Lee Child

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

(Netflix Streaming, March 2018) What annoys me about Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is that the series of novels upon which the films are based, Lee Child’s “Reacher” cycle, is special. They’re above-average thrillers in which the true shape of the plot is often hidden from view until late in the story. Reacher is an extraordinary character, and Child has honed his writing ability to deliver exactly what a modern adventure series should provide. Sit down with a Reacher book, and you’ll be guaranteed (at one or two exceptions) a solid entertainment experience well above the norm for the genre. Alas, the film adaptation, and particularly this second instalment, has been the definition of average … if not even below average. Plus, as has been endlessly rehashed, Tom Cruise is all wrong for the part. If the first Jack Reacher film managed to be a decent thriller, Never Go Back starts off promisingly, but then becomes less and less interesting until it becomes a bog-standard arms-dealing film, executed limply. It’s actually hard to care for most of what’s happening in the second half of the film given that it feels like so many other similar movies. Cruise is bland in the role, and saddling the story with a potential-paternity subplot does little to humanize the character or give him a personal stake. All told, Never Go Back is a dud—and it should pretty much ensure that a so-so series remains dead for the foreseeable future. That’s not exactly bad news for Reacher fans—at least the books are still coming out every year.

Jack Reacher (2012)

Jack Reacher (2012)

(Video on Demand, May 2013) Let’s get something out in writing right away: As a confirmed fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, I still have issues in seeing Tom Cruise cast as Reacher.  It doesn’t have to do with Cruise’s diminutive frame trying to occupy Reacher’s hulk of a character –it has to do with the way Cruise never plays less than a superstar, whereas my mental image of Reacher has always been about the way he tries to be inconspicuous in order to better do his job… at least until being conspicuous best serves his purpose.  But you can safely ignore this kvetching as another in an infinite line of book fans moaning about movie adaptations, because taken on its own and not as an adaptation of Child’s One Shot, Jack Reacher is a fairly strong thriller, with better-than-average plotting, efficient dialogues, solid direction and an unobtrusive sense of style.  As with the novel, it takes a while for the true nature of the plot to emerge, and there is a satisfying amount of complications along the way.  Cruise is his usual mister-megawatt-smile self, gamely hoping that his charisma will forgive the series’ built-in lack of character development and launch another franchise under his name.  Well, I, for one, hope it goes forward –I may not love Reacher as much on the screen as I do on the page, but I would certainly go see other films in the series.

Worth Dying For, Lee Child

Worth Dying For, Lee Child

Delacorte, 2010, 384 pages, C$33.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34431-9

Lee Child’s fourteenth Jack Reacher novel, 61 Hours, ended in a cliff-hanger of sorts, with the plot resolved but Reacher desperately running for his life.  An epilogue took delight in suggesting that nobody had survived the climactic explosion that ended the novel, worrying fans of the series: Would Reacher be back?

Of course he is.  As Worth Dying For begins, Reacher is once again travelling through small-town America, this time in the flat wilderness of wintertime Nebraska.  The narrative is obviously taking place after 61 Hours: Reacher is not only bruised and battered; he’s also heading to Virginia in the hope of meeting a character introduced in the previous novel.  Unfortunately, we only get a partial explanation of how Reacher made it out of the dire situation at the end of the last book –if you’re expecting a full answer, you may have to wait until he makes it to Virginia.  The rest of Worth Dying For has nothing to do with 61 Hours.

In the meantime, Reacher’s got problems to solve in Nebraska.  Outraged by the sight of a beaten-up housewife, Reacher can’t help but investigate the situation and eventually understand how the small community around him has been completely taken over by a family of abusive men.  Add to that a decades-old mystery about a long-missing girl, and Reacher can’t leave such situations alone.  But there’s nowhere to hide in the flat prairies of Nebraska –especially not when multiple teams of enforcers are sent to take care of him.

Reacher fans won’t be disappointed by this new entry, as routine as it can be at times.  Once you forgive the awkward bridge between 61 Hours and Worth Dying For, it’s another typical adventure for Reacher as an errant knight travelling throughout the US, helping those in distress and dispatching whoever tries to stop him.  He’s a quasi-supernatural protagonist, and it’s sometimes better to consider him as a semi-mythic incarnation of righteous fury than a believable character.

