A Reacher Novel
By Lee Child
Delacorte. 422 pp. $27
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Reviewed by Bill Kent
Thriller fans like books that start on the first page. This newest page-turner from Lee Child starts with the first sentence.
"Suicide bombers are easy to spot."
Such grabber openings are routine for Lee Child's series about the restless drifter Jack Reacher, a former Army MP who wanders about the country and invariably gets himself into the kind of trouble that makes you wish Child's publisher printed his books on waterproof pages so you don't have to stop reading them after you've stayed up all night and have to take your morning shower.
Child really is that good at heroic suspense writing. An Englishman who previously worked in television, Child has distilled the essence of the middle-aged, male-oriented action hero, much as Ian Fleming captured the male menopausal dream of a modern British knight in James Bond.
The difference here is that Reacher is profoundly American. He rushes in where sensible people tell him not to go. He won't back down from a fight, no matter how likely it is that he'll be killed. He is fearless about personal discomfort (he'll sleep on a park bench and even walk barefoot on the streets of New York to a Home Depot!).
Where Bond was the ultimate consumer of sophisticated drinks, clothing, and cars, Reacher doesn't own a vehicle, buys cheap jeans and T-shirts from random retail storefronts, and cares little about cuisine (though he'll run up a $50 room-service breakfast tab if someone else is paying).
Add to this an encyclopedic knowledge of weapons, an astonishing command of hand-to-hand combat skills (astonishing because he's in his mid-40s and never seems to train, never practices, never even does a push-up), an eye for the odd detail (he offers mini-lectures about subway cars and New York's shamefully misunderstood rodent population), a storehouse of insider lore about the military, and a vaguely described appearance that is irresistible to cool, competent, professional women who, after throwing themselves at him, are so amazingly pleased with his bedroom talents that they shed no tears as he wanders off to his next adventure.
Hey, it's fiction, right? You're supposed to make it up.
Gone Tomorrow (the title, spinning on the famous cliche "Here today," has absolutely nothing to do with the story) is Child's 13th over-the-top action-packed slammeroo, and it begins, as nearly all the others in this series have, with a damsel in distress.
Reacher glimpses her early in the morning on a New York subway car racing uptown, and, yes, she shows all the characteristics described in a classified Israeli intelligence guide, "how to spot a suicide bomber," that Reacher read, and memorized, back in his service days when he not only was doing shadowy things in the Middle East, but also was wounded in the 1983 suicide attack that killed 241 Marines in Beirut, Lebanon.
Reacher impulsively decides to do something about this woman. As he moves close, his shirt rides up and the woman glimpses a thick, hastily stitched scar - Reacher's souvenir from that 1983 attack. This, like many seemingly stray details, will become crucial during Child's wonderfully twisty plot, involving a former Delta Force officer turned U.S. congressman, a woman who works in a computer records division at the Pentagon, a blue-eyed, knife-wielding "total babe" femme fatale, and hordes of guys in suits whom Reacher mows down on his way to avenge a hideous murder and recover a long-buried bit of information that might cause a great deal of embarrassment to . . . .
No spoilers here. It's just too much fun to follow Reacher as he wanders about New York (with a side trip to Washington and Greensboro, N.C.), slurps endless cups of black coffee, barges into the realms of the wealthy, powerful, or merely seedy, where he is told what purports to be the truth but then, three pages later, turns out to be . . . .
Again, no spoilers, though the paranoid, things-are-not-as-they-seem engine that drives most thrillers is going at top speed here.
Alas, there are some moments when the gears grind a bit. Child's dialogue can be so cheesy that it would win, or at least place, in the annual Bad Hemingway contest:
"Don't be a slave to the truth, Leonid," Reacher warns a bad guy he's about to take down. "Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes it bites you on the ass."
Child also cheaps out on his locations. New York is an iconic, endlessly interesting city whose literary depictions in so many, many novels have shaped the way we understand urban life. Child could have shown us what it really feels like to be in the world's most famous mean streets at odd hours of the day and night, knowing that every cop, FBI agent, Department of Defense operative, and hired private security goon is looking for you.
Instead, Reacher notes the Flatiron Building, the missing twin towers, and the layouts of Herald, Union, and Times Squares and the Four Seasons Hotel. Child's Manhattan lacks a sense of place: It's as thinly detailed as those mostly anonymous guys in suits that Reacher has to punch, smash, kill, or talk tough to.
One can argue that savoring a city's distinctive atmosphere, or peering even briefly into the souls of its denizens (with the exception of a female NYPD detective, all the characters in this story are out-of-towners), just might slow down the suspense. When, after 320 pages, Reacher has finally figured out who the baddies really are, time stops. We're inside the tense, coolly professional skull of a lone good guy (with a few surprises) wearing white boxer shorts (another important plot detail!) at high noon.
And it is a lot of fun.