nolead begins The Midnight Line
A Jack Reacher Novel
By Lee Child
Delacorte. 384 pp. $28.99

nolead begins

Reviewed by Richard Lipez

nolead ends

I haven't been a Lee Child fan. I read one Jack Reacher novel and didn't like the concept behind the series - a hulking former Army military police vigilante who rights wrongs the police can't or won't fix. He struck me as a well-meaning violent jerk who should probably be arrested.

Very different is The Midnight Line, a timely, suspenseful, morally complex thriller, one of the best I've read this year.

This time, Child confronts the opioid epidemic, with keen understanding and a burning anger over its causes - poverty, hopelessness, war - and the haplessness of the U.S. criminal justice system's response, or lack thereof.

Reacher is more thoughtful and measured than usual, relying more on wits than fists. Not that fans will be disappointed. He dispatches an entire biker gang while suffering just a few scrapes and bruises, and he threatens to stuff a South Dakota drug kingpin into a tumble dryer, letting the bad guy pick the setting - "delicates" or "all the way to where it can kill a bedbug."

Reacher notices the class ring of a fellow West Point grad in a small-town Wisconsin pawnshop window. He buys it and sets out to learn why the former owner had to part with an object of such importance. It's soon apparent that Serena Rose Sanderson has come to grief in some terrible way, probably connected to her five Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sanderson's twin sister, Jane, and an ex-FBI agent PI join Reacher on his quest to locate Sanderson and return the ring to her.

It's a pleasure to ride with Reacher and posse through parts of South Dakota and Wyoming. Child writes beautifully about the West, its magnificent physical landscape but often ugly human landscape. We see the daily lives of addicts with heartbreaking exactitude. Officer Sanderson clearly suffered the worst kind of physical and psychic wounds in Afghanistan.

Child is not as witty as, say, an Elmore Leonard, but he can be entertainingly droll. A technophobe, Reacher has no cellphone. When the ex-FBI guy wonders whether Reacher works for a website, he replies, "I don't. Whatever that means."

Childs weaves in a passionately told history of opioids in American life. War has played a major role, from the invention of morphine before the Civil War to the painkillers of the World Wars, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Wars create a lot of addicts. Postwar governments often throw them in jail. That is stupid and ugly, and Child's outrage over it is only just barely contained.

Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson. He wrote this review for the Washington Post.