Still, Child plays the thriller game almost better than anyone.  If Worth Dying For is a bit more stylistically straightforward than the previous clock-ticking 61 Hours, it’s still as good as it can be in describing Reacher’s mixture of brawn and deduction.  In a weakened state, Reacher is more dependent than ever in anticipating his opponents’ actions and the outcome of his duels (one of them pitting him alone against a truck in a field) is highly satisfying.  Anyone worrying about a weakened Reacher just has to wait until he kills a bad guy by punching him in the heart –a medical factoid transformed into a feat of utter machismo that even seems to amaze the protagonist.

One thing that the novel also does well is exploiting the characteristics of such a desolate location.  There are only two dimensions in late-winter Nebraska, and every single point of human interest within dozens of miles is easily identifiable: When Reacher tries to act, he finds himself limited by a visible lack of options.  Cars are essential to go from anywhere to anywhere, and there are no secrets when human figures and car headlights can be spotted from such great distances.

Otherwise, there’s not much to report, and that’s part of the novel’s let-down.  For such a grandiose title, Worth Dying For deals in small potatoes: small town, evil family, generic henchmen, desolate settings.  For Child, it’s an achievement to wring that amount of entertainment out of such limited elements, but it comes soon after the small-town drama of 61 Hours, and doesn’t stick in memory like other novels in the series did.

Still, Worth Dying For is a good standalone entry even despite the disappointing transition between the previous novel and this one.  This being Reacher’s fifteenth adventure, his fans won’t be too disappointed yet, and Child’s continued ability to charm readers is nothing short of admirable.  But 2010 marks the first calendar year in which two Reacher novels were published, and if the results confirm that this is still the best thriller series out there, enough questions have been raised by 61 Hours’ cliff-hanger to suggest a bit of caution.

61 Hours, Lee Child

61 Hours, Lee Child

Delacorte, 2010, 383 pages, $34.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34058-8

Lee Child’s eminently capable hero Jack Reacher has been in a number of desperate situations before, but I don’t think he’s ever been as cold as in 61 Hours.  Taking place in wintry South Dakota, this fourteenth Reacher novel does for sub-zero temperatures what Echo Burning did for the Texan heat.

The set-up is ingenious: A lawyer is instructed by his incarcerated client to set up a series of events that will end up shaking a small community.  But in his driving haste, the lawyer causes an accident that strands a busload of passengers in the nearby town of Bolton.  Among the passengers is Jack Reacher… and he quickly concludes that the local police force is no match for what’s about to happen.  Asked to protect a crucial witness, Reacher realizes that there’s a lot more going on in this community than anyone could expect… and that many of the answers lie underneath a mysterious military installation not too far away.

As with previous Reacher thrillers, the chief attraction of 61 Hours is in seeing the hero react to his environment, understand the situation, call upon new friends, use his prodigious powers of deduction, and being slowly led to confront the real threat.  It takes a while for the true plot to reveal itself, and the masterful way in which it takes shape is one of the reasons why Child remains one of the best thriller writers currently in the business.  Lesser authors will envy the skill in which the first chapter is set up, with enough procedural detail, purposeful mystery, powerful narrative hooks and ticking clock.  It’s all there in the first few pages, and Reacher fans will just want to let themselves sink in a good chair and enjoy the rest of the book.

Most of what follows is just as good as other novels in the series.  After the frantic urban frenzy of Gone Tomorrow, Child is back to heartland America with his depiction of a cold small Dakotan community.  The presence of a supermax prison not too far away sets up a few delightful complications, whereas the nearby abandoned military base is also a rich magnet for revelations.  It climaxes in a fight in which Reacher’s usual advantages are negated, further proof that Child is still interested in mining all sorts of possibilities from his series.

Barely worth noting is a brief reference to Reacher being identified by the Army as an aggression child prodigy; that, like his freakish gift for numbers in Bad Luck and Trouble, probably won’t ever be referred to again.   Also worth forgetting is the revelation of a criminal informer within friendly ranks: Either Child is getting predictable or he tips his hands way too early, because the mole is far, far too easy to identify even as events are occurring.

