Running Blind, Lee Child

<em class="BookTitle">Running Blind</em>, Lee Child

Jove, 2000 (2005 reprint), 498 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-515-14350-8

Every series has a weaker volume, and so I think I just found Lee Child’s worst novel in the six I’ve read so far. Not a bad batting average, especially considering how readable Running Blind remains despite a really silly conclusion.

It’s even more remarkable considering how consistently good the Jack Reacher series has been until now, blending tough-guy narration with credible procedural details and genre-aware plot twists. It’s a telling detail that despite many far-fetched premises, the Reacher series has remained generally credible until now, where a twist too far makes the whole novel crumble on its foundations.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, nor spoil the novel ahead of its time.

Running Blind starts like many Jack Reacher novels do, with something unrelated. This time, Reacher is in New York City, enjoying an out-of-the-way restaurant while mulling over his relationship carried over from Tripwire. It’s an unusual beginning given how the rest of the series seems content to ignore previous adventures. It’s also a signal that this volume’s Reacher will be considerably more introspective than in the others. But don’t worry, because you get bone-crushing action before the end of the sixth page, as Reacher smacks down a few hoodlums intent on explaining a protection racket to a new restaurant owner. Unlike most incidents of Reacher generosity, this one has consequences leading to Reacher’s apprehension. But he’s not charged with what he expects: it turns out that around the country, women with a past link to Reacher are being murdered by what appears to be a serial killer, and Reacher fits the psychological profile of such a killer almost perfectly.

Will Reacher be forced to clear his name? Not really, because his explanation of why psychological profile is nonsense is quickly followed by another murder for which he’s got an official alibi. Reluctantly brought inside the investigation to help, it’s obvious that he doesn’t have many friends in uniform: his presence is barely tolerated, and his solid instincts as an investigator are the only thing making him useful to the authorities.

But this wouldn’t be a Reacher novel without at least one dramatic twist at some point during the narrative, and the one in Running Blind comes later than most as Reacher suspects that there’s no serial killer at work.

Alas, the novel jumps off the rails soon afterward, as (SPOILER) the only way Child can bring his various impossibilities together is by asking readers to believe in a mastermind able to hypnotize a dozen people well enough to make them act upon specific instructions weeks after the hypnosis session, and collaborate willingly in their own death. And also ignore a cumbersome delivery sitting in their garage during this whole time.

I mean: come on. That kind of cheap plotting trick may have been cute in dime novels, but it’s not because the Jack Reacher novels are the best modern equivalent to men’s pulp thrillers that Child can get away with that this time around. Never mind the moody Reacher (who gets a stay of relationship when his past paramour flees to England, resetting the continuity in time for the next novel): that dumb hypnosis plot contrivance is the one thing that separates Running Blind from the rest of its better Child brethren. It’s a shame, really, because the rest of the novel is vintage Child, with the tough prose, page-flipping rhythm and well-painted characters.

But everyone gets a day off once in a while, and Running Blind is the weak spot so far in the Reacher series. One of the only advantages of reading the series straight through (as part of my Lee Child Reading Project) after discovering it in a late installment is the reassuring knowledge that it’s an unusual lousy episode, and that the rest of the series goes back to normal.

2 thoughts on “Running Blind, Lee Child”

  1. You’re right that the hypnotism angle is absurd, but it’s far from the only problem with this book. Child doesn’t appear to have any understanding of any of the main subject areas: the FBI, the US military, serial killer profiling, crime scene forensics, or, you note, hypnotism. He can’t even get his American characters to talk like Americans consistently — little Brit-isms keep popping up, like saying “mobile” instead of “cell phone” (nobody in the US called them “mobiles” when this book came out 20 years ago). His FBI characters act like complete morons so that Reacher can look brilliant by saying something that would have been obvious to anyone with half a working brain. My favorite is when Reacher comments that the complete lack of clues at the crime scenes is itself a clue. The FBI agent replies, “You’re talking in riddles.” Yet what Reacher has just said is a truism — when a murderer leaves no trace of evidence, it’s a clear sign that (s)he knows a lot about crime scene forensics and police investigative techniques. That should have greatly narrowed the possible list of suspects and shortened the book by at least half, but since everyone in this book is an idiot except for the killer and Jack Reacher, the novel keeps going for 500 pages.

    1. Good points!

      Even arguing that the Reacher series is meant to be a gussied-up men’s adventure series with evocative procedural details rather than an attempt to stick to reality as we know it only get you so far — I really like the series, but there are many, many moments where you either shrug and move on, or go on a fact-checking spree. The worst excesses of the series come toward 2010 when Child becomes so secure in his bestseller status that he gets contemptuous of his readers’ indulgence. (e.g.; the end of 61 Hours)

      Regarding Briticisms: Being French-Canadian, I’m less susceptible than most American readers to catch Briticisms, but I suspect that they are rife throughout the entire series.

      This being said, I haven’t read a Reacher novel since 2012-or-so. I could probably use a refresher!

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