- - Tuesday, December 6, 2011


By Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster, $26.99, 254 pages

Stephen Hunter is a prizewinning journalist who, until his recent retirement, was chief movie critic for The Washington Post. In addition, for about three decades, Mr. Hunter has moonlighted as a novelist, well-known for entertaining fiction recounting the exploits of Vietnam War sniper Bob Lee Swagger and Bob Lee’s father, Pacific war veteran and Arkansas sheriff Earl Swagger. In the previous novel “Dead Zone,” readers learned that Bob Lee fathered a son with a Vietnamese woman. That son was adopted by parents who gave him the name Ray Cruz. He grew up to be a Marine Corps sniper, and in every sense fully his father’s son.

As its name implies, Mr. Hunter’s new novel, “Soft Target,” takes us into territory most have contemplated: What if Islamists decide to forgo their apparent obsession with iconic targets of the World Trade Center variety in favor of a big splash in more easily navigable waters? The soft target in the novel is a huge shopping mall in Middle America (yes, Minneapolis) on the day after Thanksgiving - the biggest day of the Christmas shopping season.

As the novel opens, the shopping-mall Santa is killed by a rifle shot to the head. Pandemonium ensues as hundreds of shoppers are herded into the center of the mall by a dozen young Somalis armed with AK-74 assault rifles and semiautomatic pistols. The Somalis are very willing jihadists, having been promised that this very day they can ravage young American girls, gorge themselves on fast food, kill Americans by the score, and meet welcoming virgins in paradise after dying a glorious death doing Allah’s will.

What the terrorists do not reckon on, of course, is that Cruz is in the mall, awkwardly enduring a shopping excursion with his fiancee, Molly Chan, and her family. When he hears gunfire, Cruz’s Special Forces training and instincts kick in; he works from within the mall to complement the efforts of FBI and other law enforcement authorities on the outside to thwart the invaders’ deadly plans.

In Mr. Hunter’s tale, the gun-toting teenage terrorists are enthusiastic but ignorant, easily manipulated by the chief villains: a hate-wracked imam long on the FBI’s suspect list and a nihilistic computer-game designer intent on creating the ultimate killing show and dying in the process. The latter, a sociopathic rich kid, has arranged and then orchestrates the assault from his video-game retail outlet in the mall. The imam, a character from central casting for misunderstood Muslims, revels in the unexpected opportunity to slaughter innocent infidels in the name of Islam.

And then there are the responders. One cannot but conclude that Mr. Hunter - who seems more than a bit skeptical about the prevailing political narrative of the mainstream media - must have enjoyed creating the public officials who populate the novel. Their various pronouncements and prescriptions in response to the massive hostage crisis are evocative of many a Department of Homeland Security press conference.

Most presumptively praiseworthy among the cast is the superintendent of the Minnesota State Police, a character given the name Douglas Obobo. The son of a Kenyan graduate student and a Radcliffe anthropology major, Col. Obobo has always advanced ahead of any actual accomplishment. Enamored of the sound of his own voice, he has won praise and media accolades with his rhetoric. It is widely opined that his is a fast-rising star. He has declined entreaties that he run for office, thereby eliminating any coincidental resemblance his fictional character might otherwise bear to a living politician.

As the drama unfolds, others involved are wary of the charismatic Col. Obobo, not to mention his “public relations and career adviser,” David Renfro. In turn, Obobo and Renfro are disdainful of state police SWAT leader Mike Jefferson’s simplistic view that the gunmen simply want to “kill people” for the “greater glory of Allah.” Indeed, Obobo retains control at the scene by denying that there is sufficient evidence of terrorist involvement to warrant an FBI takeover of the operation: “There is no operative intelligence suggesting foreign involvement, other than unsubstantiated reports of some Arabic-styled scarves.”

Along the way to the denouement, Cruz teams up with Lavelva Oates, a street-smart young black woman employed as a day care supervisor in the mall. FBI agent Nick Memphis, a stalwart from previous novels, is on the scene for the feds, and Nikki Swagger, Bob Lee’s daughter, is present as a local news anchor covering the situation from a helicopter.

Mr. Hunter’s firearms expertise is not front and center in this novel, but it is abiding and lends authenticity to the tale. He acquaints readers with the firearms borne by the terrorists, for example, so that we learn the difference between an AK-47 and an AK-74.

“Soft Target” is a solid addition to Stephen Hunter’s sniper series, made more engaging by its invocation of current events and political posturing. I join his other fans in hoping he has another one already in the works.

Ray Hartwell is a Navy veteran and a Washington lawyer.

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