(Delacorte Press, 2013)
In Lee Child’s eighteenth Jack Reacher adventure, Reacher finally makes his way to the headquarters of his old army command, the 110th MP special investigations unit in Washington D.C., where he hopes to meet its current commander, Major Susan Turner (whom he had “met” by phone in previous episodes. He liked the sound of her voice, wanted to see what she was like in person, so he travels across the US to meet her. Okay, a little weird, but that’s Reacher). When he arrives, however, he finds things are entirely contrary to his expectations: Major Turner has been arrested for treason and is in the stockade, the 110th is now commanded by an asshole lieutenant colonel named Morgan and Reacher has been recalled back into service!
Reacher, being an honorably discharged commissioned officer, is still obligated to to return to active duty in accordance with the needs of the Army, and, as it turns out, a military warrant has been placed for the arrest of Major Jack (none) Reacher. Reacher’s inadvertent arrival at the 110th gives Morgan and the army a chance to recall him to active duty and try him under the Uniform Code of Military justice (I know, it doesn’t quite work that way, but bear with me here). The charges? Murder, for one thing. Seems Reacher, in an old investigation, had dealings with a two-bit thug who later died from Reacher’s supposed police brutality. The second charge? Being a deadbeat dad. Reacher learns that he’s got a kid, a fourteen year old girl, from an overseas relationship that he doesn’t even remember. Now you can’t tell me all that isn’t going to make your day interesting.
Reacher, true to form, isn’t going to take this sitting down. He realizes that all this can’t be coincidental to his arrival and concludes that it was all a ruse to scare him away, back to his anonymous, solo wanderings where he will never be a bother to anyone again. The questions are, who is behind it and what are they hiding? As Reacher and Turner escape custody and go on the lam, they uncover a conspiracy within the army and Reacher is faced with the unforeseen prospect of being a father to a teenage girl.
After reading the first Reacher title, Killing Floor, I’ve pretty much been hooked. It’s not that the Reacher series is very realistic or smart. They’re not. Jack Reacher is a six-foot-five, two-hundred-and-fifty pound ex-military police officer turned hobo who wanders the nation righting wrongs, putting assholes in there places and solving unnecessarily complex and far-fetched mysteries with aplomb, all the while having a keen radar for smart, capable and attractive women who, more often than not, are cops themselves and, more often than not, want to get it on with Jack’s “reacher.” So, no, the Reacher novels are not smart. They’re, as Zwolf says over in The Mighty Blow Hole, the literary equivalent of a BDAM, or “Big Dumb Action Movie.” But like Zwolf, I have an appreciation for this sort of thing and, after eighteen novels, I find that Lee Child (who has chosen an awesome name for his nom de plume, by the way) does some things extremely well.
For one, Child knows pacing. In a former life as Jim Grant, he worked in British television as a director and writer for nearly two decades, so I would expect that he would have learned a thing or two about a story’s pacing. The Reacher novels, despite their unlikely premises, are nevertheless very well plotted and paced.
I also like Child’s prose a lot, even though I realize it bugs some people. In the earlier novels I tend to agree that the “hard boiled” staccato style seemed to be a little contrived, but since then Child’s prose has grown and he has developed his own very practical, fast-moving and drily humorous style. Not to mention a pedantry and a fondness for triviality that I find amusing, like in this example from Never Go Back:
“Same for me,” Reacher said. “And coffee.”
“Yes, sir.” And immediately the guy turned away and got to work with a wedge of new lard and a blade, planing the metal surface, smoothing it, three feet out and three feet back, and six feet side to side. Which made him a griddle man at heart. In Reacher’s experience such guys were either griddle men or owners, but never really both. A griddle man’s first instinct was to tend the metal, working it until it was glassy down to a molecular level, so slick it would make Teflon feel like sandpaper. Whereas an owner’s first instinct would have been to bring the coffee. Because the first cup of coffee seals the deal. A customer isn’t committed until he has consumed something. He can still get up and walk away, if he’s dissatisfied with the wait, or if he remembers an urgent appointment. But not if he’s already started in on his first cup of coffee. Because then he would have to throw some money, and who really knows what a cup of diner coffee costs? Fifty cents? A dollar? Two dollars?
And who really cares? Reacher does, that’s who. I find this rather nerdy attention to detail kind of funny.
And this leads me to another thing that I think Child does very well, which is Reacher’s characterization. Of course, there is nothing really original about Reacher’s basic premise (BDAM), but after eighteen novels Reacher gives me the impression that he’s kind of a geek. A gigantic geek that will remorselessly head butt you if you’re a jerk, but still a geek, with a geek’s penchant for facts, figures, details and trivia. Also, rather refreshing, is that Reacher rarely gets sad or upset or angry and is generally a pretty happy fellow, a nice change from the angst-ridden antiheroes that are not uncommon in genre fiction. And Reacher engages in some pretty good, if peculiar, tough-guy talk (also from Never Go Back):
Reacher said, “You ever bought an electrical appliance?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“I saw one once, in a store. It had a yellow label on the back. It said if you messed with it you run the risk of death or serious injury.”
“Pretend I’ve got the same kind of label.”
I would be remiss if I failed to harp, once again, on the choice of actors to play Jack Reacher in the live-action film Jack Reacher, an adaptation of the ninth Reacher novel One Shot. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but that’s nothing against the film. I’m not very prompt when it comes to movie releases in general. Still, I sort of think that adapting One Shot as the first Reacher film is sort of strange. Stranger yet, however, is casting Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher when, to my mind, Dolph Lundgren is the obvious choice and I’ve always imagined Lundgren as Reacher from day one. I mean, for a moment indulge in this unscientific experiment. Which photo says “Reacher” to you more, Photo ‘A’:
Granted, the photo of Tom Cruise here is not one from his role as Reacher. It’s just him being himself. But I don’t think that changes anything. And I don’t have anything against Tom Cruise’s acting, but I just can’t see him as Reacher. I will see the film someday. Who knows? Maybe I’ll like it. I’ve heard it’s not bad. At any rate, I haven’t even begun to talk about Never Go Back yet, so I guess I’d better get to it.
After last year’s disappointing A Wanted Man, Child is in good form with Never Go Back, providing almost everything Reacher fans expect: a little bit of violence, a little bit of sex, an overly obscure, unnecessarily complex mystery that doesn’t make a lot of sense and Reacher giving what fo’ to the bad guys. I just take for granted that the mystery part is going to be a little goofy and I don’t let the details get to me. As usual, the pacing is great and a lot of fun as Reacher and Turner go on the run to clear their names. I think the most interesting part of Never Go Back for me was wondering if Reacher actually had a kid.
There are a few negatives for me regarding Never Go Back. Namely, the bad guys were not as downright morally repellent as some of Child’s previous villains, and the final resolution was somewhat anticlimactic in my opinion. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Never Go Back very much and am glad to see that Child isn’t getting complacent with the series.
All in all, Never Go Back gets a fat thumbs up from me.