One Shot, Lee Child

Dell, 2005, 466 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24102-2

It’s with a novel titled One Shot that I realize that Lee Child is no one-hit wonder. The irony kills me.

Of course, I’m a latecomer to the Child party: One Shot is his ninth novel and only the second one of his that I’ve read after Persuader. But it shows that Persuader wasn’t a fluke and that Child’s compulsively-readable blend of genre-savvy thrills is likely to hold up in his other novels.

Not that this is much of a surprise: Persuader was such a professional piece of work that it was hard to imagine an author capable of that level of competence slinking back to lesser work. One Shot deftly follows up the adventures of Jack Reacher, an ex-military policeman turned drifter and gun-for-hire. Reacher, of course, is the classical Competent Man: laconic, intelligent and ridiculously skilled in a number of areas. No permanent attachments make him an ideal series protagonist, as he’s able to slip in and out of various situations with ease.

In this case, the novel opens with a hail of bullets as a sniper shoots down five people in the downtown area of a good-sized Midwest city. Enough evidence is left at the scene of the shooting that within pages, the police has made an arrest. But before anything else can happen, the suspect tells his captors “They got the wrong guy. Get Jack Reacher for me” and conveniently slips into a coma.

Clearly, something is up. For the first half of the novel One Shot deftly plays with genre expectations, zig-zagging from one plot point to another, revealing some things but not others. Who really fired the shots? Was it really a random killing spree? As Reacher digs deeper and deeper in the city’s underbelly, he finds himself confronted with the local mob: Are they prepared to face down a man of Reacher’s talents?

The most immediate appeal of One Shot is the high-speed pacing of its first half. Child has some serious plotting skills, and the novel races past plot twists that would have taken less-confident authors a lot longer to reveal. This is partly a way to obscure the real structure of the novel: Once the fog begins to lift, the true plot of the novel becomes clearer and a bit more predictable. The second half is less interesting: Despite an engaging procedural investigation, more revelations and a final action sequence that recalls a western as much as a contemporary thriller, One Shot feels a lot more conventional.

Still, it remains a superior read. One of Child’s most distinctive skills is his ability to integrate odd bits of knowledge in his narrative. This leads to some splendid scenes where Reacher out-thinks his opponents, whether it’s about winning a bar brawl, or deducing when and where an old acquaintance will choose to stay during a business trip. Added to the easy tough-guy prose, it makes One Shot an example of what the best contemporary thriller are capable of doing.

I’m not a big fan of series novels, but the Jack Reacher sequence is two-for-two at this point, giving me enough of a reason to start hitting the used bookstores to complete my series. Lee Child is no one-shot wonder, and it’s about time that I start tracking the hits.

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