. He is assisted in the murder investigation by Ron Fields, a "Tommy Tactical" FBI type who knows guns and has survived five gunfights in the line of duty, and a smart young woman named Jean Chandler, affectionately called Starling, after the female FBI agent character in The Silence of the Lambs. Chandler doesn't mind the nickname, since the film inspired her to become an FBI special agent.

Memphis asks Swagger, his friend and partner in past adventures, to take a close look at the evidence. Swagger enters the probe as a sort of forensics investigator, and with his knowledge, skills and instincts, he is able to provide the FBI with evidence that its top lab people missed.

Memphis allows Swagger to pursue a lead that places him with four tough Irish snipers who served with the elite British SAS Special Forces in Iraq and other war zones. Posing as a security consultant for the Department of Energy, Swagger receives a demonstration from the four snipers of the latest (albeit fictional) generation of computer-driven, ballistics calculator scope, the iSniper. The Irish snipers, who work for the company that makes the iSniper, hope to sell Swagger on the equipment so he will recommend that the DOE purchase it.

While Swagger investigates the snipers, Fedders uses David Banjax, a New York Times reporter, to discredit Memphis and have him removed from the investigation. Fedders easily manipulates Banjax by playing on the reporter's natural antipathy toward law enforcement, the military, and what Hunter calls the "tactical culture."

Hunter describes the "tactical culture" as those who have a fascination with professional shooters, snipers, commandos, and firearms. The novel illustrates the clash between what Hunter sees as the mainstream liberal press and the tactical culture.

Hunter has written that I, Sniper is a reflection of his disillusionment with journalism after working 38 years for the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. Hunter takes issue with newspapers for what he calls "the narrative."

"The narrative," Fields, the older FBI agent explains to Starling, "is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them."

According to Fields, the narrative is powerful because it's unconscious. Reporters know that Bush is a moron and Obama a saint. They know communism was a phony threat cooked up by right-wing cranks as a way to leverage power to the executive - and they know that mad Vietnam sniper Carl Hitchcock killed the saintly peace demonstrators.

In the end, as Hunter himself has said, the book works best as a thriller, not a sermon, and the action and suspense that lead to the final shoot-out make this a very good thriller.