By Lee Child
Delacorte Press, $27
Some years back, I worked with one of Hollywood’s Better Known Screenwriters developing an idea about urban street cops that we hoped would become a concept that we could turn into an outline that might evolve into a proposal that we could then pitch to a studio so we could get front money for a script. One day, as we toiled in the BKS’s Malibu Colony home office, he looked up from his typewriter - yeah, it was that long ago - and said, “Y’know what my dream is?”
“What?” I asked.
“Someday, I want to get paid a lot of money to write a script that begins ‘So, our hero rides into a strange town … .”
With “61 Hours,” Lee Child has achieved the BKS’s dream. Like Clint Eastwood’s Preacher character in “Pale Rider,” Mr. Child’s anti-hero Jack Reacher appears by happenstance in a strange town (in this case, the city of Bolton, S.D., pop. 12,261, in the middle of an apocalyptic-level blizzard), at precisely the moment Bolton needs someone exactly like Jack Reacher.
“61 Hours” is Mr. Child’s 14th Jack Reacher novel, and I am happy to report that he has not phoned it in, but instead honed a taut, evocative tick-tock of a book that includes single-, double- and triple-crosses, multiple murders, well-wrought action scenes and a modicum of wry, ironic humor. The 61 hours of the title are a deadline that is not fully explained until time actually runs out. Until then, neither Mr. Reacher nor we understand its significance.
Mr. Child crafts his book nicely. His characters are either pleasantly understated or deliciously off-center. Andrew Peterson is the understated deputy chief of the Bolton Police Department. He’s the archetypal good cop: competent and passionate about what he does. Peterson’s boss, Chief Tom Holland, is off-center: a tall, lean plainsman going a little stooped and soft with age. “He looked tired and preoccupied, like a guy more content with the past than the present.”
Mr. Child’s villain is a diminutive Latin American who calls himself by the single moniker Plato. Plato lives in a 100-acre-plus walled compound 100 miles from Mexico City, and his illicit businesses include, according to a federal database accessed by Peterson, “pawn shops in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Des Moines, and Indianapolis, suspected dope in the same five cities, suspected prostitution in the same five cities. … They figure he must have killed hundreds of people. … He’s not an amateur.”
Plato is also vertically challenged. “Peterson clicked and scrolled. ‘He’s really very small,’ he said. ‘Four-feet-eleven-inches.’ “
Peterson: “What are you?”
“You’ve got eighteen inches on him. That’s a foot-and-a-half.”
“Reacher said, ‘He’s practically a dwarf.’ “
“Peterson said, ‘Someone else once called him a dwarf, and wound up in the hospital with his legs cut off.’ “
One of the people on Plato’s target list is Janet Salter, a matronly, schoolmarm librarian who is the sole witness to a drug deal. She could be a stock figure. In Mr. Child’s hands, she is not. “I was,” she tells Reacher, “professor of Library Science at Oxford, and then I helped run the Bodleian Library there, and then I came back to the United States to run the Library at Yale, and then I retired and came home to Bolton.” The Bod, friends, opened in 1602 and currently contains about 9 million items. The Bod, friends, is to libraries what the House that Ruth Built is to baseball.
Mr. Child is also parsimonious (if he were a Scotsman, not a Limey, he’d be frugal) about the way he doles out his facts. A deliciously researched page 108 nugget about Fliegerschokolade (which is the methamphetamine-laced chocolate candy used by German pilots during World War II) pans out only 200 pages later, causing the reader to have one of those light-bulb epiphanies that make reading authors like Mr. Child so much fun.
Mr. Child also allows us to see how his protagonist thinks - not just in crisis situations, but during life’s more mundane moments. “The bed was warm, but the room was cold. Reacher guessed that the iron stove had been banked overnight, its embers hoarded, its air supply cut off. He wondered for a moment about the correct protocol for a houseguest under such circumstances. Should he get up and open the dampers and add some wood? Would that be helpful? Or would it be presumptuous? Would it upset a delicate and long-established combustion schedule and condemn his hosts to an inconvenient midnight visit to the woodpile two weeks down the road?
“In the end, Reacher did nothing. Just kept the covers pulled up to his chin and closed his eyes again.” Nicely done.
Mr. Child also writes some of the best phone-sex scenes I’ve come across in a long time. The conversations, between Reacher and an Army major named Susan Turner who, just a couple of weeks before the action of the book, has become the commanding officer of Reacher’s old Army unit, the 110th Military Police, headquartered in Rock Creek, Va., aren’t about sex of course. They are conversations critical to Reacher’s survival. But Turner’s voice, “warm, slightly husky, a little breathy, a little intimate,” makes for wonderfully evocative, thoroughly stimulating dialogue. Their phone interplay is evocative of the old “Richard Diamond, Private Detective” TV series, in which Sam the gorgeous answering-service lady (she was played by Mary Tyler Moore) purrs at David Janssen.
And perhaps most engagingly, Mr. Child doesn’t give his protagonist cosmic goals. Unlike the comic book heroes of all too many thrillers, Jack Reacher isn’t out to save the world. “I don’t want to put the world to rights,” Reacher tells Turner. “Maybe I should, but I don’t.
“She said nothing.
“He said, ‘I just don’t like people who put the world to wrongs.’ “
He is not, thank the Lord, an over-Reacher, but the sort of flesh-and-blood hero whose adventures we are happy to follow again and again and again.
John Weisman’s latest CIA short fiction can be read in “Agents of Treachery” (Vintage). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.