On the Bookshelf: Dead Zero by Stephen Hunter
Bob Lee Swagger is back and he is more ornery and crusty than ever. At this point in his long career of gunfights and scary situations, Bob Lee barely has the ability to walk around. That in mind, I had two expectations for this book. The first was that Bob Lee would finally have a novel where he didn’t actually kill anybody. Hard to believe, I know, but guess what; he actually didn’t! The second expectation was that we, the readers, would be introduced to a character who could be Bob Lee’s successor in violence and mayhem (As Nick Memphis’ protegé Jean “Starling” Chandler was introduced in the previous novel). Hey, I got that one right too and I didn’t even have to read the synopsis on the dust cover.
The new character Dead Zero introduces is Gunnery Sargeant Ray Cruz, a Marine sniper serving in Afghanistan who is the modern-day equivalent of the Vietnam-era Swagger. Dead Zero is the story of Cruz’s quest for justice after being ambushed during a mission to eliminate an Afghan warlord known as “The Beheader.” His spotter is killed and he is presumed dead. A year later, after “The Beheader” turns his coat and starts working with the U. S., Cruz resurfaces and lets his superiors know he is still very much alive and intends to continue his mission. He crosses paths with Swagger when Bob Lee is brought in to stop him. Of course, it is never that simple but without giving anything else away it is a good read with an exciting plot. Really, even if the whole point of Dead Zero is to introduce Cruz, I’m just fine with that.
Bob Lee Swagger is one of my favorite fictional characters. He is carries a darkness within him that is typically unleashed in the company of gunfire and explosions. Bob Lee has a moral ambiguity like that of the black-hatted gunfighters
like Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven such as the Man with no Name and the Preacher from Pale Rider. (Editor’s Note: On further reflection this is a much more apt comparison) He is a hero, yes, but also a killer without remorse who ignores the fine line between law and outlaw. Ray Cruz really doesn’t have all that very much screen time in Dead Zero, but my read on him is that he is much more like Bob Lee’s father Earl Swagger. He is a powerful warrior who makes sacrifices for honor, duty and justice. In a sense, Earl and Ray are like Hercules and Hector to Bob Lee’s Achilles. Each of them are powerful warriors and heroes in their own right, but Earl and Ray do violence to serve a greater purpose, while Bob Lee is a killer because killing is what he is best at.