Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a giant dude — 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. He owns no home, pays no taxes and mostly hitchhikes around America in search of evildoers. He’s indestructible. He recalls Superman, my No. 1 hero at age 10. Who can resist such a fantasy? Apparently, not many. Reacher has helped make Lee Child one of the world’s best-selling­ crime novelists.

"Night School," by Lee Child (Delacorte)

Reacher is unchanged in this 21st of his adventures: He wins all fights, charms all women and outsmarts all rivals, friend or foe. What makes “Night School” the best of the Reacher novels I’ve read is that Child has concocted a brilliant plot. This time, his hero is not simply wiping the floor with thugs in Nebraska. He’s battling to save America, or maybe the entire civilized world, from a terrorist plot that is original, engrossing and all too believable.

Child takes us back to 1996, when Reacher, a highly decorated 35-year-old Army major, is recruited for an urgent, top-secret assignment. A U.S. agent embedded in a Saudi terrorist cell in Hamburg has overheard a messenger tell one of the terrorists, “The American wants a hundred million dollars.”

Who is this American and what does he have that’s worth $100 million to terrorists? An intelligence document? What could it be? A nuclear weapon? How would terrorists transport or deploy it? The president’s national security chief summons Reacher, representing the military, to work with counterparts from the FBI and CIA, to find answers, under the direction of the security chief’s deputy, Dr. Marian Sinclair. She and Reacher are off to Hamburg together. Sparks fly.

The challenge the team faces is immense. Who is this American? Army records must be checked. Airport photos examined. Police consulted. Some neo-Nazis turn up. We see a terrorist leader in a mud house in Afghanistan, unnamed but suggesting Osama bin Laden, approve the $100 million payment.

Lee Child (Sigrid Estrada)

Reacher being Reacher, we are treated to scenes of both physical combat and romantic engagement. Either way, Child portrays bodies in action memorably. In time we learn who the American is and what he has that’s worth $100 million. The details of the search are ingenious, the outcome makes sense and the writing is smart and surprising. This is one of the best thrillers you’ll read this year.

Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.

night school

By Lee Child

Delacorte. 369 pp. $28.99