Stylistically, 61 Hours is notable for the dramatic countdown announced by its title: All chapters end up with a reminder of the current time, and how many hours/minutes are left before… something.  That something, alas, ends up being a cliff-hanger ending.  And if you don’t want to hear more about the biggest misstep in the Reacher series since the hypnosis nonsense in Running Blind, skip the next two paragraphs:

It’s not entirely a cliff-hanging ending: The main plot is wrapped up, the antagonist is punished and the revelations are exhausted.  The only thing left hanging, in fact, is Reacher’s fate: The story concludes with him desperately racing toward an exit, whereas the epilogue describes in rich and meticulous detail why no one could have survived his predicament.  The novel ends without Reacher in sight, most surviving characters concluding that he’s definitely dead.

But is he?  Peeking ahead to the next Reacher novel, Worth Dying For, reveals an infuriating answer: Reacher is alive (no surprise here), but the explanation of his survival is so vague as to be useless: the various obstacles described in 61 Hours’ epilogue are not acknowledged, and so we’re left with an unfulfilled mystery.  A latter book may fill in the blanks (there are indications that Reacher sets out to meet a character introduced in 61 Hours) but who knows?  Why conclude the book in this way if it’s not going to mean anything?

If readers can stomach its meaningless cliff-hanger, 61 Hours is another decent entry in the Reacher canon, and further proof of Child’s ability to wring thrills out of small American towns.  The chills felt by readers won’t necessarily be caused by the novel’s glacial setting.

Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child

Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child

Delacorte, 2009, 421 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-34057-1

Jack Reacher has a knack for finding himself in plot-rich situations, and his thirteenth adventure Gone Tomorrow is no exception to the rule. As usual, Lee Child confronts the coincidence-driven nature of his premises head-on, from the very first page. Reacher is back in New York, late at night, in a quasi-deserted subway train. Except that something is wrong: the woman in front of him shows clear signs that she’s a suicide bomber. As Reacher ticks off his mental checklist of suicide bomber traits, everything makes sense except for the timing. Why conduct a suicide mission late at night?

So Reacher gets up and confronts the woman. The results of his action will surprise even him. Not that he stays confounded for long: Once again, he has stumbled into a puzzle box of surprises and twists and revelations, and he’s the best man to get to the bottom of it.

This time, his enemies are a bit stronger than usual: It turns out that there is a terrorist connection to the whole business, not to mention a presidential hopeful. When that happens, official US forces don’t stop to make subtle distinctions between allies and enemy combatants, and Reacher soon finds himself targeted by elements of his own government. The left-leaning political content that bubbled up in Nothing to Lose is present here in a different way: Reacher’s struggles against the new half-corporate security apparatus show the way in which the thriller game is still evolving, and which contemporary threads can be used by authors to put their heroes in ever more complex jeopardy.

Along the way, Reacher does get to go on a rampage of sorts through New York, beating up opponents who don’t consider him a threat, or enough of a threat. Unsurprisingly, his most formidable adversaries end up being those who look least threatening. Reacher doesn’t often end up in the hospital, but there are exceptions to most rules.

Gone Tomorrow (the title can be found in-text as part of dialogue referring, bitterly, to Reacher’s lack of roots) features political maneuvering, New York lore and long-hidden military secrets dating back to Reacher’s early days in the military. The twists and turns are among the series’ best: It takes a while before the true plot is revealed, and there are plenty of surprises along the way. And yet… Child does foreshadowing and red herrings effectively, which is partly why latter plot development don’t seem as outlandish as they would have seemed if presented cold.

As with the last few novels in the series, there are references to Reacher getting old: His old contacts aren’t working as reliably as they should, his technological know-how is primitive, and even the people in the US Government don’t think much of Reacher’s “prehistoric” history with Uncle Sam. One of the most damning aspects of the series’s structure is that Reacher seldom gains new friends and contacts along the way: Since the goal is to have all volumes read independently, Child can seldom point back meaningfully to Reacher’s previous adventures. In this case, readers could have expected Reacher’s US Secret Service adventures in Without Fail to have been mentioned whenever he’s contacting a high-level politician, but that’s not the case. This is a frustrating tension at play, in the middle of such well-constructed novels, and it’s getting harder to ignore.

