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'Worth Dying For': Definitely worth reading

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By Daniel Stashower
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 22, 2010

WORTH DYING FOR

By Lee Child

Delacorte. 384 pp. $28

The last time we saw Jack Reacher, he was in a hell of a spot. In the final pages of "61 Hours," published earlier this year, Lee Child's iconic hero - the ex-military cop turned vagabond - was trapped at the center of a conflagration so intense that it triggered alarms on missile-tracking satellites. "No attempt was made to quantify human remains," Child told us. "It would have been a hopeless task." This scorched-earth cliffhanger set the Internet humming. Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Reacher?

It comes as a relief, if something of a puzzlement, to find Reacher upright in the opening pages of "Worth Dying For." We're told that he's hurting - "Every tendon and ligament and muscle from his fingertips to his rib cage burned and quivered" - but even at half-strength he's still able to crack a few heads when the situation demands it, which it does soon enough.

Child keeps us waiting for an explanation of how Reacher survived the earlier carnage. In the meantime, he sets his "250-pound gutter rat" off on a fresh round of mayhem.

Longtime readers will recognize the pattern: Reacher washes up in a small town and stops for a cup of coffee. By the time it cools, he finds himself pulled into a web of intrigue, locking horns with a drug kingpin or foiling a political assassination.

This time he is passing through a remote corner of Nebraska, where the "land all around was dark and flat and dead and empty." When he intervenes in an apparent case of spousal abuse, he runs afoul of the powerful, creepily evil Duncan family, who are desperate to protect their interest in a mysterious international trafficking scheme. At the same time, he digs into a cold case involving a missing 8-year-old girl. "Her ghost, man," a local boy tells him. "Still here, after twenty-five years. Sometimes I sit out here at night and I hear that poor ghost screaming." Over the course of 15 books Reacher has demonstrated that, as more than one character remarks, he's one who "knows how to do things."

In this book he kills a man with a single punch, disables an oncoming truck and resets his own broken nose. In lesser hands these feats of derring-do would seem cartoonish, but Child has a gift for structuring the violence as a plausible, necessary expression of this latter-day cowboy's code of honor. "Tomorrow there are going to be three kinds of people here," he tells one of the locals. "Some dead, some sheepish, and some with a little self-respect. You need to get yourself in that third group."

At the same time, Reacher's detective skills are shown to be a natural extension of his time in the military police. Child scrupulously avoids the cliche of the talented outsider who makes fools of the boneheaded local cops. As Reacher attempts to unravel the long-dormant case of the missing girl, he finds that the original investigation was thorough and above reproach. "He could hear it in his head right then, the same way they must have heard it all those years ago," Child writes, as Reacher reviews the police files: "the sound of a case going cold."

Some readers may feel that Child's explanation of how Reacher survived the inferno at the end of "61 Hours" is a trifle thin, given the care that went into fanning the flames in the earlier book. (My brother-in-law, convinced that Reacher was dead, sent me an anguished text: "No, Lee Child, say it ain't so!") Fans have long since come to expect a certain tight-lipped reserve from Child's hero; the oft-repeated phrase "Reacher said nothing" has even made its way onto a T-shirt. In this case, perhaps, another line or two would not have gone amiss.

Be that as it may, "Worth Dying For" is a model of suspenseful storytelling and an outstanding addition to a series that stands in the front rank of modern thrillers. Lee Child, like Reacher himself, is a man who knows how to get it done.

Stashower's most recent book is "The Beautiful Cigar Girl."


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