If I am perhaps a little bit disappointed in the new Lee Child thriller, it's the kind of disappointment you'd feel if the eleventh day of your tropical vacation were not quite as relaxing as the tenth, or if you were given a bottle of The Macallan for Fathers' Day, instead of a bottle of The Macallan and a hundred-dollar bill. It's the kind of disappointment that, from the vantage point of boredom and unhappiness, might look a lot like unbridled delight. For those of you who haven't read my previous Lee Child posts, here's a quick review:
Child is a Brit with a stridently American sensibility, or perhaps you'd call it an outsider's hyper-perceptiveness. His Reacher novels—and so far, they are the only novels he's written—are tightly plotted mystery-thrillers of refreshing variety, some of them fairly strict police procedurals, some of them daring-escape narratives, some of them ticking-time bomb suspense stories, some of them massive-conspiracy potboilers. They all feature Jack Reacher, a former military policeman turned aimless drifter, and are told, variously, in first or third person, in Reacher's past or his present. They also feature, pretty reliably, the following elements:
1) A spectacular fistfight in which Reacher is set upon by either three or four guys or a guy who is three or four times larger than him, which Reacher wins against all odds.
2) Some kind of escape from some kind of unbreachable prison.
3) A test of marksmanship involving firearms, which Reacher wins, because he is the most excellent shooter of guns ever in the entire world.
4) A scene in which Reacher buys some unflattering new clothes at random, then puts them on, throwing his old clothes into the trash.
5) A tough, intelligent, yet emotionally vulnerable woman, often a cop or government agent, who is slim and small-breasted and wears unostentatious clothing, and whom Reacher has sex with exactly once, or, more daringly, almost but not quite has sex with.
6) Reacher setting his "mental clock" to wake him at a particular time, which is accurate down to the minute.
Reacher is a big, strong guy, but the appeal of the series comes from his brilliantly analytical mind, which has the ability to see all the angles, all the time. He makes mistakes, but they are always temporary. He says little, and reserves action for the appropriate moment. He is competent at all things male, like a one-man A-Team. He knows the names of everything: engine parts, plants, architectural elements, guns. To Reacher, a bunch of computer cables aren't computer cables, they are "multi-strand copper cores, [with] tough plastic sheathing." Yet, due to his voluntary detachment from human society, he is amusingly unfamiliar with certain everyday items, and describes them as though you've never seen them either: plastic clamshell packaging, gourmet coffee, chain bookstores. There is a wonderful moment in the new book when Reacher, divested of his shoes, is forced to stop at Home Depot and buy "a pair of rubber gardening clogs," which we know as Crocs, and which he is wearing twenty pages later when he eludes a pair of federal agents in the subway.
A Reacher novel, broadly described, is presented as a series of puzzles. The puzzles are varied and endlessly entertaining: discovery of a computer password, escape from a dynamite-filled room, an extemporaneous psychological analysis, the landing of a crucial punch. Even walking down the street or ordering food at a restuarant, Reacher is solving a problem, crunching the numbers and acting according to his results. Child's prose is spare, clean, laced with sentence fragments and short independent clauses stitched together with conjunctions. Even the most mundane of passages is brisk and linear:
I slept well and woke up feeling good and I was out five minutes before eight. I forced my way through the crowds heading in and out of Penn Station and got breakfast in the back booth of a place on 33rd. Coffee, eggs, bacon, pancakes, and more coffee, all for six bucks, plus tax, plus tip.
That passage is from the new one, Gone Tomorrow, which takes place in and out of the New York City subway system, a setting that ought to be a spectacular one for a Reacher novel. Child's plots are all about topography: distances, directions, the dimensions of rooms and cars and airplanes and walls. Reacher is always having to estimate things, often in total darkness or with people chasing him. This book is no exception--pursued by various bad guys, he takes elusive action, riding trains on the inside and outside, leaping over hot rails, running up and down subway stairs.
It all seems a little pat this time, though. Maybe it's the spectacular and detailed setting--there is just too much to work with. The plot, such as it is, isn't all that important—Reacher, while riding the subway, randomly witnesses a gruesome suicide, and its aftermath leads him into an ad-hoc investigation of a sinister conspiracy. This is really more plot than Reacher, and Child, need. My favorite Reacher novels--Echo Burning and the recent Bad Luck and Trouble--are painted with a more minimal palette. They start and end in the middle of nowhere, with Reacher appearing and disappearing like a ghost, performing incredible feats of strength, agility, and intelligence in barren landscapes, empty rooms, and situations without options. In Gone Tomorrow, anything can happen, and so there's no surprise when it does. To make matters worse, Child throws terrorism into the mix, making one of Reacher's nemeses a cell of murderous foreign baddies. These enemies are a little too easy to hate, the danger a little too dangerous.
The other problem with the new novel is that it's in the first person. I'm probably the only reader in the world bothered by this, but there is an essential problem with the first-person Reacher books: Reacher would never in a million years say all those words. He's a silent loner, not a yarn-spinner. As a result, this one feels a little fake, a little plasticky--the kind of story Reacher would tell if only Reacher told stories.
But like I said, I'm happy to enjoy The Macallan without the hundred-dollar bill. Child is consistently entertaining, and rarely falls prey to the dreary cliches of the mystery and thriller genres: class paranoia, excessive gruesomeness, lovingly annotated jazz soundtracks, excessive use of inept simile, and their ilk. Like Elmore Leonard, Child pays attention to the sound of words and rhythm of sentences. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, he is a master stylist in the area of deductive reasoning. And like Christmas, he can be counted on to reappear once a year. If you haven't read him, don't start with this one--but don't worry, you'll get to it eventually.