But it’s not difficult to avoid thinking about these things in the middle of any Lee Child novel: His crisp, detailed and fluid writing is as good as ever, and the plotting of Gone Tomorrow takes us back to the good days of One Shot in giving a good time to seasoned thriller readers trying to figure out the true plot of the story. Reacher’s problems with the shadow US intelligence apparatus are a fresh wrinkle on old plot drivers. None of Child’s increasing fans will be disappointed by this one, and he may pick up a few along the way.

As for me, this thirteenth Reacher Novel marks the end of my monthly Lee Child Reading Project: I have now read the entire series, switching like a real fan from paperbacks to hardcovers along the way. The results are unarguable: Child may be the best pure-thriller series writer on the market today.

Nothing to Lose, Lee Child

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.

Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child

Bad Luck and Trouble, Lee Child

Dell, 2007 (2008 reprint), 512 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-440-24366-3

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series turns eleven with this latest tough-guy thriller, and as it enters its troublesome teens, it becomes a series that is starting to ask questions about its own existence. Reacher’s getting old, and the issues that were raised in The Hard Way are getting more and more uncomfortable here. So much so that Reacher’s getting some help this time around.

It starts as one of Reacher’s friends and ex-colleague is brutally assassinated, thrown off a helicopter over the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Reacher’s in Portland when it happens, but it doesn’t take a long time for a coded signal to make its way to him and bring him to California. That’s when he meets an old friend, Frances Neagley, who informs him of the situation: One member of their old military investigative unit has been killed, and Neagley’s bringing them all back together to figure out what’s going on. As their old team slogan had it, You do not mess with the special investigators.

For readers used to a lone wolf such as Reacher, the dynamics of a team investigation are almost new: While Reacher’s been part of small teams before (most notably in Without Fail, where Neagley also had a strong supporting role), Bad Luck and Trouble brings him back to the dynamics of his old military unit. They may now be in the private sector, but they still work well together and they all have their own specialties. In some ways, Bad Luck and Trouble is an intriguing follow-up from Reacher’s military days described in The Enemy, while creating some space for another prequel in a similar vein.

One thing’s for sure: Reacher certainly needs the team this time around. He spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about his slowing reflexes, his increasingly outdated knowledge of the world and even his dwindling financial resources. Incongruously, he also gets a new skill this time around as he abruptly becomes an arithmetic savant just in time to benefit the plotting of this newest adventure. [May 2009: Those new math skills seem to have disappeared in the follow-up Nothing to Lose.]

Fortunately, it’s not all contrived math tricks on the road to the end of the mystery: Bad Luck and Trouble goes from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, oscillates between weapon-contracting concerns and gambling schemes, features a smashing sequence with a Chrysler 300 sedan and provides a satisfying give-and-take between Reacher and some old friends we didn’t even knew he had. It’s also, significantly, a far more personally-motivated story than usual for the series, and it avoid most of the coincidences that have plagued some of Child’s premises so far.

As usual, the novel couldn’t be more compelling with its sentence-by-sentence prose and convincing details. Reacher is still a supernaturally effective investigator, and his skills for tactical thinking are still as mesmerizing as they ever were in previous installments. This volume’s standout action scene takes place on a deserted Las Vegas sidewalk near a casino construction site, as Reacher and friends take on a would-be assassin with maximum prejudice. It’s a beautifully choreographed sequence, taking place in bullet-time as Reacher’s brain races to out-think his opponents and trust his colleagues to do the same.

After eleven installments, it’s almost normal to find out that the series is having growing pains: Child must be itching for a chance to try something new (if he hasn’t done so already, knowing his history of multiple aliases), and it’s not unreasonable to wonder if Reacher’s musings about his own limitations don’t reflect some of the author’s growing doubts about his character.

But even if his doubts are growing, the thrills are still up to expectations. A look at Child’s bibliography to date suggests that there are still two more Reacher adventures to go (the thirteenth, Gone Tomorrow, was published this month). While the series may be weakening, it’s still running at a level that would intimidate most other thriller writers. With a track record like that, there’s no rush in replacing Reacher.

The Hard Way, Lee Child

The Hard Way, Lee Child

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.

