Jove, 1999 (2005 reprint), 401 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-515-14307-2
One of the advantages of reading through an author’s back-catalog the way I’m rushing through my Lee Child Reading Project (“One book per month, every month, until I’m done”) is the way I can spot subtle differences between novels. Tripwire is like most Child novels in that it features Jack Reacher and combines genre-savvy plot mechanics with strong technical details to create a top-notch thriller experience. On the other hand, this is the first Reacher novel I’ve read (out of five so far) that tackle the limits of the protagonist, and feature him against a memorable villain.
It’s also a Reacher novel that covers quite a bit more ground than usual: after a prologue set in Key West (where Reacher is working as a pool-digger, no less), the action moves to New York, then off by commercial plane to destinations farther west. It also digs into Vietnam-era history and establishes careful ties with Reacher’s own biography.
The best thing about it is how it finally gets rid of the coincidences that propelled the plots of Killing Floor and Die Trying: This time, the action comes to Reacher as a private detective manages to track him down in Key West. Reacher denies being himself, but soon has no choice than to go back to New York City when the detective is savagely assassinated. Trying to track down who wanted to find him, Reacher stumbles onto an old friend, and then onto unfinished business… Meanwhile, in a related plot development, a businessman is coerced into ceding a controlling share of his company to a mysterious man with a hook and a burn-scarred face. How these two plot-lines come together is one of the book’s primary point of interest, but it is by no mean the only one.
As usual, Reacher’s knight-errant adventures lead him to a beautiful damsel-in-distress, dangerous situations, complicated back-stories and convincing background details. Tripwire includes details about things such as forensic anthropology, .38 weapons, Vietnam helicopters, prosthetics and grey-market money-lending. As usual, everything rings utterly true, lending considerable credibility to the novel.
Also as usual, Child is skilled in keeping us guessing as to the true shape of the story. There are a series of mysteries to elucidate one after another, up until we realize that it’s been a much simpler novel than we’d been led to extect. Superb pacing (even more so considering that the novel isn’t a fight-a-page carnival), limpid writing and tough characters only add to the attraction of a superior genre thriller.
But this time around, Tripwire does feature an unnerving antagonist, someone whose bloody murderous methods aren’t even slowed down by an office on the 88th floor of the World Trade Center. After several books where Reacher seemed to outnumber armies of paid goons, it’s a change of pace to see him go head-to-head with a villain who seems to be just as clever as he is.
The other distinctive plot element of this nove is Child’s willingness to acknowledge Reacher’s own limits: his nomadic lifestyle may be a boon for the series’ plotting possibilities, but they don’t make him a perfect human being, and he’s got to confront a few of those limits throughout the novel as a tempting slice of normalcy is dangled in front of him. (Alas, I’ve got a feeling that we’ll seldom, if ever, hear about that again: Like most serial heroes, there is no stable future in store for Reacher.)
None of those distinction harm Reacher as a character, and they do much to set this book apart from the other ones in the series. While Tripwire doesn’t quite attain some of the series’ high points (such as the brilliant first hundred pages of One Shot, or a few virtuoso scenes in Die Trying), it’s a decent entry that’s features a slight-enough departure to keep things interesting. Balancing the familiar with the unusual is a constant problem for series writer, but Child seems to be doing pretty well so far.