Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child

Dell, 2007 (2008 reprint), 512 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-440-24366-3

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series turns eleven with this latest tough-guy thriller, and as it enters its troublesome teens, it becomes a series that is starting to ask questions about its own existence. Reacher’s getting old, and the issues that were raised in The Hard Way are getting more and more uncomfortable here. So much so that Reacher’s getting some help this time around.

It starts as one of Reacher’s friends and ex-colleague is brutally assassinated, thrown off a helicopter over the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Reacher’s in Portland when it happens, but it doesn’t take a long time for a coded signal to make its way to him and bring him to California. That’s when he meets an old friend, Frances Neagley, who informs him of the situation: One member of their old military investigative unit has been killed, and Neagley’s bringing them all back together to figure out what’s going on. As their old team slogan had it, You do not mess with the special investigators.

For readers used to a lone wolf such as Reacher, the dynamics of a team investigation are almost new: While Reacher’s been part of small teams before (most notably in Without Fail, where Neagley also had a strong supporting role), Bad Luck and Trouble brings him back to the dynamics of his old military unit. They may now be in the private sector, but they still work well together and they all have their own specialties. In some ways, Bad Luck and Trouble is an intriguing follow-up from Reacher’s military days described in The Enemy, while creating some space for another prequel in a similar vein.

One thing’s for sure: Reacher certainly needs the team this time around. He spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about his slowing reflexes, his increasingly outdated knowledge of the world and even his dwindling financial resources. Incongruously, he also gets a new skill this time around as he abruptly becomes an arithmetic savant just in time to benefit the plotting of this newest adventure. [May 2009: Those new math skills seem to have disappeared in the follow-up Nothing to Lose.]

Fortunately, it’s not all contrived math tricks on the road to the end of the mystery: Bad Luck and Trouble goes from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, oscillates between weapon-contracting concerns and gambling schemes, features a smashing sequence with a Chrysler 300 sedan and provides a satisfying give-and-take between Reacher and some old friends we didn’t even knew he had. It’s also, significantly, a far more personally-motivated story than usual for the series, and it avoid most of the coincidences that have plagued some of Child’s premises so far.

As usual, the novel couldn’t be more compelling with its sentence-by-sentence prose and convincing details. Reacher is still a supernaturally effective investigator, and his skills for tactical thinking are still as mesmerizing as they ever were in previous installments. This volume’s standout action scene takes place on a deserted Las Vegas sidewalk near a casino construction site, as Reacher and friends take on a would-be assassin with maximum prejudice. It’s a beautifully choreographed sequence, taking place in bullet-time as Reacher’s brain races to out-think his opponents and trust his colleagues to do the same.

After eleven installments, it’s almost normal to find out that the series is having growing pains: Child must be itching for a chance to try something new (if he hasn’t done so already, knowing his history of multiple aliases), and it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Reacher’s musings about his own limitations don’t reflect some of the author’s growing doubts about his character.

But even if his doubts are growing, the thrills are still up to expectations. A look at Child’s bibliography to date suggests that there are still two more Reacher adventures to go (the thirteenth, Gone Tomorrow, was published this month). While the series may be weakening, it’s still running at a level that would intimidate most other thriller writers. With a track record like that, there’s no rush in replacing Reacher.

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