The Enemy, Lee Child

The Enemy, Lee Child

Dell, 2004 (2007 reprint), 464 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-440-24101-0

Every Jack Reacher thriller is slightly different, and The Enemy‘s claim to distinction is obvious from the second page: It’s 1990 again, and Reacher is a Military Policeman on duty as the world changes decades. Elsewhere in the world, Germany is tearing down the Berlin Wall, and American forces are chasing Noriega in Panama. But those concerns quickly become secondary to Reacher as he’s put on his first case of the year: The murder of a general in a motel where rooms are rented by the hour.

This looks bad, but it quickly gets worse after Reacher starts digging: The General’s wife is violently killed hours after the death of her husband, and more victims drop dead as the novel advances. Reacher, clearly, has a lot of work to do, which is all very curious since he’s just been transferred to his post. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, as he discovers that he’s hardly the only MP to have been moved around in the past few days…

As a gimmick, the old prequel is fast becoming a favorite of writers of all stripes. It gives a chance to reset the clock, see the character in classic top shape, and provide cute nods for series fans as they get cameos from series regulars. The Enemy is no exception, but as you may expect from a Lee Child novel, it also has the decency to provide a solid story along the way.

For Reacher fans, The Enemy‘s most compelling aspect is to see Reacher in his element, firmly entrenched within the army, and at a level where his investigative skills can be brought to bear on interesting issues. Life within the US military is completely different from civilian life, and Reacher knows all there is to know about it. He’s in a position of minor power, with an assistant and a lot of leeway on how to do his job. But Reacher is always at his best against obstacles, and the massive reorganization of Military Policemen around the world also means that he’s got a new boss, and that his superior doesn’t seem all that competent. In fact, he pretty much orders Reacher to shut the investigation down, something that does little to stop Reacher. By mid-book, Reacher is essentially acting rogue, trying to pierce together the pieces of the puzzle before running out of time.

But the very-early 1990s are also a tough period for him: His mother isn’t doing so well, and it’s an excuse for Reacher to go visit her in France, along with his brother Joe. Before the end of the novel, Reacher will learn a few troubling things about his own lineage.

As with all Reacher adventures, The Enemy is a gleefully enjoyable mixture of procedural details and structural misdirection. It’s also one of the purest mysteries that Reacher has had to investigate so far: Despite the thrilling tank battle that marks the conclusion of the story, this novel is a straight-up investigation. The ramifications and reasons for the crimes Reacher is investigating go high up the hierarchy of the Army, but the investigation is a mixture of police work, tenacity and pure luck.

It goes without saying that it’s also delivered with some of the cleanest, most compelling prose in the entire thriller genre. Child is a best-selling professional, and The Enemy is a pure delight for fans and neophytes both. While newcomers to the Reacher series will be able to get by, those who have read the rest of the Reacher books will recognize a few familiar names, and there’s a good chance that The Enemy has seeded a few more familiar faces that we’ll see in the next few Reacher adventures.

As always, it’s tough waiting along for the next one; once readers have clued into the fact that Child is among the best, it’s hard not to read them all as quickly as possible.

Without Fail, Lee Child

Without Fail, Lee Child

Jove, 2002 (2003 reprint), 401 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-13528-3

Every Jack Reacher adventure is slightly different, and so it is that Without Fail‘s distinction is to put Reacher in a situation that’s closer to official power than ever before. Having left behind the small Texas towns of Echo Burning, he finds himself on the East coast, hired by the US Secret Service to find ways to assassinate the Vice-President-elect of the United States. Or rather, to find ways in which the VP could be assassinated so that it doesn’t actually happen. Reacher is good at that; in fact, he’s pretty good at anything a thriller requires from a protagonist.

This being said, it’s a bit of a stretch for involve perennial loner/drifter Jack Reacher into the middle of official operations. So Child reaches way back in Reacher’s history to create a link between Reacher, his estranged brother (killed back in Killing Floor, the first book of the series) and the brother’s ex-girlfriend, now in charge of the Vice President’s security details for the US Secret Service. It’s a tenuous connection, but it almost doesn’t qualify as a coincidence unlike a few of the series’ preposterous setups so far.

