by Lee Child
531 pages, Dell
Review by Kate Kasserman
Okay, I am seriously bummed that this is the first Lee Child Jack Reacher vehicle I’m reviewing here, because Nothing to Lose is by far the weakest entry in the series so far (NTL is #12 – I have not yet read #13, Gone Tomorrow, but I hope it proves to be a return to form, and I will certainly give it a shot).
And I am wondering whether its flaws are ALL MY FAULT.
No, truly. Because I like Jack Reacher, and I like Jack Reacher stories. A lot of people do. He is hugely popular. And that places a pretty high burden on the author – both hard pressure (publisher: GIVE ME MONEY-MAKING PRODUCT, Child!) and soft (the great masses: we’re all waaaaaaaiting, Leeeeeee!). Nothing to Lose shows every sign of being too hastily assembled and insufficiently edited. Maddeningly, I can see the raw elements of what makes a fun Reacher book, but they just haven’t quite been smoothed out. And the seams really show.
One small example: okay, in a genre pulp thriller (which is what these ALMOST universally tasty morsels are), it is more the rule than the exception that you have to roll with some implausibilities and some “my goodness, somebody remembered to take their stupid-pills today for SURE” moments. The trick lies in making these painless. Here, we get some that approximate more closely a Civil War battlefield amputation. In this scene, Reacher has just been informed that an unknown girl, also a stranger in these parts, very, very much wants to talk to him and will be looking for him at the one diner in town. So he heads to the diner, with no other purpose than to find out what the girl wants. He scopes out the scene:
The diner was all lit up inside and three booths were occupied. A guy on his own, a young woman on her own, two guys together.
So, he talks to the young woman, right? No. No, he does not. He keeps hunting, hunting, hunting for this mystery girl.
The sidewalks close to the diner were deserted. No girls hanging around. No girls watching who was going in and coming out. No girls leaning on walls.
What about the single solitary girl in the booth in the diner where you’re supposed to meet a girl?
No girls hiding in the shadows.
YES BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GIRL IN THE DINER???
So Reacher waits for like about twelve billion years without seeing a girl come in or wander past before he figures out that the girl sitting in the diner is probably the girl in the diner he wants. The scene, to be fair, serves an ostensible purpose: Reacher realizes he’s busy thinking that everyone would treat the problem of “meet a stranger in a diner” the way he would – sneakily, relentlessly – while in fact ordinary people do something a little more pragmatic, like “if I want to meet someone in a diner, I will sit at that diner and wait.” But oh my heavens, I found it difficult to swallow that he would be quite so dumb.
And much of the book goeth thusly. People are just a bit too stupid, villains a bit too central-casting, coincidences a bit too contrived, motivations a bit too forced. A couple of very minor irritants I had noticed cropping up in earlier books are also more clearly visible here: the author is kind of in love with his creation Reacher (and ya know I can’t really blame him for this, because so am I, but still . . .), and he shows a curious lapse every now and then into preachiness. Now, I don’t object to authors having political views nor to these views inflecting or even being a direct part of authors’ works. Nor do I have to agree with those views in the slightest – Mishima fan here! FURTHER YET, if I were at a dinner party with Lee Child, and he started spouting off the views he’s pushed in his books, I would say “right on, brother!” to most, although not all, of them. And yet – they just come across as grating and tacked-on, like a product placement, in a Jack Reacher novel somehow. (Has anyone else noticed that the title of the book where he was pushing PETA has the acronym BLT? Hee hee . . .)
So, ’nuff of that. I would feel guilty to the core if I didn’t talk at least a little about what makes Reacher so flipping awesome as a character. Especially after slagging him off for his loboto-moment at the diner. We do ever so much love that solitary one-man balance-restoring machine: the avenging/defending cowboy, the (reasonably) honorable ronin, “you’re a good cop but ya just don’t follow the rules,” etc. etc. As long as he’s competent…and as long as he’s In The Right.
So Army-trained sharpshooter MP turned Establishment-rejecting nomad-with-principles Reacher is solidly inside this type and this genre, which would probably be enough on its own to make him reasonably popular; but what elevates him to particular interest, in my view, is Child’s wonderful knack for detailing Reacher’s highly concrete, almost grinding thought processes. Reacher ain’t quick, but he’s solid, he’s acutely observant, he’s relentless, and he will inevitably get there. That Reacher’s perceptions are so sharp and so tangible places us in a viscerally felt physical world – yes, even in this particular book! And tagging along with Reacher’s mind as he chews his way through the evidence and what is in most novels of the series (not this particular one) a well-drawn cast of secondary and tertiary characters is both fascinating and, in its way, in part because of its thoroughness I suppose, seductive.
Well, but anyway, if you aren’t familiar with the series, this isn’t the book to start with. This is a book largely, I think, for completists. Of course, if you start off at the beginning and get hooked, you may turn into one of those. And then you’ll be in the same boat as I am: hoping, hoping, hoping that we haven’t flogged Lee Child to prostration with our merciless love and that Reacher #13 gets its oomph back!