by Stephen Hunter
What do you do when your most impressive hero has finally gotten a little bit too old to be a believable butt kicker? Why if you're Stephen Hunter you bring in the next generation. Although they were introduced previously in a book I didn't read (I don't find it necessary to read this series in order), Soft Target finds USMC sniper Ray Cruz (despite the last name and half-Asian ancestry he is Bob Lee Swagger's son with all of the traditional Swagger skill at fast thinking and instinctive violence) and his half-sister news reporter Nikki Swagger caught up in a Black Friday terrorist attack on the Minneapolis Mall of America. Bad guys shoot Santa Claus and round up over a thousand hostages. Nikki is reporting on the incident. She also plays an important role in combating the attackers because after all, she has her Daddy's steel trap brain. Ray is caught inside the mall with his wife (or is it girlfriend, I can't recall and it is so not important) and her family. And Ray doesn't have any weapons with him. But Swaggers Die Hard (and yes this does read like a particularly bad ripoff of those movies) and Ray Cruz soon has a plan. He also has someone to help him, an Ebonics speaking black woman with a bad attitude. The bad guys are cartoonish Somalis who are more interested in rape, molestation and telling bad goat jokes than they are in the stated goal of avenging Osama Bin Laden. Their Imam is a conflicted and possibly gay man who tries to deny his tendencies by overindulging himself with Hustler magazine. But of course as you might expect in this sort of story the Somalis aren't even smart enough to pull this attack off by themselves. There's a shadowy mastermind. FBI Sniper Dave McElroy is watching the carnage take place. But he has no orders and no shot. As has seemingly become his practice now Hunter creates caricatures of liberals that read as if they are straight from Fox News. All the liberals in Soft Target are mushy she-men who dither and dally and get people killed. The primary and most offensive example of this is head of the Minnesota State police, Douglas Obobo, who is the son of a Black Kenyan Harvard graduate student and a White American Radcliffe Anthropology major. Obobo is a good looking charismatic Harvard Law Graduate who "despite the fact that he never broke a case, arrested a suspect, won a gunfight, led a raid, or testified in court" has risen inexorably to ever more lucrative and powerful jobs in law enforcement, helped along by an adoring media and his public affairs guru David
There are rumors that Obobo will be the first black head of the FBI. Obobo (and I'm just guessing here that the name was chosen less for any Kenyan antecedents and more for the resemblance to the name Bozo) is a new kind of law enforcement official who believes in talking things out. He has an unshakable belief in his own abilities of persuasion and communication. He dislikes other cops much more than he does criminals. He has a smooth baritone. And he gets highly irritated whenever anyone questions him. Gee, I wonder who Hunter had in mind here.
Hunter's conservatives are all virile square jawed heroes who try to do the right thing but are always hemmed in by the liberal backstab. This motif is very common in conservative politics and goes back at least as far as WWI era Germany. I wouldn't mind this political axe grinding all that much if the writing was still up to snuff. But it's not. Here Hunter is FAR more interested in taking shots at President Obama and the left than in writing a good story. His gushing political bile sunk the entire narrative. For example, the FBI will take over control of a case once there is a international, terrorist or inter-state aspect to the crime. Feds are superior to local law enforcement. This didn't happen in this story solely so Hunter could continue to show how incompetent Obobo is. And there are plenty of other plot holes throughout the novel. Almost every white man in this book is scared s*itless by the idea that someone might call them a racist for opposing Obobo. The problem, from my perspective, is that in lampooning what he thinks of as mushy headed thinking on the left, Hunter only reveals worse mushy headed thinking on the right. Although there is definitely a time where violence is the answer, there are also times where it pays to find out what's going on first and/or avoid violence. Too many people at both extremes view the other side's preferred approach as not only wrong tactically but wrong morally. In real life I think the most effective leaders are those who understand that there is a time to talk and a time to kick butt. Both approaches are tools worth using. Because Hunter can't even bring himself to investigate and write honestly about Islamic terrorist motivations his villains are flat and lifeless. Even his heroes don't notice obvious bad guy mistakes until the plot needs them to do so. This was sophomoric lazy writing and not at all worthy of Hunter's earlier work. Perhaps that is why it was on sale for $3.99.