Today I begin my personal Support Your Local Library Challenge, through which I hope to support a great institution currently under genuine threat from government cutbacks and read at least one new author each month. In a previous post I boasted I would get the ball rolling, so to speak, by picking up one of Lee Child’s ‘Jack Reacher’ thrillers. Being a ‘Reacher’ newbie, I planned to pick the first one to hand but this proved much harder than I first imagined … not the sort of thing perhaps to cause Reacher much bother, but one that might give mere mortals pause. It’s not a big library, all on one floor, and I figured I had the advantage thanks to my postgraduate training as an archivist and a librarian. But I was wrong – I simply could not find any of Child’s books on the shelves … Where were they?
Obviously I hadn’t been using my local library enough – Child’s books were not under general fiction, not under crime / mystery, not even in the newly returned items section. Well, it turns out there’s an ‘action adventure’ section (right next to romance), which incidentally is where they also keep John le Carres (sigh). Anyway, lesson learned and finally I got my mitts on one of three copies of 61 Hours, the fourteenth in the Reacher series and the second-most borrowed novel in Britain for 2010-11. It begins, as perhaps any self-respecting thriller with such a title (especially one starring a hero named ‘Jack’ in it), with a ticking clock. In fact virtually every chapter ends with a running total, counting down to zero hour (and yes, it does get pretty annoying after a bit).
“I think he’s the sort of guy who sees things five seconds before the rest of the world.”
Jack Reacher is a loner, a man of no fixed abode hitchhiking across America – he doesn’t even wash his clothes, just buys new ones as needed. No, I wouldn’t want to sit next to him on a bus either. Speaking of buses … While traveling by coach, freezing snowstorms and sundry criminal activities conspire to impede his progress with an enforced sojourn in Bolton, South Dakota. The tiny town has become financially dependent on the newly built Federal prison and this is the cog in plan involving a diminutive Mexican drug lord (who brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘cutting someone down to size’), Russian mafia, Hell’s angels, corrupt lawyers, crooked cops, a jumbo jet, a secret military base from the Cold War and a sprightly elderly lady who also happens to be the key witness to a crime.
The coach crashes after an accident inadvertently caused by the bad driving of a lawyer involved in the conspiracy, making Reacher and the senior citizens on board (old folk are a pretty nice bunch in this book I’m glad to see) enforced guests of Bolton. The setting in a small town in the middle of nowhere, cut off by the weather from the outside world, makes this novel feel more like a Western brought up to date than a modern action thriller, which for my money is a good thing, having little tolerance for the globe-trotting Tom Clancy style. Reacher spends the night in the den of the local deputy sheriff, who overcomes his initial mistrust to rely ever more on Reacher’s skills as a tactician and for his awesome deductive powers. The police know that a hitman has been sent to kill Janet Salter, the savvy, octogenarian ex-librarian and the key witness in a drug case involving some bikers currently squatting on some land left over by the military decades earlier. But this may finally be the chance to put them out of business, always assuming she lives long enough to testify. Having decided that Reacher is not the hitman in question, they make it clear that he is desperately needed to help protect the witness. This is because if there is an alarm at the prison the entire police force, including her security detail, will be obliged to head there immediately. Reacher soon connects with the old lady and is prevailed upon to contact his old unit, making fast friends with Susan Turner, the woman who now has his old job with the 110th Special Investigations Unit. Through the wonder of modern telephony and good old-fashioned deductive reasoning he helps her capture a soldier who has turned traitor and gone on the run, while she provides support down the phone about the abandoned military installation. But otherwise he is pretty much alone.
One of the great surprises of this book is just how traditional a hero Reacher is, part Sherlock Holmes logician and part Jason Bourne assassin who, we discover here, seems to have been groomed as a military man from the age of 6! This bit of background about Reacher is one of the main revelations of the series as I understand it, though it is pretty ludicrous to be honest. Apparently a recruiting wheeze by American forces was to train cameras on audiences of kids at screenings of 50s sci-fi classic Creature from the Black Lagoon to find the one in a million viewer who would not react away from scary scenes in movies but rather look to jump in and fight back. Hmm, so much for the scientific method …
“I just don’t like people who put the world to wrong. Is that a phrase?”
“It should be”
As in the case of Craig Russel’s Lennox series (about which more soon), where the 1940s setting seemed to have used less out of an interest in history and more in a wish to build a traditional narrative without modern-day technology intruding, so here we have a story which makes our self-reliant hero even more prominent as he is less affected by the loss of modern-day communications and transport. He has to discover where the hitman is hiding and discover the identity of the mole in the police department, and soon. Because Plato, the ruthless (natch) Mexican drug lord is planning to land in his own jet (depsite the inclement weather) in just a few hours (you are kept abreast of just how many that is of course …) and Reacher has to stop the old biddy getting killed and find out what is in the ex-military base. In a move reminiscent of 24‘s Jack Bauer, that other ‘Jack’ of popular thrillerdom, our hero has essentially gone rogue. Having left everything behind him, he is the ultimate loner hero, acting outside of authority and responsible only to his own moral compass. Ultimately this sets him up as the last arbiter in the finale when most of the cast of characters has been wiped out and it is up to him to decide how to bring the villain, Plato, to justice. And certainly Jack proves up tot eh task -an old-fashioned hero, relying only on himself and his powers of observation, he is also throroughly rugged and (despite some interesting mements in which he tries to tap into his softer side with some female help) resolutely a true ‘man’s man’, described at one point in a manner that would make one think he should be modelling for Mount Rushmore:
“His face looked like it had been chipped out of rock by a sculptor who had ability but not much time.”
So, did I enjoy my first encounter with Reacher? Well, not that much actually. It suffers from most of the faults of the modern thriller with tons of info speak, little humour, huge chunks of exposition, and often ludicrous rat-a-tat dialogue of a crushing banality that would make Joe ‘just the fact’ Friday blush (and maybe even Uncle Buck). In addition to which this proves to be a highly peculiar adventure. Without wishing to spoil anything, it ultimately resolves itself into a catalogue of failures! Often Reacher displays enough nous to work things out but ultimately proves powerless to make much of a difference – thus his main function in the novel is seemingly that of a walking neon sign that constantly flashes, “I told you so.”
Unfortunately, on a purely stpry level things aren’t much better as the revelation of who the killer and mole are proves to be unbelievably predictable and pedestrian, though this doesn’t stop Reacher spending nearly two pages telling the murderer how he figured it out! In theory it’s nice that the book chooses in this way to align itself more closely to the traditional mystery and away from the techno-thriller it seems it should more properly belong to. But such explanations, and they come regularly in the story, also stop the book dead in its tracks, over and over again. It’s one of those conventions of the genre, in which the guilty party just sits there and listens to the investigator explain how clever they are and how they worked out everything and can prove it, that is just too much of a cliché today to be anything but a bit laughable. If not from the thousands of detective novels and stories then from decades of TV and movie whodunits (just think of the hundreds of episodes of Poirot and Murder, She Wrote that conclude this way).
Disappointingly, there’s also not much action at all until the very end, and even that is curtailed as the book finishes on a cliffhanger, with the story ultimately wrapped up in the fifteenth Reacher novel, Worth Dying For (2010). I don’t expect to be trying to prize it from my local library any time soon (with apologies to the great PuzzleDoctor who likes the series a lot and has much very nice things to say about Gone Tomorrow, the book immediately preceding this one. Head over there right away for a more positive assessment of Child and Reacher’s accomplishments).