Friday, June 24, 2011

Book Review: Worth Dying For by Lee Child

Jack really missed his morning coffee
The guy on the right is not Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child's ultra-successful novels, but it might as well be, considering how implausible, invulnerable and unstoppable he is. And that's what makes Reacher fun. Child has put a patina of realism over a character who really belongs in a comic book or a pulp novel from the 1930s.

This time out Reacher is thumbing his way through rural Nebraska where he runs afoul of the Duncans, a local clan of nasties who rule their corner of the state with an iron fist and a squad of beefy ex-football players. Much violence ensues, Reacher rights wrongs, and the true evil of the Duncans is revealed. The plotting is tight and fast, heads are broken and bodies pulped in various thrilling ways, and the tension is constant. In sum, Child and Reacher are back on form.

The last Reacher adventure, 61 Hours, was a tiny letdown. There was minimal mayhem, and Reacher seemed to spend a lot of time whining about how cold it was in South Dakota. Of course, one of the pleasures of a Reacher novel involves spotting Lee Child's unfamiliarity with North American culture. Child is a Brit, and it shows when he has Reacher refer to old people as "wrinklies" and gamblers as "punters." And if he thinks it's insanely cold in South Dakota, he should try Edmonton in January. Child, like many Europeans, also seems fascinated by how outsized everything is in America. He always has most of his characters driving big cars, which he describes in loving detail, and many of Reacher's adventures seem to take place in the wide open spaces west of the Mississippi.

Child's errant Briticisms are only the most minor of glitches. He remains the best thriller writer going, and this despite the fact that his hero, Reacher, is so damn ridiculous. Reacher is part Sherlock Holmes, part The Man With No Name, part Bruce Lee, not to mention a loner, a drifter, a two-fisted existentialist, and a coffee addict. Yes, Reacher is basically a cartoon character or something from a first person shooter video game, but Child never lets the action slow down enough for us to fully appreciate that Reacher is bonkers. In Worth Dying For Child makes sure that virtually every paragraph is either moving the story forward, revealing or deepening a mystery, creating anxiety, or describing some violence. And it doesn't hurt that Child knows his way around a sentence. This is how thrillers should be plotted.

This latest novel also benefits from Reacher not being given a love interest; although it would be more accurate to say a sex partner. In previous novels Child has put Reacher in bed with an interchangeable selection of female FBI agents or cops. and these scenes are always deadly. For one thing the plot always comes to a screeching halt for them, and for another, Child only seems to have included them to assuage any doubts we might have about Reacher's sexuality.

I hope Child keeps Reacher as nutty as a fruitcake, but I'd like to see him give up the Wild West plots with Reacher riding into town and defending the settlers against the land barons. He's done at least three of those now and there's a certain sameness to them. Put Reacher in Europe for a change, where he can enjoy a really strong cup of coffee.

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