Here's a gentler Jack

Here's a gentler Jack

Here's a gentler Jack

Lee Child gives his books such nondescript titles that you often need a mnemonic to remember what they're about. "The Midnight Line" is another forgettable name, so what should we call it? I started out thinking of it as "the one with the West Point ring": That's a plot point unlike anything in Child's previous best-selling Jack Reacher books, and it turns up in Chapter 1, so it's no spoiler. But by the time I closed the new novel, it was "the one that breaks your heart."

There's an unexpected Jack Reacher on display here. It turns out he can actually be a compassionate person (much more so than in "Personal," the oddly impersonal 2014 novel in which he works with a team to stop an assassin). But Child knows better than to start "The Midnight Line" with Mr. Nice Guy. Reacher has a reputation to live up to, after all: drifter, loner, knuckles the size of walnuts, etc.

When "The Midnight Line" begins, Reacher is in a spiritual nowhere, after having managed to spend three whole days with Michelle Chang, his simpatico partner from "Make Me." (That's the one about the mysterious Midwestern small town called Mother's Rest, which Reacher decided might be hinky just on the basis of its name. Good call.) Michelle has left a note comparing Reacher to New York City ("I love to visit, but I could never live there"), so he's on his own again. And it's off to the bus station - where else? - and another destination unknown.

At a rest stop, he sees that West Point class ring in a pawnshop. As a West Point man, Reacher knows how hard-won these rings are, and how much distress it must have taken to make a graduate pawn one. So he's interested. And it's a daintily-sized woman's ring. More interested. He cuts his trip short and decides to find out how the ring got in the window.

Child excels at taking a seemingly small matter like this and going from zero to 60 with it. But this time the acceleration happens credibly, and doesn't head toward an impossibly outsize denouement, which has happened in too many Reacher books to mention; going from tiny ring to missile silo is not outside the realm of Child's imagination. The hunt takes Reacher first to a Rapid City, S.D., laundromat, whose owner, Arthur Scorpio, seems to be running some kind of illegal business. Naturally, Reacher threatens to toss Scorpio in a tumble dryer on high heat if he won't provide details.

Then Reacher meets a private detective who is trying to find the very same small-fingered woman. And they both wind up in a remote corner of Wyoming that Child summons especially well. Not all of his books are as powerfully visual as this one. They often feature long straight roads and empty landscapes. "The Midnight Line" describes old railroad land that's sparsely populated, etched with unmarked trails and long, rocky driveways; neighbourly if your idea of a neighbour is a stranger 20 miles away, and understandable to Reacher only because the Army taught him how to read topographical maps. It's a great place to hide. And an easy place in which to become addicted to opioids.

The pieces of the plot come together as Reacher's military pride and the community's illicit opioid use intersect. The bad actors are nominally the dealers, but "The Midnight Line" doesn't demonize its villains the way Child's books usually do. And the addicts aren't dismissed or treated as stereotypes. The book voices strong convictions about the issues that are raised here, and it's no stretch given Reacher's principled military background. The last chapters have more emotional heft than anything Child has written before.

Each Reacher book has to include certain basics to keep his fans happy. There has to be fighting, so Child choreographs a ridiculous biker bashing very early. (Name of the bikers' leader: Jimmy Rat.) Child can write these scenes on autopilot by now, because there are only so many ways Reacher can strategize, maneuver and clobber. The series' humor and insult quotas are nicely filled. So is its educational one, as Child explains the history of heroin as an American product, and outlines another drug-related type of American tragedy that would be a spoiler here.

This book adds its share of classic moments to the Reacher canon. There's a wonderful scene in which the big guy is staked out by some cowboys. True, he completely misunderstands what they want from him. But he still dials his classic move up to 11:

"He stood chin up, his full height, shoulders back, hands loose, not a circus freak, but a little bigger all around than a normal big guy, enough so they noticed. Plus the eyes, which he found most people liked, except he could blink and come back different, like changing the channel, from a happy show to some bleak documentary about prehistoric survival a million years ago."

That's the kind of swagger that has kept this franchise so satisfying. But "The Midnight Line" is the rare book in which Reacher mostly doesn't have to act that way. And shouldn't. And becomes too moved even to try.

The New York Times

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