Nothing to Lose, Lee Child

Dell, 2008, 407 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34056-4

In this twelfth entry in the highly successful Jack Reacher series, it’s a given that some plot mechanics will feel very familiar. Reacher being arrested in the first chapter of the book is a reminder of the very first volume of the series, whereas the small-town setting can bring to mind the rural Texas landscape of Echo Burning (with which it also shares an unfair bar-room fight). Reacher is always taking on hopeless odds; what’s wrong with staring down an entire town in this entry?

Yet, at the same time, there’s something new in this twelfth adventure as well. For perhaps the first time, political content makes its way into Reacher’s actions as the background of Nothing to Lose depends heavily on the invasion of Iraq for its premise. In at least three sub-plots, casualties of the war find their way to America, and its consequences weigh heavily on every character. For a series that has so far navigated gracefully between the shoals of American politics, it’s a bit of a surprise to find this twelfth entry embracing material most readily discussed in left-leaning company.

This time, Reacher’s troubles start as he walks over the wrong border: Trying to make his way from one American coast to another, he ends up at the border between the cities of Hope and Despair, Colorado. Things go sour as soon as he’s spotted in Despair: arrested without too much ceremony, he’s eventually scolded and deported back to Hope. Reacher, naturally, doesn’t like being told what to do: His aroused curiosity soon turns to obsession as it becomes clear that Despair holds many, many secrets.

In fact, Nothing to Lose isn’t a thriller as much as it’s a description of how Reacher teases all the mysteries out of a puzzle box. Despair features three ongoing sets of secrets and a fantastically unlikely accumulation of surprises that would be unbelievable anywhere but in a Reacher novel. (Amusingly enough, a fantastically unlikely coincidence is outlandish enough to be discussed and rationalized by the characters: As one of them puts it, “That’s a coincidence as big as a barn.” [P.72])

Fortunately, Child knows how to tease information effectively: By the time Reacher faces down a literal human chain of Despair residents determined not to let anyone sneak into their town, it’s easy to believe that something has gone deeply, deeply wrong in that small city. Seeing Reacher take down Despair’s entire police force feels like divine retribution over a hive of sin. The action set-piece of the book is either a demolition derby that leads to the hospitalization of Despair’s remaining police force, or a bar-room brawl in which Reacher manages to incapacitate half-a-dozen opponents and stare down the rest of the patrons.

But such things are to be expected in this series. What’s perhaps a bit wilder is the identity and affiliation of the book’s main set of villains, another signal that will please left-leaning readers of the series. Alas, one of the plots uncovered by Reacher seems a bit too big, a bit too unlikely to sit comfortably. Reacher, after all, is at his best saving widows and orphans, not taking on entire geopolitical issues.

On the other hand, Nothing to Lose proves that there’s still quite a bit of juice left in the Reacher series’ most enduring conceits: Reacher is still believable taking down unbelievable odds and the accumulation of technical details is still layered enough to strengthen the credibility of the entire novel. While this twelfth entry feels a bit like others, it’s also distinctive enough on its own. The strengthened political content may or may not lead to anything in further Reacher adventures, but it’s an intriguing development in a genre that sometimes has trouble balancing political views.

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