Stephen Hunter is the creator of an iconic figure named Bob Lee Swagger, known as Bob the Nailer in certain circles, a legendary and colorful Marine sniper of the Vietnam War and other conflicts, foreign and domestic. Time has passed, and Bob the Nailer, in his mid-60s, remains the smartest person in any given room, by virtue of the fact that he has a keen awareness of knowing what he doesn’t know and what he can’t do. So it is that in DEAD ZERO, Swagger, if memory serves, doesn’t even pick up a gun. Physically hobbled (though by no means inactive) as a result of any number of wounds and injuries sustained in the defense of his country, he retains a keen and razor-sharp intellect and the passion that has kept him moving through firefights and coming out the other end alive, though not unscathed.
"...dark and brilliant writing, shot through with the rough thoughts and colorful colloquialisms of dangerous men who are all too well aware of their own mortality..."
That is not to say that DEAD ZERO is without the explosions, spatter and carnage that its predecessors, which have dealt with Swagger and his family tree, have chronicled so well. The book begins in a hot zone known as Zabul Province in Afghanistan, where Whiskey 2-2, a two-man sniper team, is tasked with taking out Ibraham Zarzi, an Afghan warlord known as “The Beheader.” Whiskey, however, is ambushed by a small unit loaded down with the latest in toys that go boom in the night. Only one member of Whiskey survives: a gunnery sergeant named Ray Cruz, whose nickname is “the Cruise Missile.” Cruz, though badly wounded, is determined to finish the mission. Yet he is again ambushed --- in a very dramatic manner --- with only a crater left at the point of his last known location.
Months pass. Zarzi, having apparently seen the light of democracy, becomes an American asset in the region and gains a welcoming respect from the new presidential administration, with the mainstream media in lock step right behind him. Zarzi, now a hero, is invited to Washington for endorsing and anointing by the President. At the same time, however, a mysterious radio transmission indicates that Cruz is still alive and planning to complete his original mission, which was to send Zarzi to paradise. Cruz is deep into it. He not only has the might and majesty of the CIA and FBI looking for him, but also the same unit that almost got him in Zabul.
Most significant of all is the fact that the FBI brings in Bob Lee Swagger to keep Cruz from acquiring his target. But there is a major problem. As Swagger learns about what occurred in Zabul, he becomes more and more convinced that Cruz may not be all wrong and that his employers may be totally off-base. And when the motive of the major players is gradually brought to light, it is Swagger who ultimately finds himself with a not-so-strange bedfellow in a race against time to roadblock an insidious plot to attack the United States from within.
DEAD ZERO is constructed with dark and brilliant writing, shot through with the rough thoughts and colorful colloquialisms of dangerous men who are all too well aware of their own mortality, skills and limitations. For long-time fans of Swagger, there is also a major revelation here, one that will almost certainly have a huge impact on future volumes in the series. And Hunter, closing in on the end of a second decade of writing novels about the Swagger clan, demonstrates that he is just getting started.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 28, 2011