In the thrilling Bob Lee Swagger series, The Third Bullet’s the charm

Remember what I said last time about making an effort to read more serious fiction in 2013? I’ve already broken that resolution with one of my guilty pleasures. For the last few nights, I’ve curled up with Stephen Hunter’s The Third Bullet (Simon & Schuster, $27), the latest installment in Hunter’s “Bob Lee Swagger” saga that began with Hunter’s excellent Point of Impact (1993).

Bob Lee Swagger is a no-nonsense former Marine, a Vietnam vet armed with legendary sniper skills, a supreme sense of honor and a keen sense of justice. Every few years, Hunter fires off another Swagger novel and I immediately stop what I’m doing, unscrew the top of my head, and introduce another multi-layered, action-packed thriller. Time and time again, Swagger gets involved with the kind of problems only bullets can solve. Not the type of thing I normally read, but something I recommend wholeheartedly.

The Third Bullet is Hunter’s eighth Swagger book and one of the best, delivering the thrills and intensity of both Point of Impact and Time to Hunt (1999), while revisiting some of the same characters and loose plot threads. Although I consider Hunter a guilty pleasure, I don’t mean to dismiss him as a purveyor of sub-par pabulum. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism at The Washington Post and has some serious writing chops. Hunter writes about firearms and ballistics with the same reverence and loving detail that romance novelists reserve for describing lingerie and Kama Sutra positions.

The Third Bullet begins with a bit of self-parody. James Aptapton—an author bearing great resemblance to Hunter himself—is killed by a Russian assassin while researching the Kennedy assassination; naturally, the writer’s widow appeals to Swagger for justice. Hunter, with all his ballistics knowledge and expert plotting skills, has fashioned a completely plausible take on Kennedy’s assassination.

Swagger’s quest for the truth takes him to Moscow, where he tangles with the Izmaylovskaya gang, a dangerous brotherhood of murderers, kidnappers and human traffickers. No story about the Kennedy assassination would be complete without Dallas, and Swagger spends much of the novel reliving the events of November 22, 1963.

Hunter fans will get a special thrill from The Third Bullet, because so many of the winning elements from Point of Impact figure in the new novel. In addition to the complicated assassination plot and several gripping gun battles, Hunter reintroduces several supporting characters: FBI agent Nick Memphis, CIA agent Hugh Meachum and Meachum’s cousin, a gifted shooter confined to a wheelchair.

The Third Bullet is a bull’s-eye for Hunter and should be a hit with readers. ★★★★☆

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It was an eventful week for Natalie Merchant politically, which isn’t surprising. For 30 years she has been an activist and written environmental songs such as “Poison in the Well” for her old rock band 10,000 Maniacs. Merchant had just returned from an anti-fracking rally with 2,000 protesters—among them legendary folk singer Pete Seeger. They attended New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address to make their voices heard on the issue of shale gas drilling. But Merchant is quick to stress a connection between her activism and her music.

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