Die Trying, Lee Child

Jove, 1998 (2005 reprint), 434 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-14224-7

This second novel in my Lee Child Reading Project (“One book per month, every month, until we’re done”) also happens to be Child’s second novel, and the one where his formula gets an extra push in the right direction. It still relies on an abominable coincidence, but one that happens on the first page rather than halfway through the novel like in his previous Killing Floor. Like all of Child’s novel, it also cleverly masquerades the true nature of the plot until midway through, and provides plenty of opportunities for Child the chance to spout credible technical information.

Child’s early novels seem undermined by coincidences, but Die Trying at least has the decency to put it in the first chapter and go on from there, after a perfunctory comment by the characters about the unlikeliness of it all. It just so happens that Jack Reacher, ex-Milityary Policemen, master of all trades, roving vigilante, series hero, is walking down a downtown Chicago street when a woman he bumps into is kidnapped. Caught between the woman and her abductors, Reacher is told to get in the car along with the woman and not ask any questions.

Reacher, naturally, is quick to understand that he’d better do what he’s told: There are too many people on the streets of Chicago to risk an immediate confrontation. Later on, though…

But first, Reacher and his unwilling companion get to make closer acquaintance. She’s a brilliant FBI agent and the daughter to an influential soldier. As Reacher and her are thrown in a van and carried across a good chunk of the country, the reader spends the first half of the novel wondering just what kind of plot is going on here. Why the abduction? Where are they being taken? Scenes presenting the FBI’s frantic search for the kidnapping victim help raise the suspense, to say nothing of a few creepy scenes in which an escape-proof holding cell is built and tested with violent results.

True to the series’ motif of hiding the true shape of the story with a lengthy prologue, Die Trying doesn’t put its cards on the table until page 150: Reacher’s companion has been kidnapped by a right-wing militia to exert leverage on the US government as they plan on declaring independence for their territory. Reacher is obviously going to spoil their plans, but that’s when the fun of the novel kicks in: Not only is he able to make sense of situations long before anyone else can (he accurately deduces his companion’s identity within minutes thanks to a few simple details), but his abilities border on the superhuman. Die Trying has a few set-pieces demonstrating Reacher’s uncanny time-sense (which he uses to fake out a credulous member of the opposition) and another hard-hitting demonstration of his sniper skills. It’s not entirely believable (some skills erode when not in practice), but Reacher’s entitled to a few super-abilities in his own series, and those sequences allow Child to set up some intricate technical demonstrations.

It all amounts to another highly satisfying reading experience for Child fans: the action moves at a steady pace, the prose is never less than compulsively readable, and it all wraps up in a gigantic explosion for those who deserve it. Written in a slightly different fashion by a less-capable author, the Jack Reacher series would feel like bargain-basement men’s adventure series. But Child is a capable professional, and so his series steadily hits its target with unnerving accuracy. Now, if only Child could get out of the habit of using coincidences as plot drivers…

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