Thursday, April 8, 2010

Lee Child

I reviewed the latest Lee Child in Saturday's Melbourne Age thus:

61 Hours
Like an un-killable creature in a Stephen King novel, Lee Child cannot now be stopped save by inordinate supernatural methods. Over the last decade he has joined Dan Brown and James Patterson in that pantheon of modern novelists who write critic-proof, guaranteed best sellers. If his publishers are to be believed a Lee Child book is sold somewhere in the world every second; this is no small achievement in what are bleak times for publishing houses seeking to lure young males from video games, television and surfing the internet, for, ehm, entertainment.
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Child excites envy and a grudging admiration among his peers. In their recent novel The Max Ken Bruen and Jason Starr described a sleazy and hilarious Lee Child clone called Sebastian nefariously patrolling the Greek Islands. Far from being offended at this portrayal of himself as an aging Lothario, Child read out portions of The Max at his launch party in New York. The fact that he can laugh at himself is not surprising for although his books are dark and violent, there’s a vein of ironic humour running through them too.
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Each new Lee Child novel is a continuation of the adventures of ex US military policeman Jack Reacher as he wanders the Earth like a latter day Kane from Kung Fu, never actually seeking trouble but somehow always finding it. 61 Hours takes place, obviously, over sixty one hours in the fictional town of Bolton, South Dakota during a blizzard. Jack Reacher has hitch-hiked a lift on a tourist bus full of pensioners which skids and breaks down on a lonely highway. He and the tourists must hunker down in Bolton while the snowstorm passes.
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Meanwhile the overstretched Bolton Police Department is on high alert because they have received a tip that a witness in a drugs deal is about to meet a sticky end via an out of state assassin. Throw in a lawless gang of bikers, a secret cold war base, a prison escape drama and a Mexican drug kingpin and you have all elements for a terrific thriller. The great location, the weather and the time compression make this one of the best books I have read in the Reacher series. There’s a little of Fargo and Ice Station Zebra in 61 Hours but that is no bad thing and although it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen from about a third of the way in, you keep reading because you know that when all hell breaks loose it is going to be spectacular.
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Like a building on the frozen tundra Child’s prose is utilitarian and without unnecessary ornament. His sentences are terse and effective. Wit however permeates the book, from sly observations of prison etiquette to a funny riff on the names of Brazilian soccer players. I also like Reacher’s quintessentially American self confidence and natural authority. He is a modern form of that iconic male fantasy figure, the laconic cowboy who rides into town, sets the world to rights, breaks a few heads and hearts, rides out of town. Reacher is a true nomad with no family ties and who, eccentrically, doesn’t even like to stop moving to do his laundry. He is cast in the same mould as Shane or Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. This can have its drawbacks too: despite falling frequently in jeopardy you’re never really worried for Reacher because you know that he’s faster, smarter and more competent than everyone else in the book and that whatever happens he will live to see Jack Reacher #15, which should be along this time next year.
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But this is probably why Lee Child is so popular. Men need an escape from their desperate suburban world of school runs, windowless offices and Saturday morning trips to Ikea. Tough guy Jack Reacher doesn’t go to Ikea, when Jack Reacher needs a chair he takes his Bowie knife, walks into the forest and whittles one. Reacher’s fans should be pleased by 61 Hours. Child shows no sign of embracing the defensive (and usually disastrous) career arc that sees some popular writers trying their hand at more serious novels or non fiction investigations, of, say Jack the Ripper. With Reacher #14 Child sticks to his guns (and fists). Still, I can’t help but feel that Child has the intelligence and skill to stretch himself more than he allows. I wouldn’t mind seeing Reacher in the throws of loneliness or despair or the odd existential panic, you know, like the rest of us. And with large portions of the world’s forests apparently getting pulped to be turned into Jack Reacher novels it would be nice if they occasionally focused on complicated adult problems that can’t always be solved by a well aimed kick to the solar plexus.