In 1995, at age 40, English-born Lee Child lost his job in television and decided to pursue his dream of writing crime fiction. His dream paid off. “A Wanted Man” is the 17th novel in his hugely popular series about that crime-fighting American vagabond Jack Reacher. I know people who have read all 17 books and loved every one. I’ve read five of them and have a more restrained view. Child is a gifted craftsman and storyteller who has created a memorable character, but the quality of his books varies considerably with the strength of their plots.
Certainly, Reacher is a great male fantasy. After 13 years in the U.S. military police, he became a rambling man, unburdened by wife, fixed address, car or credit card. He moves around America, mostly via bus or hitchhiking, and finds trouble wherever he goes. But that’s okay, because he’s a 6-foot-5, 250-pound one-man army, lethal with his fists and every imaginable weapon. Women adore him, but his adventures leave him little time for their charms.
Reacher most recalls John D. MacDonald’s big, brawling Travis McGee, who lived on a houseboat in Florida, but there’s a difference. Reacher’s exploits are mythic; he’s a superhero, a veritable Superman, endowed with special powers to combat the forces of evil.
As “A Wanted Man” opens, Reacher is hitchhiking in Nebraska when he accepts a ride in a car containing two men and a woman. Soon he suspects that the men have kidnapped the woman. The truth is more complex and in time involves terrorism, the FBI and the CIA. There are some nice moments. A female FBI agent impresses Reacher and the reader with her smarts and style. An old sheriff’s end is movingly related: “The brain would be the last thing to die. . . . He was going to switch off like an old black-and-white TV, collapsing to a tiny spot of light that burned bright in the center of the screen, before dimming and then disappearing forever.”
But the novel is too long. Reacher drives endlessly along Midwestern highways until the reader fears carsickness, and the plot twists are often baffling. Depending on your fondness for Reacher, “A Wanted Man” could be rated either a so-so read or a shaggy-dog tale. Child can do better and surely will. There is, by the way, a Jack Reacher movie coming soon, sensibly titled “Jack Reacher.” And who will play the huge, unstoppable one-man killing machine? Why, who else but Tom Cruise? Is this a great universe or what?
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.