One of a distinct minority, I have not been a Lee Child fan. I read one Jack Reacher novel and didn't like the foundational concept of the popular series — a hulking former Army Military Police vigilante who rights wrongs the police can't or won't fix. Criminal justice reform is what we need, I thought (and still do) — not rough-and-tough, know-it-all, solve-it-all Jack Reacher. He struck me as basically a well-meaning violent jerk who should probably be arrested.
I reacted very differently to "The Midnight Line," a timely, affecting, suspenseful and morally complex thriller. In fact, it's one of the best thrillers I've read this year.
This time Child confronts the opioid epidemic, and he does so with keenness, understanding and a burning anger over the scourge's causes — poverty, hopelessness, war — and the haplessness of the U.S. criminal justice system's response, or lack thereof.
Given the subject, Reacher is more thoughtful and measured than usual, relying more on his wits than on those fists of his that are "the size of a supermarket chicken." Not that fans of acrobatic-action-hero Reacher will be disappointed. He dispatches an entire biker gang while suffering no worse than a few scrapes and bruises, and he threatens to stuff a South Dakota drug kingpin into a tumble dryer, letting the bad guy pick the setting — either "delicates" or "all the way to where it can kill a bedbug."
But it's a sentimental notion that sets the novel's well-oiled narrative in motion. Having just broken up with his most recent girlfriend (Reacher wears his intimacy issues like a chest full of Army medals), crime fiction's favorite drifter notices the class ring of a fellow West Point grad in a small-town Wisconsin pawnshop window. He buys the ring and sets out to learn why the apparently female former owner had to part with an object of almost sacred importance.
It's soon apparent that Serena Rose Sanderson has come to grief in some terrible way, probably connected to her five Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sanderson's twin sister, Jane, and an ex-FBI agent PI join Reacher on his quest to locate Sanderson and return the ring to her. It's refreshing to see Reacher working well with others. His habitual loner-ness has bordered on the pathological, a trait Reacher himself occasionally pokes fun at. Referring to his never having a home and constantly riding around on buses, he tells a fellow West Pointer, "We fought for freedom. This is what freedom looks like." He is sort of kidding and sort of not.
Readers will practically need a GPS to follow Reacher and his posse around the Western plains through parts of South Dakota and Wyoming, and it's a pleasure to ride along. Child writes beautifully about the vast open spaces of the West, with its physical landscape that's magnificent but a human landscape that's often not pretty at all. Among the novel's most startling scenes are ones that show the daily lives of addicts with heartbreaking exactitude. Officer Sanderson — no spoiler alert necessary here; this is obvious and happens early — suffered the worst kind of physical and psychic wounds in Afghanistan.
Child is not so witty as other laconic hard-boiled writers — in that regard he suffers in comparison to Elmore Leonard — but he can still be entertainingly droll. A technophobe, Reacher has no cellphone, and when the ex-FBI guy wonders if Reacher works for a website, he replies, "I don't. Whatever that means." Fittingly, he has an uncanny knack for locating working pay phones, quite a feat these days.
Through his winding tale, Childs weaves in a passionately told history of opioids in American life. War has been a major part of that history, from the invention of morphine before the Civil War to the painkillers used during the carnage of the World Wars, and more recently in Vietnam and the Middle East. Wars create a lot of addicts. Post-war governments often throw those people in jail. That is stupid and ugly, and Child's outrage over this sorry state of affairs is only just barely contained.
Richard Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.
By Lee Child
Delacorte. 384 pp. $28.99