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In 1997 Killing Floor crashed Lee Child onto the thriller scene as a major new talent. A Wanted Man is the 17th Jack Reacher novel.

Reacher is a macho super-hero, an ex-army cop, who is now a transient. His appeal for me lies in the fact that, unlike most American super-heroes, he is not at all sentimental, although he can (very occasionally) be emotional, and that he is generally cynical towards the American Dream in its current manifestations. Lee Child is English, and perhaps this is why he avoids the usual pitfalls in this sort of writing. The other major charm of the books has been that most of them have featured genuinely strong and individual women characters, many of whom could outdo Reacher on several physical, mental and extreme-skill levels. I haven’t liked the first-person novels as much as the third-person ones – perhaps it’s harder for the female reader to fully take on the point of view of such an extreme male character. It’s easier to appreciate him from the outside, with the benefit of an ironical distance, and thankfully A Wanted Man is in the third person.

Child’s Reacher oeuvre has been outlined in a previous Godfather column, which gives a general appraisal of the books and the character of Reacher. Like Peter Corris, I was disappointed in The Affair, the last novel before this one. It was a retrospective, taking Reacher back to his army days, set about six months before the events of Killing Floor. There was no strong female co-protagonist, and Reacher, although in some ways still a maverick, was constrained by his position. Without the original and intriguing homeless wayfarer premise, The Affair seemed like a fairly run-of-the-mill military thriller.

A Wanted Man, however, has many of the elements readers have come to expect. We’re back to the ‘now’, where Reacher is a nomad, an almost iconic character roaming America and putting things right wherever he lands. He’s acquired a passport and an ATM card since 9/11, but otherwise only carries a disposable razor, toothbrush, comb and walking-around money. He wears his clothes for three days, then discards them and buys new ones (I think he has a change of underwear). It’s a great basis for a character – the man apart, who owns nothing and has nothing to lose – and strongly reminiscent of Western heroes who ride into town, deal with the baddies, restore harmony to the fictional world and then ride out again. In Reacher’s case, he walks, hitchhikes or catches the Greyhound, but the effect is the same.

A Wanted Man begins with Reacher hitching a ride to Virginia to find a woman he has only spoken to on the phone. He is picked up by three strangers and it’s soon clear that there’s something off about them. Behind them lies a murder and in front of them is a roadblock with police alerted to find two men travelling together. They get through that OK and then begins one of the longest (and most repetitive) road trips I’ve ever read. During it Reacher uses what seem like superhuman powers of deduction to figure out that the two men have kidnapped the woman, Karen Delfuento, and to decipher her minimal hand and facial gestures via the rear-vision mirror. His uncanny inferences as he observes every tiny detail and applies mathematical formulae and probabilities to the situation are of positively Holmesian quality and unfortunately quite unconvincing in this context. Credibility and patience are stretched in these scenes to the point that this reader’s involvement in the story and the protagonist was substantially weakened.

Fortunately, the story from Reacher’s point of view is interrupted by others’, most importantly that of FBI agent Julia Sorenson, who is also on the kidnappers’ trail. Sorenson is one of the series’ strong, believable and sympathetic female protagonists, but in A Wanted Man, once her story converges with Reacher’s she quickly becomes subordinate to him and allows him to call the shots – a more conventional relationship than we have come to expect from Lee Child. The parallel stories work well, however, towards dramatic tension, and Julia’s scenes provide much-needed relief from the road trip in the early part of the book.

As the FBI and Homeland Security in the form of various acronyms get involved, the story begins to revolve around terrorism, undercover agents, possible nuclear waste deposits and capital reserves for the enemies of America. The plot reaches almost contorted levels of complication, occasionally needing to be summarised in explicatory dialogue, which slows the story down and weakens the dramatic impetus. The ending involves a great deal of shooting, and resistance to the ‘terrorist threat’. Again, apart from Jack single-handedly saving the day and killing a lot of people in the process, this is different from other Reacher novels, where his sympathies have mostly been with the guys and gals at the workface, rather than with the ‘grey men in offices’ (one of the few criticisms of the American military/security bureaucracy in the book). In A Wanted Man Reacher appears to be becoming more conservative; he is gung-ho for the FBI and Homeland Security, uncharacteristically passive and acquiescent in the face of their imperatives.

This is the 17th Reacher in 15 years and this may be part of the problem – the pressure on bestselling series novelists to produce at least one book a year has to result in patchy and occasionally inferior output. And we have to allow series-character writers their occasional lapse.

But The Wanted Man still contains much of what is admirable about the series: the laconic dialogue, strong, spare writing, the ability to deftly and believably create vivid characters and situations:

He was going to switch off like an old black-and-white TV, collapsing to a tiny spot of light that burned bright at the centre of the screen, before dimming and then disappearing forever.

The first Reacher film, Jack Reacher, is about to appear, starring Tom Cruise (see trailer here) and based on One Shot (2005). Cruise is a good actor, but I’m waiting to be convinced that he can render Reacher believably for me. Reacher’s physical presence is one of the most striking things about him. Here is a description of him from The Wanted Man:

He wasn’t a gorilla and he wasn’t like something out of a slasher movie. But she could see why he had been described that way. He was huge, for a start. He was one of the largest men she had ever seen outside the NFL. He was extremely tall, and extremely broad, and long-armed, and long-legged. The lawn chair was regular size, but it looked tiny under him. His knuckles were nearly touching the ground. His neck was thick and his hands were the size of dinner plates.

There’s an 18th Reacher in process – Never Go Back – and I’m hoping Child will again be firmly on song for that.

Lee Child A Wanted Man, Bantam, 2102, PB, 432pp, $32.95

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