Persuader, Lee Child

Dell, 2003, 465 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24100-6

I like to think of myself as well-read in the modern thriller genre, but now and again I get a reminder that I still have a few blank spots in my evaluation of the field. Lee Child was one of those regrettable oversights: I had managed to avoid any of his nine novels so far. With Persuader, the seventh book of his “Jack Reacher” series, I finally correct the error.

Jumping in the middle of a series is supposed to be a difficult thing, but there’s no such trouble with Persuader, as the plot is quickly set in motion with a minimum of back-story fuss. Narrator Jack Reacher, we are quick to understand, is a man without a fixed address, a capable operative -last formally employed as a military policeman- with a tendency to take the law in his own hands. In Persuader, he’s called to action to protect a young man from a kidnapping attempt… or does he? The deliciously untruthful first chapter sets the tone with a sharp action scene and a frenetic escape sequence with a twist.

If you like thrillers, Persuader quickly becomes a compelling read full of developments, twists, counter-twists, shocks and suspense. Reacher, as a narrator, is the prototypical strong silent type, an attitude that sometimes clashes with the demands of storytelling. Still, we get a strong impression of a no-nonsense guy with a frightful amount of experience. The prose can be overly descriptive at times, but the overall impression is of a lean thrill ride with a sufficient amount of technical details to make it completely convincing. After reading the book, I was half-convinced that Child must have been a military operative himself, but from interviews I gather that’s he’s “just” unusually skilled as a researcher. Among other crunchy details, Persuader digresses on the advantages and disadvantages of Uzis, how to smuggle things past a metal detector and the way to beat Russian Roulette. (Kids, don’t try it at home. Or anywhere else.)

Persuader attains a comfortable balance between the thriller conventions and the need to be original. Even as we get the usual twists and double-crosses, Child often throws in a interesting sequence or two with a flair for the dramatic. Reacher is not someone who dawdles a lot on his convictions, and so the novel can ofter veer suddenly into hard-edged violence, which is always a good way to keep things interesting. But beyond surprise, Child also knows to to create suspense efficiently: One of the book’s standout sequence occurs late in the novel as Reacher knows that his cover is about to be blown by two escapees. What he does to stop them is suitably inventive and dangerous.

But as satisfying as it is, this is hardly a perfect novel. Perhaps the single sustained low-point of Persuader are the running flashbacks: While Reacher’s motivations in this book are more than partly personal, I’m not sure that we needed to read the entire subplot explaining his present-day attitude, especially since we already know where Reacher ends up. As a newcomer to the series, I can’t say whether this look back at Reacher’s career introduces incoherences with his story line up to now, but I suspect that Child may be running into the typical problems of a series writer trying to stuff too many significant episode in a character’s pre-series history.

On the other hand, Persuader makes very few references to Reacher’s previous adventures, which may or may not be a good thing: newer readers such as myself can enter the series without too much trouble, while seasoned fans may miss the development of the characters and the consequences of his previous actions. I keep writing that series fiction is double-edged sword, but this is one of the few times I find myself on the “neophyte” side of the equation rather than in the “established fan” category.

This won’t remain the case much longer, of course: While I’m stopping short of rating Persuader as a solid formula thriller, it does show that Child is an author worth investigating further. Don’t be surprised if reviews of other books in the series start appearing here soon, as I pick them up in used book sales and remaindered sections. There may not be anything completely fresh in the Jack Reacher books, but well-handled thrillers are always a joy to read.

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