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A detail from the cover of The Affair by Lee Child. (Delacorte Press)

Lee Child's 'The Affair': Sixteen Books In, Has Jack Reacher Still Got It?

Oct 20, 2011

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Jack Reacher has a lot of fans at NPR. Daniel Zwerdling reads him. So do Noah Adams and Linda Wertheimer and Wade Goodwyn. Whenever there's another of Lee Child's thrillers coming out, we're all scrambling to get an advance copy. I sift through the piles of books that come in to NPR and pester Lynn Neary, who covers the publishing beat, to see if she's got one yet. I can't wait to get on the Metro home to find out what small-town bus depot Reacher has washed up in this time.

For pure fun, the Reacher novels are easily the best thriller series going, and Lee Child has created a formula and a style that, over 16 books, has made him one of the most popular authors in America.

I hit the jackpot last year when I got stuck in London for a few days thanks to the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull. The latest in the Reacher series, 61 Hours, was weeks away from publication in the U.S., but was already was out in hardcover in the UK. So I got an early jump and some down time to read it.

And it worried me a little. Reacher has now been bumming around small town America for more than a decade. Eating at Denny's ... riding the bus ... beating up rednecks, buying new clothes and throwing away the ones he's wearing. The plots, never strong on plausibility in the first place, started to feel disappointingly familiar.

So some of us began to question whether the series was getting tired. Linda Wertheimer put it into words one day in the hallway as we waited for an elevator. "I think," she said, "Reacher may have jumped the shark."

And that, essentially, is the question looming over Child's latest effort, The Affair.

For those who haven't picked up one of these books yet, Jack Reacher is a hulking ex-Army MP. He's a crack shot, a skilled street fighter, and a West Point graduate with an almost autistic and often hilarious obsession with the tiniest details of life. Think Rain Man with huge biceps and a Glock.

The funnest part about Reacher is that he is completely, religiously, unrealistically off the grid: no car, no home, no Visa card. Not even a suitcase. He wanders around the country with only some loose cash in his pockets — and a toothbrush. (Like everyone else, Reacher's life changed after 9/11, and he now carries his passport, too). Laundry? No way.

He doesn't own a car or a smart phone, doesn't need one. He travels anywhere he wants to go, hitchhiking or riding the bus. And, of course, the fun begins when someone tries to tell him what to do or where he can or can't go.

The formula is simple and delightful: Child drops Reacher into a small town, where he stumbles on some bad guys, and there's maybe a really beautiful sheriff or lawyer former military officer around for some romance, and pretty soon Reacher's racking up the body count.

My friend Charlie Gofen and I spend way too much time writing little Reacher parodies and spoofs. One of us writes an opening line. Typically a simple sentence that inserts Reacher into some news story or current trend:

A young female officer had surprised Reacher with the present. "It's a Kindle," she said. "So you won't have to lug around those heavy books." Reacher had mumbled a polite thank you and then escaped as quickly as he could. Now back at the range, he set up behind the tripod mount, located the Kindle in his sights, and made final adjustments for an 8 mph left-to-right breeze.

Then we keep it going:

Reacher took in a deep breath, let half of it out, and squeezed. He'd left the Kindle turned on, to page 47 of Danielle Steele's "Southern Lights." The 142-grain, full jacketed bullet pierced the device's plastic screen exactly where he'd intended: Paragraph four, line five, in the second "o" in the word "bosom.

Parody aside, the danger is that the qualities that make Reacher so appealing also threaten to make him irrelevant. In an era of international crime rings and global terrorists armed with sophisticated computer technology, not to mention the everyday ubiquity of cell phones and apps and and iPads, its kind of hard for a character who rejects all of these things to bring down major bad guys. Or even do a Google search. There are only so many times he can call an old Army buddy to look up some information for him, especially now that he's been out of the service for 14 years.

And so Reacher, for the most part, ends up breaking the bones of, and emptying his 9mm into, small-scale, backwater criminals. Last time out it was a twisted family of child murderers, in kind of a Deliverance motif.

Which brings us back to Linda's question as to whether Reacher has jumped the shark. I'm happy to say that, at least in the latest book, the answer is no.

The Affair is a return to form and, simply, a lot of fun. One reason? The writing is really good. The books have always been hugely entertaining, but in the early novels, Child sometimes tended to overwrite. As my colleague Danny Zwerdling says, he has tightened it up. Child has a great ear for dialogue, without pushing hipster slang too far. And he can paint a lovely scene in a few crisp brush strokes. Here's one from The Affair, where Reacher is having dinner in a small-town diner:

I ate slowly and enjoyed every bit. The old couple sat still and read. The woman turned a page every couple of minutes. Much less often the guy made a big loud production out of snapping the spine of his paper and refolding it ready for the next section. He was studying it intently. He was practically reading the print off it.

I felt like I could see that couple. But Child isn't going all William Faulkner here. A few pages later, Reacher is in full, over-the-top form, facing down two rural tough guys in a pickup truck while tossing in some fun anatomy facts at the same time:

He said, "Is there a reason I don't get out of this truck and kick your butt?"

I said, "Two hundred and six reasons."

He said, "What?"

"That's how many bones you got in your body. I could break them all before you put a glove on me."

As for timeliness, Child dodges the question of Reacher's role in the modern world by going back to a "simpler time": 1997. 9/11 is still four years off (as Reacher reminds us every few pages). He's still in the Army, and we get to learn at last why it was that his service career ended. Along the way, Child fills in much of the back story about the signature features of Reacher's lifestyle: the toothbrush, laundry avoidance, Greyhound buses and hitchhiking.

That can be dangerous. I read once where John D. MacDonald said he intentionally obscured the early life of his famous hero, Travis McGee (a Reacher archetype). It added to the mystique, he said. I remember as a kid poring over the little hints that MacDonald would toss in here and there, like an archaeologist with a bone fragment. Done badly, explaining too much just deflates the character. (Think Steven Spielberg and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)

Child treads this ground carefully and keeps the story moving. I laughed out loud a few times at the funny parts and there is plenty of Reacher's obsession for quirky detail: one sex scene has so many timechecks it's like watching a football game with the play clock ticking in the corner of the screen: "She smiled. So did I. Ten amazing minutes later we changed places." And, for the first time in quite a while, I didn't figure out the ending.

So Reacher, for now at least, has veered around the shark tank. When last we left him in the present day, he was making his way to Washington, DC, to meet up with an Army officer, a woman who'd helped him out over the phone and has soulmate potential. I'm waiting to see how that goes for him and wondering whether, at 51, it's time for Reacher to settle down. Do some laundry, get a phone, open up a bank account.

Don't count on it.

Steve Drummond is the Senior National Editor for NPR News.

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