By Stephen Hunter
Simon & Schuster, 254 pages
Black Friday—ten thousand people jam the aisles, elevators, and glitzy stores of America, the Mall—the country’s largest shopping structure located in suburban Minneapolis. After a gunman’s bullet “hit Santa Clause beneath the left eye,” eleven other gunman open fire. Within minutes, they drive more than a thousand shoppers into the mall’s spacious center atrium, setting up a desperate hostage situation that could lend itself to spectacular demands, mass slaughter, or both.
From this textbook “near perfect” opening, Stephen Hunter taps into a plausible post-9/11 scenario that must keep security experts awake at night. However, the story quickly spirals into a plot so derivative and predictable that only someone who has never read a thriller (or seen any of the DIE HARD series movies) doesn’t how this narrative will play out.
Set during the six hours of the event, SOFT TARGET follows both hostages and gunmen, in an interesting weave detailing the complex strategic police response, media saturation coverage, and the politics of SWAT as both the Minnesota State Police and the FBI struggle to deal with the unfolding crisis. Despite the expected cluster of gun-toting teenage Muslim terrorists and a hate-wracked imam yanked straight from central casting and the FBI’s watch list, the nihilistic computer-game designer intent on creating the ultimate first person shooter game is a decent twist.
The clichéd trope of villains and heroes are given equal treatment. The protagonist—Asian-American Ray Cruz—sniper extraordinaire, is a cutout so unenthusiastic that he is easily upstaged by a tough young woman from the projects with whom he teams. The villains, both the perpetrators of the central crime and the police and civilian bureaucrats who create requisite problems for the hero to overcome, are particularly buffoonish, while the story’s politics are patently recognizable.
SOFT TARGET is a weak addition to Stephen Hunter’s sniper series, made barely engaging by its appeal to current events and political posturing. I join his many fans in hoping this novel was only written because he lost a bet with his agent or bartender.