Jove, 2001 (2005 reprint), 420 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-515-14382-9
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series have always been built around the idea of the knight errant: Reacher is an ex-Military Policeman, now roaming around the United States and picking up adventures along the way. He’s not much of a sensitive man, but he knows right from wrong and seldom hesitates to do what needs to be done. But no novel in the series has made the knight-errant connection so explicitly as the scorching Echo Burning.
This time around, adventure finds Reacher on a Texas highway, as he’s picked up by a woman in need of protection. The story that she tells Reacher doesn’t quite convince him, but he can see that she’s got real problems: Her abusive husband is about to be released from prison after a few years locked away, and she fears what he may do to her upon his return. The husband isn’t just mean; he’s also rich, and has powerful friends. Reacher soon finds himself out of his usual elements when he’s stranded on a Texas ranch far from everywhere else, hired as a ranch hand despite knowing nothing about horses.
One advantage of a roving character is that every novel can take place in a different environment, and so it is that Echo Burning is likely to be most vividly remembered for its depiction of summertime in deep rural Texas, a place that can kill a pedestrian within a single day with heat unfit for human survival, a place where you pretty much have to drive hours in order to get from one place to another. There’s nowhere to hide in the sun-baked plains, and the novel eventually acquires a feel not terribly dissimilar to a modern western.
But, true to Reacher’s mission, it’s also about protecting a woman and her daughter against whatever dangers surround them. This being a Child novel, the nature of the danger isn’t always what we expect, and thank to the kind of plot reversal so characteristic of the Reacher series, the story takes a different direction midway through, just as readers are likely to ask if the novel can run a few more hundred pages on the initial premise. The woman’s husband isn’t the most dangerous thing around, oh no…
Most of Child’s distinctive skill in writing a thriller are just as successful in this novel: His lean but elegant prose, his unusually credible accumulation of details, his assured skill at plotting and characterization do much to keep us interested even as we’re waiting for things to happen. Only the ending drags a bit too long; not for what it contains, but for the way it takes too long to settle what should have been resolved earlier. But by that point in the story, it’s too late to stop reading.
In-between the country-trotting stories of Running Blind and Without Fail, Echo Burning marks a welcome change of pace for Reacher, who gets the chance to show his skills in a restricted setting, involved in a more intimate story than usual. Even the conspiracy that is suggested by the first few passages, as a team of assassins ply their trade, is a restrained affair. One of the strengths of the Reacher series is that every novel has its own set of distinctive features (which isn’t something to be said about other long-running series), and Echo Burning is easily one of Child’s most assured book so far. It is also one of Reacher’s purest quest, focused on helping the innocent and untainted by dubious personal connections to his past. If you haven’t hopped along the Jack Reacher series, it’s not too late to start, and Echo Burning is one of the better entry points into the character.