Fortunately, this weakness soon becomes irrelevant once the action starts. The would-be assassins that are gunning for the vice president are kind enough to call their shots, providing plenty of investigative opportunities for Reacher and the Secret Service. Although the story doesn’t contain quite the number of conceptual twists and turns that other Reacher novels have managed, it does have a surprising development midway through, and manage to turn the initial expectations on their head: As it often happens when Reacher is around, the motivations are often more personal than political, even in assassinating a vice president.

If the twists are muted down, that’s thankfully not the case for the series’ attention to procedural detail: As usual, Reacher knows a lot about everything and a lot of this knowledge proves essential when tracking down suspects, whether it’s penetrating security protection or figuring out how a sensitive message was placed on a desk under constant video surveillance. To those procedural details, Child adds a lot of information regarding the protection of VIPs: The United States Secret Service has a thankless job when it comes to protecting its charges, but the details of how it tries to do so are almost endlessly fascinating.

In Reacher’s world, some things don’t change no matter the adventures, and so he once again finds himself romantically entangled with a female character. What’s slightly different is her connection to Reacher, and the reasons why she falls in love with him. Also slightly different is the fact that Reacher spends a good chunk of Without Fail working with a partner —someone who can actually give him some serious competition in the usual skills required to track down his opponents. What this means for future installments of the series can only be guessed at.

But Without Fail‘s overall success isn’t something left to guesswork: While it won’t stand out from the series as a particularly strong entry (there’s something amusing at the on-the-nose symbolism of the number of suits that Reacher has to wear during the novel), it does play with the formula a bit, and delivers the expected clean prose, strong plotting and tough-guy action we’ve come to expect from Jack Reacher. For those who wishes they could see Reacher in a suit with some official status, it’s a welcome entry, and few fans will be disappointed.

Echo Burning, Lee Child

Echo Burning, Lee Child

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.

Running Blind, Lee Child

Running Blind, 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.

Tripwire, Lee Child

Tripwire, Lee Child

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.

Die Trying, Lee Child

Die Trying, Lee Child

Jove, 1998 (2005 reprint), 434 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-14224-7

This second novel in my Lee Child Reading Project (“One book per month, every month, until we’re done”) also happens to be Child’s second novel, and the one where his formula gets an extra push in the right direction. It still relies on an abominable coincidence, but one that happens on the first page rather than halfway through the novel like in his previous Killing Floor. Like all of Child’s novel, it also cleverly masquerades the true nature of the plot until midway through, and provides plenty of opportunities for Child the chance to spout credible technical information.

Child’s early novels seem undermined by coincidences, but Die Trying at least has the decency to put it in the first chapter and go on from there, after a perfunctory comment by the characters about the unlikeliness of it all. It just so happens that Jack Reacher, ex-Milityary Policemen, master of all trades, roving vigilante, series hero, is walking down a downtown Chicago street when a woman he bumps into is kidnapped. Caught between the woman and her abductors, Reacher is told to get in the car along with the woman and not ask any questions.

Reacher, naturally, is quick to understand that he’d better do what he’s told: There are too many people on the streets of Chicago to risk an immediate confrontation. Later on, though…

But first, Reacher and his unwilling companion get to make closer acquaintance. She’s a brilliant FBI agent and the daughter to an influential soldier. As Reacher and her are thrown in a van and carried across a good chunk of the country, the reader spends the first half of the novel wondering just what kind of plot is going on here. Why the abduction? Where are they being taken? Scenes presenting the FBI’s frantic search for the kidnapping victim help raise the suspense, to say nothing of a few creepy scenes in which an escape-proof holding cell is built and tested with violent results.

True to the series’ motif of hiding the true shape of the story with a lengthy prologue, Die Trying doesn’t put its cards on the table until page 150: Reacher’s companion has been kidnapped by a right-wing militia to exert leverage on the US government as they plan on declaring independence for their territory. Reacher is obviously going to spoil their plans, but that’s when the fun of the novel kicks in: Not only is he able to make sense of situations long before anyone else can (he accurately deduces his companion’s identity within minutes thanks to a few simple details), but his abilities border on the superhuman. Die Trying has a few set-pieces demonstrating Reacher’s uncanny time-sense (which he uses to fake out a credulous member of the opposition) and another hard-hitting demonstration of his sniper skills. It’s not entirely believable (some skills erode when not in practice), but Reacher’s entitled to a few super-abilities in his own series, and those sequences allow Child to set up some intricate technical demonstrations.

