Some novels ask for a close reading. Entranced by the author’s language, intrigued by an intricate plot, and in some rare fortunate circumstances captivated by both, we slowly digest such a book, feasting on a banquet of sentences and paragraphs, lulled by the hypnotic words into a sort of trance from which we emerge blinking and stretching, temporarily discomforted by the world of commerce, home, children and spouse awaiting our return. Such novels provide not only food for thought but a five-star meal for the senses, one of those long leisurely dinners during which each dish brings its own special delights.
Then there are the novels that demand to be gulped down like hamburgers after Lent.
The Jack Reacher novels are just such fictional hamburgers, suspense stories that we wolf down like a bagful of Big Macs one after the other, wiping our napkins with satisfaction across our mouths after finishing one book but already licking our lips over the next one.
Created by Lee Child, a native of England and former television director who now lives in New York City, Jack Reacher is a big man with a special set of skills, a West Point graduate and former officer in a special unit of the Military Police who, after cutting short his army career, drifts about the American landscape looking for peace and quiet, but finding only trouble. Seeking to live life by his own lights, Reacher has given up all normal physical ties to the Army and to society at large. He has no home, no car, no insurance, no cell phone, no computer, no wife or children, no suitcase, no place to lay his head at night except the nearest cheap motel. He wears his clothes three or four days before tossing them and buying some more. In his pocket he carries cash, an old passport for identification and a toothbrush.
Casting away the accoutrements of daily living may sound like a good idea for a man who values his privacy and who marches to a different drummer, but his plans of solitude and the simple life rarely work well for Reacher. In each of Child’s novels, Reacher quickly finds himself fighting, either by circumstance or design, platoons of murderers, thieves, drug-runners, and terrorists. His enlistment in this ongoing one-man war ensnares him in the lives of others as well: the cops who join him in his fight, old friends resurrected from his past, women who often take him to their hearts and beds.
October promises the release of Worth Dying For (ISBN 0385544317, $20), the fifteenth Reacher suspense novel. While defending a woman against an abusive husband, Reacher runs into a family clan of outlaws with blood on their hands. Reacher soon finds himself not only trying to fight these men, but also becomes involved in a case concerning a missing 8-year-old girl.
Though Child gives his readers plenty of action, well-rounded characters, and a galloping prose style, he does on occasion fall flat on his face. In Killing Floor, his first Reacher novel, Child has Reacher get off a bus on a whim near a small town in Georgia. This casual decision making is characteristic of Reacher — he has no schedules to keep, no place he has to be — but a casual stroll through the town quickly embroils him in a full-blown war against men with murder on their hands and blood money in their bank accounts. While he fights against an international counterfeiting operation, he comes across the body of his murdered brother, a federal agent investigating the illegal money.
In later novels, Reacher says several times that he dislikes coincidences, yet this novel is predicated on the near-impossible premise that Reacher would stumble across his brother this way. In the other books, too, Reacher seems to make mistakes and to rely on luck as much as his skills. Some of his abilities to track his adversaries down — his ability to think like a criminal would put Sherlock Holmes to shame — seem beyond the realm of belief. Several times, for instance, he tracks people to their hotels simply by guessing which hotel, out of a score of possibilities, they might choose for a night’s lodging. Even for a man who spent over a decade in the military police — and how and why did a West Point graduate choose the military police for his branch — Reach knows a little too much about too many things — guns, locks, man-hunting, military hardware — to be completely credible as a character.
Despite these flaws, Jack Reacher and his adventures are hard to resist. Child’s keen eye for character and for the American landscape, his research into weapons, his knowledge of the armed forces and criminals, and his creation of Reacher himself, a bold man following a code of justice and honor: this grand combination makes for great reading. These novels may be hamburgers rather than pate de foie gras, but they’re some of the best burgers going.
Try one. And then try not to gulp your food.
Allen Speer will appear at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10. He will discuss and sign his latest book, From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy, Part III (reviewed in the Smoky Mountain News in June 2010). For more information call Malaprops at 828.254.6734.
Worth Dying For by Lee Child. Delacorte Press, 2010. 400 pages.