Dell, 2006 (2007 reprint), 477 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-440-24103-4
After ten Jack Reacher novels in a decade, it can be difficult to find something fresh and interesting to say about every entry in the series. By now, Lee Child’s strengths are obvious: He’s a top-notch thriller writer who fully understands the genre and the permutations it takes, writes in a clean and efficient prose, knows how to imagine tough-guy protagonists, never loses sight of the telling details that make his prose credible, and can be counted upon to deliver a satisfying experience every single time. Even his weakest novel so far (Running Blind) is still better than most average thrillers, and if The Hard Way isn’t one of his best, it’s still the kind of novel that has earned Child his legion of fans.
It starts, like too many of Child’s novels do, with a simple coincidence: Reacher happens to be sitting in a New York cafe for the second night in a row when he’s asked a few probing questions by men who appear to know their business: Has he noticed anything strange about some guy entering a car the day before? It wouldn’t be a Reacher adventure without our protagonist being a master of detection: His precise and insightful description of what he’s seen the previous night soon leads to a meeting with an employer who wants to retain Reacher’s service.
As it turns out, coincidentally enough, Reacher has seen the payoff to a kidnapping: His new employer is a rich ex-mercenary whose wife and daughter has been abducted, and he needs Reacher’s help in tracking down the guilty parties. Reacher may have doubts about his employer, but the knight-errants archetype of the series won’t let him walk away: despite the promise of a lavish pay-off, Reacher is really tracking down the woman and child for their own sakes.
The now-expected twists aren’t long in coming. Reacher’s new employer and colleagues have spectacularly nasty pasts, someone else is tracking them down, and the whole thing quickly becomes something else than a simple kidnapping case. After books such as One Shot, few will be surprised to find out that the climax of the book pits Reacher against a numerically superior force in an isolated location. The novel itself spends its time going from the urban richness of New York to the wide-open landscapes of rural England. (This is the first time that part of a Reacher novel takes place in the United Kingdom: quite a milestone for a writer who lived there prior to the publication of the Reacher novels.)
What’s slightly different this time around is that Reacher is starting to feel his age: He’s been out of active service for years, now, and his detection skills are getting rusty. The Hard Way sees him making bad assumptions and knock down the wrong doors. More so here than in previous novels, Reacher is conscious of his slowing body and his failing intuition: what that portends for the rest of the series will have to be seen.
While the novel’s last-third migration to rural England may take away from the tension of seeing Reacher rampage through New York, The Hard Way is as good as the series’ high standards. While it’s true that the series is repeating itself at this point, this tenth entry is starting to acknowledge its own tiredness. Hopefully, Child will know how to take advantage of this idea while winding down the series to a satisfying conclusion or another character. It’s getting harder to keep Reacher going through the same motions (significantly, he never seems to acknowledge the fact that London is where one of his ex-girlfriends stayed for a while), and I wouldn’t be surprised if Child starts a new series soon –although given the author’s penchant for pseudonyms, this may have already happened.
In the meantime, The Hard Way doesn’t detract from the fact that Lee Child is at the top of the tough-guy thriller genre, and is likely to stay there for a while longer.