It all amounts to another highly satisfying reading experience for Child fans: the action moves at a steady pace, the prose is never less than compulsively readable, and it all wraps up in a gigantic explosion for those who deserve it. Written in a slightly different fashion by a less-capable author, the Jack Reacher series would feel like bargain-basement men’s adventure series. But Child is a capable professional, and so his series steadily hits its target with unnerving accuracy. Now, if only Child could get out of the habit of using coincidences as plot drivers…

Killing Floor, Lee Child

Killing Floor, Lee Child

Jove, 1997, 407 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-14142-9

After going through Michael Connelly’s entire oeuvre in a reading project that took a bit more than a year (“A book per month, every month, until I’m done.”), I set out to find another author I could follow for a while. After considering and reluctantly rejecting Carl Hiaasen (fabulous novels, but ultimately too similar to invite proper reviewing), I have finally selected my new target: Lee Child, whose “Jack Reacher” novels are about as good as grown-up versions of the men’s adventure genre thrillers ever gets. Killing Floor isn’t the first Child novel I’ve read (see elsewhere on this site for my reviews of the superb Persuader and One Shot), but it’s his first one and as such a logical start to my Lee Child Reading Project, as well as an intriguing glimpse at the Reacher formula before its perfection.

It starts just as the series’ protagonist, Jack Reacher, is arrested in a small Georgia town. Reacher happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time: a murder’s been committed not too far away, and Reacher’s been spotted walking on a nearby road. But as Reacher notices ever-stranger things about the small town in which he’s been arrested, it also becomes obvious that his alibi’s ironclad. Yet his inevitable freedom is just the beginning, because the murder’s just the tip of the iceberg, and Reacher won’t stop until he has found all the answers.

Child’s strengths as a thriller writer are obvious: He combines credible nuggets of technical knowledge in a narrative framework that clearly shows his genre awareness. Killing Floor, despite one huge structural problem and a few rough edges here and there, already shows how it works.

One of the best things about the Reacher novels I’ve read so far are how they initially masquerade their narrative nature. Killing Floor shows the way: from a singular murder mystery, it slips into a grander conspiracy mode as Reacher discovers more and more about what’s happening. For readers, it’s a sure sign that Child knows the mechanisms of the genre in which he’s writing. Better yet, it keeps everyone guessing as to where the story is going until, finally, we can see the whole picture. Most writers practice a form of this misdirection, but Child’s handling of this technique is steady.

Looking at the Reacher stories from the narrative ground up, the other distinctive aspect of Child’s thrillers is the convincing integration of technical trivia in the narrative. Reacher is an ex-military policeman, which gives him an expert’s understanding of expert procedures. His arrest in the first chapter is seen through his coolly detached perspective, analyzing the work of his opponents even as he’s the one being put in custody.

The guy with the revolver stayed at the door. He went into a crouch and pointed the weapon two-handed. At my head. The guy with the shotgun approached close. Neat and tidy. Textbook moves. The revolver at the door could cover the room with a degree of accuracy. The shotgun up close could splatter me all over the window. The other way around would be a mistake. [P.2]

Thriller fans’ appetite for this type of detail is vast, but it really serves to provide considerable credibility to the narrative. Reacher knows more than the other characters, and that makes him both a good narrator and a formidable protagonist.

But for all the admiration that I have for Child’s novels in general, Killing Floor is his first, and it makes at least one horrible choice that severely harms the novel: the decision to balance the plot on a single whopper of a coincidence that involves not only Reacher’s wrong-place-wrong-time, but also ties it to his own family. Too much, too tidy: When even Reacher reflects that this is an unbelievable coincidence and decides to go with it, it’s a sure sign that the author’s planning has gone out of control.

Other than that (and I don’t recall such abominable coincidences in latter novels), Killing Floor is a strong thriller entry that roars along with paragraph-by-paragraph readability and overarching structural interest. The first few chapters fly past, the pacing is steady and the final battle is an expensive set-piece that would delight any Hollywood director. It’s not a perfect debut for Lee Child, but it’s an assured one, and a good reflexion of the strengths that would ensure a long-running series.

Consider this the first of the Lee Child Reading Project series.