One reason Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels are so hugely popular is that the man writes so very well. In the realm of popular fiction, few novelists can equal his explosive action scenes, neon-bright descriptions and unexpected plot twists. Still, stylish writing alone rarely creates bestsellers, and I think the real secret of the series’s phenomenal success is Child’s improbable, larger-than-life hero himself.
Reacher is 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, a former militarypolice officer who’s a one-man army. Most fictional crime fighters stick to their home turf, but Reacher travels America endlessly, mostly hitchhiking or by bus, and he finds admiring women and evil men wherever he goes. He’s the stuff of myth, a great male fantasy. I confess that the big galoot sometimes strikes me as faintly ridiculous, but he ranks with Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander as one of this century’s most original, tantalizing pop-fiction heroes.
Still, for all Child’s skill, he faces the same problem as every writer who agrees to produce a new book every year: Inevitably, some of his plots will be stronger than others — and others much weaker. The first Reacher novel I read was “Without Fail” in 2002, wherein he helped the Secret Service protect the vice president from an assassination plot. My conclusion: “Child’s plot is ingenious, his characters are first-rate, and his writing is fine indeed.”
I was less enamored of (2010), in which Reacher faced off against a Nebraska gang that used former college football players for muscle. The gang kept sending young giants to dispose of Reacher, whereupon he would laugh and dispatch them with a punch or two. Eventually a bad guy with a gun — Reacher rarely carries one — locked him in a cellar to await execution. Not to worry, the silver-tongued Reacher tricked his clueless captors into freeing him. All in all, “Worth Dying For” was a silly story, however well told.
“Personal,” the 19th Reacher novel, is the best of the six I’ve read. A Special Forces general urgently summons him after a failed assassination attempt on the president of France. The general believes the attack was a rehearsal for an assassination attempt on the U.S. president at an upcoming economic summit in London.
The Paris shooter had fired from a distance of 1,400 yards, and Reacher and the general know that only a handful of snipers in the world could make that shot. One is an American named John Kott, whom Reacher sent to prison 15 years earlier. Now he’s free, and Reacher’s job is to find him, knowing of course that Kott would like nothing more than to kill his pursuer.
The story that unfolds in Paris and London — both lovingly evoked — is complex and fascinating. You’ll learn more than you ever expected to know about snipers and high-powered rifles. In London, Kott is protected by a criminal gang led by Little Joey, who is 7 feet tall and weighs 300 pounds. Reacher joins forces with an attractive, 28-year-old military aide with the fetching name Casey Nice. Throughout, Child does a masterly job of bringing his adventure to life with endless surprises and fierce suspense, and he’s peerless on the logistics of killing.
My complaints concern the book’s ending and mostly reflect the imperatives of the genre. We start with the fact that, unless Child and his publisher are willing to throw away many millions of dollars for the sake of a truly unexpected conclusion, Reacher is destined to survive. All Child can do is give maximum drama to a foregone conclusion. Near the end, Reacher engages in an epic fistfight with that massive London gangster. Unfortunately, Reacher fought essentially the same epic battle with another 7-foot monster back in“Persuader” (2003). Recycling is an occupational hazard of the book-a-year business.
Next, Reacher goes up against super-sniper Kott in an expertly choreographed shootout, but again the outcome is no surprise. It is, however, a surprise when yet another villain pops up with a gun and vows to blow Reacher’s head off. What follows almost always happens in these situations: The killer is so vain and/or stupid that he won’t shut up and shoot. Thus, in countless novels, while the bad guy blabs on, either the hero frees himself or help arrives in the nick of time. In John D. MacDonald’s “A Tan and Sandy Silence” (1971), a tied-up Travis McGee (surely an ancestor of Reacher’s) frees his wrists while a psychopath raves about his revenge. Child can play this game as well as MacDonald did.
There’s an unspoken bargain here: Child gives us an exciting read, and we pretend not to know that his hero will survive this adventure, just as he did the previous 18 times. Thus, when all the villains have been laid to rest, a weary Reacher can climb onto the next bus and vanish into the night, leaving his multitude of fans awaiting the challenge that will greet him somewhere down the road.
By Lee Child
Delacorte. 353 pp. $28