Most of us regular guys and gals are a lot alike. We go to work and take orders from someone above us five days a week. We’re anchored to our residences by the mortgages or rent we have to pay every month. We don’t often get into fights, and would be apt to turn the other way if we encountered a band of thugs on the sidewalk in front of us.
Most of us – at least the people I hang out with – are happy with our lives. But then there are those days when things seem a little off. The walls around us feel stifling. The bosses and clients we work for make us feel like drones. We step out of a bar at midnight, feeling lightheaded and thinking of nothing but sleep until we round a corner and see four big guys in ski masks, hands in the pockets of their jackets, walking purposefully toward us . . .
“That’d be one of those moments when you want to be Jack Reacher,” my dad tells me, with a chuckle at the other end of the phone. He retired from the Army as a Colonel about 20 years ago. He’s fiercely loyal to the military. If I ask him even now if there was ever a man or woman he worked for who was a first class jerk, he’ll just smile, take a sip of his Hendricks, and sigh.
He will, however, be happy to tell me why he loves the way Jack Reacher, the man at the center of Lee Child’s novels, responds to hubristic authority, and how much he loves fight scenes where Reacher takes on three, four or even more bad guys, felling every one with expert feints, head buts and in general by using their exertion and brawn against them. My dad will also tell you the rule he and I share when it comes to thrillers. If we’re not completely captivated 50 or so pages in, we’ll close the book and move on to another. Could be because we’re shallow. Or it could be because we’re spoiled after reading everything that Lee Child has ever written.
In these books we’re always spellbound from the first sentence to the last – always knowing Child is in complete control of the story and leading us along a carefully twisted path toward a stunning and surprising destination. In Jack Reacher Child has created a character like no one else we’ve read. From his 20s through his mid-30s Reacher was an MP in the Army, which is where he learned the basics of law enforcement and investigation. He grew up as the son of a French woman and a Marine Corps Captain, moving from base to base, which seems to have shaped his personality as a guy who travels the world alone.
Indeed, I still remember my mom calling me one day back in the 1990s to tell me about how they had discovered Reacher. “He rides across the country on trains and buses and stays in different motels every night,” she said. “All he carries is a money card and a toothbrush, and after every couple of days he just buys a new shirt and pants instead of washing what he has.”
At the time these seemed like nothing more than curious details about an interesting character. Two days later when I fell headlong into my first Reacher story I saw the symbolism. Reacher is a wanderer, forever driven to walk toward the horizon, a trait embedded in his DNA and fostered by the lifestyle of military kids accustomed to moving to new places every year or so. Most of the stories that take place in his post-military life begin with him in transit and stopping off for a few days in a new place where he’s immediately pulled into – or deliberately jumps into – a dangerous situation. Every scenario is unique. In Personal, he halts his self-directed travels for a detour to Paris to take part in a CIA investigation into a sniper who targeted the President of France. In MAKE ME, he gets off a train traveling through a vast stretch of Midwest farm country to visit a tiny town known as “Mother’s Rest” simply because he’s curious about the origin of its name.
That might sound odd if you haven’t read Reacher books, yet but it won’t if you have. He operates solely with his own compass, stopping in random places and usually on impulse or without much thought beyond simple curiosity. In most of the books I’ve read the trouble he immediately falls into is triggered by his innate compulsion to help someone who he feels is about to be a victim. In MAKE ME, he learns within a minute of stepping off the train in Mother’s Rest that there was another guy who was supposed to be on the same train. A private investigator who went to the town on an off-the-books job and who disappeared shortly after arrival.
In this book – like a lot of the Reacher stories – there’s a woman who he quickly becomes involved with. In every case they end up working together, with the women bringing unique insights and skills to the job in every case. I have to say that one of my favorite aspects of these books is that these women are never “love interests.” They’re strong-willed, physically fit women who match Reacher’s wits and intelligence all the way.
In MAKE ME, the woman who becomes Reacher’s partner is former FBI Agent Michelle Chang. She’s also a PI now, employed by the same organization as the missing guy. She came to Mother’s Rest looking for her colleague, and despite having the even-keel strength the Bureau seems to require she’s feeling inside-out with worry.
Unfortunately there’s a good reason for that. Something truly horrific has happened to the missing investigator. Something linked to a tale so dark that it borders at times on horror if you let your mind go fully into the places where Lee Child sends you with this story. With the exception of Gone Tomorrow, a story involving deceivingly normal-looking Taliban assassins with the most appalling capacity for evil, MAKE ME is the scariest Reacher story to date. It’s full of eerie insights about the impact of a barely fathomable level of depression among people who are both at the center and the outskirts of the action. It takes us into the Internet’s Dark Web underbelly. And it moves with relentless speed and intrigue that deepens with every chapter.
That’s mostly what you need to know if you read for enjoyment and like to experience a roller coaster-type sort of fear from time to time. If you write fiction there are a couple of other things you might appreciate. One is Child’s rare ability to write the same kind of sharp and minimal prose that makes you want to read Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain novels again and again. The other is his dialogue, which perpetuates intrigue with a snappy resonance that stays in your head.
Here, for example, are the first few lines of MAKE ME:
“Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house. Which made sense anyway. The harvest was still a month away, and a disturbance in a field would show up from the air. And they would use the air, for a guy like Keever. They would use search planes, and helicopters, and maybe even drones.”
And here’s a bit of conversation, capturing the way Reacher and Michelle Chang get to know each other, right after Reacher gets off the train in Mother’s Rest:
She came toward him with a distinctive burst of energy, two fast paces, eager, like she was pleased to see him. Her body language was all about relief.
Then it wasn’t. Then is was all about disappointment. She stopped dead, and she said, “Oh.”
She was Asian. But not petite. Five-nine, maybe, or even five-ten. No kind of a willowy waif. She was about forty, Reacher guessed, with black hair worn long, jeans and a T-shirt under a short cotton coat. She had lace-up shoes on her feet.
He said, “Good evening, ma’am.”
She was looking past his shoulder.
He said, “I’m the only passenger.”
She looked him in the eye.
He said, “No one else got out of the train. So I guess your friend isn’t coming.”
“My friend?” she said. A neutral kind of accent. Regular American. The kind he heard everywhere.
He said, “Why else would a person be here, except to meet the train? No point in coming otherwise. I guess normally there would be nothing to see at midnight.”
She didn’t answer.
He said, “Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting here since seven o’clock.”
“I didn’t know the train was late,” she said. “There’s no cell signal here. And no one from the railroad, to tell you anything. And I guess the Pony Express is out sick today.”
“He wasn’t in my car. Or the next two, either.”
“You don’t know what he looks like.”
“He’s a big guy,” Reacher said. “That’s why you jumped out when you saw me. You thought I was him. For a second, anyway. And there were no bug guys in my car. Or the next two.”
“When is the next train?”
“Seven in the morning.”
She said, “Who are you and why have you come here?”
“I’m just a guy passing through.”
“The train passed through. Not you. You got out.”
I love the sound of all of this – love the way the conversation evolves in the context of what’s happening in that bizarrely empty train depot in that lonely the night somewhere in a vast American prairie. Reacher and Chang are both wary of and drawn to each other, with friend-or-foe questions ticking through their minds every second. It’s a perfect stream of dialogue that characterizes everything that happens in the chapters to come, each one taking you further into a labyrinthian journey of depravity, hoping for a happy ending but justifiably worrying you won’t see it. Regardless of how you feel about what really happens, chances are you’ll whisper “wow” when you finish this latest Reacher novel, before going on the hunt for every single one you might have missed before.
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