Worth Dying For, Lee Child

Delacorte, 2010, 384 pages, C$33.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34431-9

Lee Child’s fourteenth Jack Reacher novel, 61 Hours, ended in a cliff-hanger of sorts, with the plot resolved but Reacher desperately running for his life.  An epilogue took delight in suggesting that nobody had survived the climactic explosion that ended the novel, worrying fans of the series: Would Reacher be back?

Of course he is.  As Worth Dying For begins, Reacher is once again travelling through small-town America, this time in the flat wilderness of wintertime Nebraska.  The narrative is obviously taking place after 61 Hours: Reacher is not only bruised and battered; he’s also heading to Virginia in the hope of meeting a character introduced in the previous novel.  Unfortunately, we only get a partial explanation of how Reacher made it out of the dire situation at the end of the last book –if you’re expecting a full answer, you may have to wait until he makes it to Virginia.  The rest of Worth Dying For has nothing to do with 61 Hours.

In the meantime, Reacher’s got problems to solve in Nebraska.  Outraged by the sight of a beaten-up housewife, Reacher can’t help but investigate the situation and eventually understand how the small community around him has been completely taken over by a family of abusive men.  Add to that a decades-old mystery about a long-missing girl, and Reacher can’t leave such situations alone.  But there’s nowhere to hide in the flat prairies of Nebraska –especially not when multiple teams of enforcers are sent to take care of him.

Reacher fans won’t be disappointed by this new entry, as routine as it can be at times.  Once you forgive the awkward bridge between 61 Hours and Worth Dying For, it’s another typical adventure for Reacher as an errant knight travelling throughout the US, helping those in distress and dispatching whoever tries to stop him.  He’s a quasi-supernatural protagonist, and it’s sometimes better to consider him as a semi-mythic incarnation of righteous fury than a believable character.

Still, Child plays the thriller game almost better than anyone.  If Worth Dying For is a bit more stylistically straightforward than the previous clock-ticking 61 Hours, it’s still as good as it can be in describing Reacher’s mixture of brawn and deduction.  In a weakened state, Reacher is more dependent than ever in anticipating his opponents’ actions and the outcome of his duels (one of them pitting him alone against a truck in a field) is highly satisfying.  Anyone worrying about a weakened Reacher just has to wait until he kills a bad guy by punching him in the heart –a medical factoid transformed into a feat of utter machismo that even seems to amaze the protagonist.

One thing that the novel also does well is exploiting the characteristics of such a desolate location.  There are only two dimensions in late-winter Nebraska, and every single point of human interest within dozens of miles is easily identifiable: When Reacher tries to act, he finds himself limited by a visible lack of options.  Cars are essential to go from anywhere to anywhere, and there are no secrets when human figures and car headlights can be spotted from such great distances.

Otherwise, there’s not much to report, and that’s part of the novel’s let-down.  For such a grandiose title, Worth Dying For deals in small potatoes: small town, evil family, generic henchmen, desolate settings.  For Child, it’s an achievement to wring that amount of entertainment out of such limited elements, but it comes soon after the small-town drama of 61 Hours, and doesn’t stick in memory like other novels in the series did.

Still, Worth Dying For is a good standalone entry even despite the disappointing transition between the previous novel and this one.  This being Reacher’s fifteenth adventure, his fans won’t be too disappointed yet, and Child’s continued ability to charm readers is nothing short of admirable.  But 2010 marks the first calendar year in which two Reacher novels were published, and if the results confirm that this is still the best thriller series out there, enough questions have been raised by 61 Hours’ cliff-hanger to suggest a bit of caution.

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