A G-Man sorts through his Arkansas past

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Paul Davis Paul Davis is a writer who cov­ers crime, es­pi­onage and ter­ror­ism.

G-MAN 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 knowl­edgably 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 semi-auto 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 De­pres­sion­era 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.

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