By Stephen Hunter
Blue Rider Press, $27, 464 pages
“Don’t shoot, G-Man,” Machine Gun Kelly cried out to the federal agents who were moving in to arrest him in 1933. The term later came to be synonymous with FBI special agents.
As Bryan Burrough noted in his excellent true crime book “Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34,” J. Edgar Hoover publicly mandated that all agents have a law degree, but he quietly, and wisely, also hired Southwestern lawmen to compliment his lawyer-agents. These “Cowboys,” as they were known, were knowledgeable about firearms and had considerable experience with gunfights against armed and desperate criminals. As the federal agents were going up against violent bank robbers such as Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger, the Cowboys were needed to back up the inexperienced agents with law degrees.
In Stephen Hunter’s thriller “G-Man” Charles Swagger, a World War I hero and sheriff of Polk County, Arkansas, is one of the Cowboys. The Justice Department’s Division of Investigation, later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, needed men in like Charles Swagger to go toe-to-toe with the violent bank robbers and gunmen of the 1930s.
In Mr. Hunter’s series of thrillers about the fictional Swagger family, Charles Swagger is the grandfather of Bob Lee Swagger, a former Vietnam War Marine sniper, and father of Earl Swagger, a former World War II Marine Medal of Honor winner and Arkansas state trooper. All of the Swaggers are gunmen and Mr. Hunter, a gun enthusiast, writes knowledgeably about guns.
“G-Man,” the 10th in the series, alternates between Charles Swagger’s story in 1934 and Bob Lee Swagger’s present day story. Bob Lee Swagger is an elderly, tall, and lanky man, looking more like Clint Eastwood than Mark Wahlberg, who portrayed the former sniper in the film “Shooter,” or Ryan Phillippe, who plays Bob Lee Swagger in the TV series “Shooter.”
The story unfolds in the present day when Bob Lee Swagger finally decides to sell the old family home and land in Arkansas. While tearing down the old house, the developers discover a rusted steel case that contained an old .45 automatic, a federal badge, something that may be a map, a single 1,000 dollar bill, and other items that belonged to Charles Swagger.
As Bob Lee Swagger never knew his grandfather and his father Earl never spoke of him, he is compelled to investigate what happened to Charles and why Earl never talked about him. As he delves into his grandfather’s past and has experts examine the old gun and other memorabilia, Bob Lee Swagger is told by his reporter-daughter that he is being followed.
Charles Swagger’s story begins as he is one of the lawmen lying in wait to ambush the notorious bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
“You’d have thought this posse was off on a raid in the Great War, so heavily armed it was, and Charles should know, having led many a raid in the Great War. Then, as now, he had a .45 Government Model in a shoulder holster, but not as then a Model 97 short-barreled Winchester riot gun leaning next to the tree and another of Mr. Browning’s fine creations, a semiauto Model 8 in .35 caliber, in his hands. It held five big rounds and could be fired quick, as the trigger went back on it, a skill that took some practice, though with Charles’ gift for the firearm, not as much practice as with some others,” Mr. Hunter writes.
“But Charles would been fearsome without the hardware. He was a tall man, seemingly assembled from blades. He was forty-three, had a hard, long, angular blade of a body, a blade of a nose, two cheekbones that looked as if they could cut steel, and was long everywhere else, arms, fingers, legs, even toes. If you could meet his eyes — few could — they were black anthracite and when they fixed and narrowed on something, that something was about to get a hole in it.”
Back in the present day, Bob Lee Swagger learns from his family lawyer that the badge is from the Justice Department’s Division of Investigation, which the FBI was called for a single year.
“That year,” the lawyer tells him, “Was 1934. The year of all the gunfights.”
In 1934 John Dillinger was the most famous bank robber, but Mr. Hunter focuses more on Lester Joseph Gillis, better known as Baby Face Nelson. Gillis was far more dangerous than the other criminals of that era. He was a sociopathic murderer, but Mr. Hunter is able to humanize him somewhat by dramatizing his faithful and loving marriage to his wife Helen.
All of the infamous criminals and famous lawmen from the Depression-era make an appearance in the novel and Mr. Hunter places Charles Swagger at the center of every famous gunfight.
“G-Man” is an exciting, suspenseful and well-written crime thriller.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.