Killing Floor, Lee Child

Jove, 1997, 407 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-14142-9

After going through Michael Connelly’s entire oeuvre in a reading project that took a bit more than a year (“A book per month, every month, until I’m done.”), I set out to find another author I could follow for a while. After considering and reluctantly rejecting Carl Hiaasen (fabulous novels, but ultimately too similar to invite proper reviewing), I have finally selected my new target: Lee Child, whose “Jack Reacher” novels are about as good as grown-up versions of the men’s adventure genre thrillers ever gets. Killing Floor isn’t the first Child novel I’ve read (see elsewhere on this site for my reviews of the superb Persuader and One Shot), but it’s his first one and as such a logical start to my Lee Child Reading Project, as well as an intriguing glimpse at the Reacher formula before its perfection.

It starts just as the series’ protagonist, Jack Reacher, is arrested in a small Georgia town. Reacher happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time: a murder’s been committed not too far away, and Reacher’s been spotted walking on a nearby road. But as Reacher notices ever-stranger things about the small town in which he’s been arrested, it also becomes obvious that his alibi’s ironclad. Yet his inevitable freedom is just the beginning, because the murder’s just the tip of the iceberg, and Reacher won’t stop until he has found all the answers.

Child’s strengths as a thriller writer are obvious: He combines credible nuggets of technical knowledge in a narrative framework that clearly shows his genre awareness. Killing Floor, despite one huge structural problem and a few rough edges here and there, already shows how it works.

One of the best things about the Reacher novels I’ve read so far are how they initially masquerade their narrative nature. Killing Floor shows the way: from a singular murder mystery, it slips into a grander conspiracy mode as Reacher discovers more and more about what’s happening. For readers, it’s a sure sign that Child knows the mechanisms of the genre in which he’s writing. Better yet, it keeps everyone guessing as to where the story is going until, finally, we can see the whole picture. Most writers practice a form of this misdirection, but Child’s handling of this technique is steady.

Looking at the Reacher stories from the narrative ground up, the other distinctive aspect of Child’s thrillers is the convincing integration of technical trivia in the narrative. Reacher is an ex-military policeman, which gives him an expert’s understanding of expert procedures. His arrest in the first chapter is seen through his coolly detached perspective, analyzing the work of his opponents even as he’s the one being put in custody.

The guy with the revolver stayed at the door. He went into a crouch and pointed the weapon two-handed. At my head. The guy with the shotgun approached close. Neat and tidy. Textbook moves. The revolver at the door could cover the room with a degree of accuracy. The shotgun up close could splatter me all over the window. The other way around would be a mistake. [P.2]

Thriller fans’ appetite for this type of detail is vast, but it really serves to provide considerable credibility to the narrative. Reacher knows more than the other characters, and that makes him both a good narrator and a formidable protagonist.

But for all the admiration that I have for Child’s novels in general, Killing Floor is his first, and it makes at least one horrible choice that severely harms the novel: the decision to balance the plot on a single whopper of a coincidence that involves not only Reacher’s wrong-place-wrong-time, but also ties it to his own family. Too much, too tidy: When even Reacher reflects that this is an unbelievable coincidence and decides to go with it, it’s a sure sign that the author’s planning has gone out of control.

Other than that (and I don’t recall such abominable coincidences in latter novels), Killing Floor is a strong thriller entry that roars along with paragraph-by-paragraph readability and overarching structural interest. The first few chapters fly past, the pacing is steady and the final battle is an expensive set-piece that would delight any Hollywood director. It’s not a perfect debut for Lee Child, but it’s an assured one, and a good reflexion of the strengths that would ensure a long-running series.

Consider this the first of the Lee Child Reading Project series.

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