March 27, 2010

61 Hours

by Lee Child
400 pages, Delacorte Press

Review by SF Winser

So. Jack Reacher is cool. He is impossibly smart. Impossibly strong. Impossibly tough. He is a superhero, quite frankly. A wandering vigilante who rights wrongs, even if he doesn't always intend to. He's an ace detective, a master at weapons and rated 'beyond outstanding' in hand-to-hand combat. He has a drive to not so much do good as to destroy bad.

He's Batman without the gadgets or butler.

Lee Child writes Jack Reacher novels with a deliberately deliberate style. Conversations happen in statements. Description happens in statements. Action happens in statements. This is how it is. This is what is going on. You will deal with it. Child is particularly clever in '61 Hours' when he adds a matter of fact countdown statement to the end of certain sections. We are always aware that something big will happen in 61 hours. 56 hours... 12 hours....

Deal with it.

It is, in part, why Jack Reacher novels work so well. A mix of fantasy and reality delivered in a no-nonsense, punchy style.

Jack Reacher is an ex-MP with no respect for the lives or limbs of bad-guys. He will break or take either, whichever seems most prudent. But he's also very smart, with a suspicious mind. He always knows when it IS prudent, and why. In fact, Reacher is almost like a bully-boy Sherlock Holmes. In 61 hours, despite having his own little thriller-plot to deal with, he also helps solve a murder investigation that some of his successor Military Police are having trouble with... over the phone.

And this is why we read a Reacher novel. To see this impossible superman solve puzzles and bust heads. Sometimes to see him bed a girl and save a little old lady. The typical plot of a Reacher novel has him blunder into a problem... three quarters of a novel setting up the thriller plot... and the a wonderful climax of Reacher simultaneously working out the solution to the mysterious circumstance and breaking many a skull, shooting baddies with various guns and – usually – saving the day. Reacher has been known, however, to lose a civilian or two to the machinations of an enemy.

The best of the Reacher novels emphasise the action-man skills and super-sharp brain of the avenging wanderer. The worst tend to spend too much on the plot - too much time in trying to make it seem possible that this superhuman crime-fighting, thug-biting, wrong-righting colossus of a man doesn't solve the mystery and save the day in the first three chapters. See Kate Kasserman's review of Reacher #12 for an example of Lee Child desperately trying to hold back the tornado that is Jack Reacher and failing to do so convincingly. '61 Hours' has some issues in that regard, too. Not so much with the plot itself, which is kinda clever, but mainly because it shows with that over-the-phone brilliance exactly how sharp Reacher is and the reader is therefore left wondering why the hell it takes him so long to recognise that 'one girl'... Or figure out the identity of the bent cop. (Hell, I didn't recognise the girl but I DID manage to make the bent cop, even without that vital clue. Why the hell didn't Reacher?)

Really, it's the only way to rate a Jack Reacher novel. How cool are the fights? How good is the thriller-plot/solving of said thriller-plot? How bored do we get waiting for the resolution? The best ones (and many of the Jack Reacher novels are absolutely brilliant reads) keep the pace going, the action non-stop and the thrills believable. Maybe with some romance thrown in. The worst plod for many a chapter and then explode limply at the end.

Sometimes we even learn a little about who Reacher actually is as a person through the novel. This is sometimes the key to the best Reacher novels, and sometimes its death-knell. In '61 hours', it's a bit of both. The background we get on Reacher is a mixed bag of almost laughable, suspension of disbelief killing, childhood toughness and kinda cool army-stories. The main thrill ride is more complex and the resolution more interesting than Reacher (or the reader) realise, but for the first part of the book, not a lot happens with Reacher. Even so, what does happen is reasonably tense (especially with that only-sometimes-over-used ticking-clock story device). But because of deliberate a veneer of low complexity, the first half actually feels less complex and interesting.

It's also a very action-light Reacher novel. The plot happens in a town covered in deep snow so Reacher can't be as out-and-about as he usually is. There's very little walking the street, planning tactical assaults here. And the resolution... I will only say this about the resolution: It is simultaneously underwhelming and annoying and excellent and kinda clever. And also: DAMN YOU, LEE CHILD!

I don't think I'm talking to new Reacher readers with this review. If you are new, lucky you, you have some fun reading ahead... But start with one of the earlier novels. This is not for you – yet. To fellow Reacher fans the best review summation I can give is: it's not the best but it's actually okay. It's not 'The Enemy' or 'Die Trying' excellent. There's some action, but not a lot. The plot is clever, but Reacher himself only shows flashes of intelligence. There's a touch of romance, but not much. Those are pretty much the only scales of measurement.

But it's still a Reacher novel, and it doesn't totally suck. Plus, we get another Reacher novel, later in the year. And I'm already looking forward to it.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree with all this. I haven't yet read this one but the Reacher colossus is firmly fixed in my gallery of people I secretly think I am or will be when I get time. The books are part of my comfort-reading schedule and I've never felt any time reading them was wasted. And the bugger's English and yet writes like a yank. As you say, Damn you, Lee Child.