Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Review: The 47th Samurai

El Jefe recently finished Stephen Hunter's The 47th Samurai.

47th Samurai is the latest addition to the Bob Lee Swagger/Earl Swagger saga (Bob Lee appearing as the main character in one set: Point of Impact, Black Light and Time to Hunt; and his father Earl in Hot Springs, Pale Horse Coming, and Havana). Point of Impact, an excellent book, was bowdlerized into the thoroughly boring film Shooter (2007) with Mark Wahlberg completely miscast as Bob Lee Swagger. (Of the bunch, I'd recommend Point of Impact, Hot Springs and Black Light most strongly). There are several other Hunter books, in which various Swaggers, Swagger relatives and assorted hangers-on common to the books sometimes make appearances

Bob Lee’s appearance in 47th Samurai is possibly the book’s great defect. You see, Bob Lee (a somewhat worse-for-wear super-sniper Vietnam Marine) -- has already wrecked a Russian spy ring in Time to Hunt; solved the mystery of his Dad’s murder while going up against the Southern mob and rogue CIA/DOD contractors in Black Light; and foiled a tricky assassination plot in Point of Impact while beating a bunch of other super-snipers. Bob Lee’s also an alcoholic who periodically falls off the wagon, gets more time away from his beautiful and very tolerant wife than anybody I’ve ever met, and during all this carrying-on somehow gets very rich, and owns a ginormous ranch in Idaho.

Bob Lee’s has clearly had a busy life, and you’d think that he’d want to stack arms and get on down the road. But no! Clearly, Stephen Hunter got a call from his literary agent with an Idea that He Couldn't Refuse – I’m visualizing this scene with a cigar-chomping agent screaming at Hunter through his cell phone: “Stephen! Let's send Bob Lee to Japan!”

Stephen does, and Bob Lee goes to Nippon to return a long lost samurai sword, captured by his Dad (Marine war hero Earl Swagger) during the Battle of Iwo Jima. The sword is returned, but a Yakuza crime lord has plans of his own, and makes the serious, serious mistake of chopping up some of Bob Lee’s Japanese friends, and the story’s off to the kendo ring.

As usual, Bob Lee takes things personally, and even though he speaks no Japanese, he manages to find a Sancho Panza or two (well, 46 rōnin maybe) to enlist in his crusade for justice. Almost overnight Bob Lee becomes the first redneck samurai super swordsman (you saw this episode of Pokémon right?) which is more than a little unbelievable. Say, doesn’t Bob Lee have any cousins?

We find out about the bad guys and their evil plans (truly bad, truly evil, but with a somewhat underwhelming strategic objective). We learn a little about the samurai culture, about Yakuza, and probably more than we wanted to know about sword play and cutting with a katana. Spies and gangsters with their own agendas and various interesting sinister and shadowy types make their appearances.

The story is well paced, lots of dramatic confrontation and swordplay, building towards the inevitable bloody showdown with the bad guys. As usual with a Hunter novel, much of the enjoyment is the reader’s understanding that, no matter how strong or many the bad guys might be -- against Bob Lee, (redneck polymath that he his) who figures out all the bad guy moves before they do -- the no-goodniks just don’t have a chance.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a fun, fun book, and if you like violent thrillers with bad guys you can really hate, or have liked previous Hunter books, buy it! I burned through it in two days. Enjoy it in the manner of one of those afternoon Samurai movies, where the hero faces impossible numbers and does amazing sword tricks, comes away victorious, gets the girl and there’s a big fiesta at the end. Fun, as long as you make the popcorn, have a spare afternoon, and suspend disbelief a little.

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