'Hot Springs': Mindless violence, good government

June 25, 2000|By David W. Marston | David W. Marston,Special to the Sun

"Hot Springs," by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster. 478 pages. $25.

Don't tell the Million Moms, but Stephen Hunter's gun-crazy Swagger boys are back, setting a very bad example on the gun issue. Tommy guns, .45 automatics, Winchester 97 shotguns, M-1 carbines and even Browning automatics are all cheerfully blazing away in Hunter's latest thriller, in a running series of bloody shoot-em-ups.

"Hot Springs" is set in 1946. Marine Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger, son of brutal, race-baiting Sheriff Charles Swagger, has been picked to lead an elite secret team to clean up that legendary Arkansas fleshpot. Mobbed-up and wide-open, Hot Springs is mission impossible for civic reform.

Police raids are by appointment only, and the bad guys also control the politicians and press -- plus the prostitutes and gambling action. But when the shooting starts, Earl's intuitive cunning, cold courage and virtuoso weapons skills are deadly effective, and when his team guns down a few dozen mobsters (and a handful of bystanders), it does not seem like mindless violence, but good government.

Like Hunter's other books, "Hot Springs" is more than a fast-paced crime thriller. The implications of duty, in both war and peacetime, are a constant theme, and the author paints a stark picture of reflexive racism and indelible corruption in post-war Arkansas.

Earl Swagger -- one man making a difference -- refuses to accept either. More important, father-son relationships are a recurring element of this story, and Charles Swagger's brutal physical abuse of his two sons -- in drunken rages over his own secret perversions and corruption -- is a dark thread throughout. Indeed, the reader is left wondering whether the violent Swagger family history is fictional, especially since the author includes a tantalizing thank-you to "my good friend" Weyman Swagger in the acknowledgments.

Happily, though, Hunter does not let Big Issues smother his story. Action crackles. Torn between historical veracity and a "cool plot twist," the author confesses that he always chooses the latter. The entertaining result is a sprawling big-screen adventure.

To survive, Swagger must beat impossible odds, and then, trademark-Hunter, the odds suddenly get 10 times worse. And what sustains the narrative is that Swagger is "capable of throwing everything in his best interests away on some obscure notion of honor. In other words, the most dangerous man alive." Swagger aficionados already knew that. "Hot Springs" should explode their numbers.

A few nitpicks: Swagger's pregnant wife is unconvincing and detracts from the story. Dialogue occasionally seems forced, but Hunter's taut mastery of the relentless action more than compensates. In the end, the biggest disappointment is that the most treacherous character gets away clean. Perhaps Hunter plans to kill him another day, but given the man's bloody betrayal of Swagger's team, duty-driven Earl Swagger would never wait for the sequel.

Still, "Hot Springs" is more ambitious than previous Hunter thrillers, and its historical sweep breaks new ground for the author. Real people -- President Truman, Bugsy Siegel, J. Edgar Hoover, Cole Porter, June Allyson and others -- are sprinkled throughout in cameo roles, adding zest and authenticity. Hunter has clearly mastered the period and place, and he serves up the illicit pleasures of postwar Hot Springs with gusto.

(Stephen Hunter, film critic at the Washington Post, was on the staff of The Sun from 1972 to 1998.)

David W. Marston is author of "Malice Aforethought," an analysis of abuses in law practice, and co-author of "Inside Hoover's FBI," with Neil J. Welch. U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1976 to 1978, Marston is now a Philadelphia lawyer in civil practice.

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