61 Hours, Lee Child

Delacorte, 2010, 383 pages, $34.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34058-8

Lee Child’s eminently capable hero Jack Reacher has been in a number of desperate situations before, but I don’t think he’s ever been as cold as in 61 Hours.  Taking place in wintry South Dakota, this fourteenth Reacher novel does for sub-zero temperatures what Echo Burning did for the Texan heat.

The set-up is ingenious: A lawyer is instructed by his incarcerated client to set up a series of events that will end up shaking a small community.  But in his driving haste, the lawyer causes an accident that strands a busload of passengers in the nearby town of Bolton.  Among the passengers is Jack Reacher… and he quickly concludes that the local police force is no match for what’s about to happen.  Asked to protect a crucial witness, Reacher realizes that there’s a lot more going on in this community than anyone could expect… and that many of the answers lie underneath a mysterious military installation not too far away.

As with previous Reacher thrillers, the chief attraction of 61 Hours is in seeing the hero react to his environment, understand the situation, call upon new friends, use his prodigious powers of deduction, and being slowly led to confront the real threat.  It takes a while for the true plot to reveal itself, and the masterful way in which it takes shape is one of the reasons why Child remains one of the best thriller writers currently in the business.  Lesser authors will envy the skill in which the first chapter is set up, with enough procedural detail, purposeful mystery, powerful narrative hooks and ticking clock.  It’s all there in the first few pages, and Reacher fans will just want to let themselves sink in a good chair and enjoy the rest of the book.

Most of what follows is just as good as other novels in the series.  After the frantic urban frenzy of Gone Tomorrow, Child is back to heartland America with his depiction of a cold small Dakotan community.  The presence of a supermax prison not too far away sets up a few delightful complications, whereas the nearby abandoned military base is also a rich magnet for revelations.  It climaxes in a fight in which Reacher’s usual advantages are negated, further proof that Child is still interested in mining all sorts of possibilities from his series.

Barely worth noting is a brief reference to Reacher being identified by the Army as an aggression child prodigy; that, like his freakish gift for numbers in Bad Luck and Trouble, probably won’t ever be referred to again.   Also worth forgetting is the revelation of a criminal informer within friendly ranks: Either Child is getting predictable or he tips his hands way too early, because the mole is far, far too easy to identify even as events are occurring.

Stylistically, 61 Hours is notable for the dramatic countdown announced by its title: All chapters end up with a reminder of the current time, and how many hours/minutes are left before… something.  That something, alas, ends up being a cliff-hanger ending.  And if you don’t want to hear more about the biggest misstep in the Reacher series since the hypnosis nonsense in Running Blind, skip the next two paragraphs:

It’s not entirely a cliff-hanging ending: The main plot is wrapped up, the antagonist is punished and the revelations are exhausted.  The only thing left hanging, in fact, is Reacher’s fate: The story concludes with him desperately racing toward an exit, whereas the epilogue describes in rich and meticulous detail why no one could have survived his predicament.  The novel ends without Reacher in sight, most surviving characters concluding that he’s definitely dead.

But is he?  Peeking ahead to the next Reacher novel, Worth Dying For, reveals an infuriating answer: Reacher is alive (no surprise here), but the explanation of his survival is so vague as to be useless: the various obstacles described in 61 Hours’ epilogue are not acknowledged, and so we’re left with an unfulfilled mystery.  A latter book may fill in the blanks (there are indications that Reacher sets out to meet a character introduced in 61 Hours) but who knows?  Why conclude the book in this way if it’s not going to mean anything?

If readers can stomach its meaningless cliff-hanger, 61 Hours is another decent entry in the Reacher canon, and further proof of Child’s ability to wring thrills out of small American towns.  The chills felt by readers won’t necessarily be caused by the novel’s glacial setting.

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