Patrick Gallagher, the publisher at Allen & Unwin Australia, asked me some time ago if I’d ever thought of writing a novel à la Lee Child. I had to admit I hadn’t read Lee Child. I checked with Jean, who consumes eight novels a week, mostly crime. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘his character’s a sort of super hero.’ Not my kind of thing and I told Patrick so.
A bit later Jean bought Lee Child’s fourteenth book, 61 Hours. With nothing else on hand, I read it and was very impressed. Jack Reacher, ex-military MP, now a vagabond whose only luggage is a folding toothbrush, finds himself in a frozen, troubled North Dakota town. Trouble is Jack’s business. The writing was crisp with no padding; the characters were well drawn and the plot held me. I realised I’d been missing something.
Always in the market for a good read, over the next year or so I borrowed from libraries or bought second-hand most of the Jack Reacher novels. Reacher, 6’5” and 220 pounds, was puissant to the max but credible. He was an original creation as a free-as-the-air wanderer owing nothing to other literary heroes I could think of.
The books were patchy with some much better than others. The couple written in the first person, such as Persuader (2003) were weaker than the third-person books. Reacher, and his manifold abilities as fighter, thinker and lover, was better observed from without than portrayed from within. Several of the books harked back to Reacher’s career in the military, but most were set in the present, a present that Lee Child was able to render convincingly.
While the character is American, the writer is English, and this enables him to avoid the sentimentality that disfigures so many American heroic characters – Robert B Parker’s Spenser in the later books as a notable example. Child’s books are full of fresh information about places, weaponry and the civil and military authorities. Jack is good in the city but better in the country. In Nothing to Lose (2008), in his depiction of the two isolated Texas towns, Hope and Despair, Child achieves a nightmarish, almost Dantesque atmosphere. In this book, the best in my opinion, you can learn a great deal about the US military’s inexcusable use of depleted uranium.
So I looked forward eagerly to the next Reacher novel. Worth Dying For (2010) was pretty well up to standard with Jack setting things right in backwoods Nebraska. The next book, The Affair (2011) was a shocking disappointment.
The Affair was set in the past and focussed in part on the circumstances surrounding Reacher’s leaving the army, something that had been alluded to earlier books. But it had a tired feel and the matter apparently at issue – a murder in a Mississippi town close to a mysterious army base – lacked bite. Uncharacteristically, the plot relies on red herrings and the shadowy figures pulling the strings remain shadowy. Reacher’s love interest is the local sheriff, a character virtually recycled from an earlier book, and the scene where they achieve simultaneous orgasms as the room rocks to the vibrations set off by an express train is simply ludicrous.
Every writer is allowed a flop, but the lack of energy in The Affair is worrying. Even the title suggests a lack of effort. Child’s seventeenth Reacher novel, A Wanted Man, is due out this year. I’ll approach it with caution – probably via a library rather than a bookshop.