Michael Robbins has a little fun upon the occasion of the publication of “The Sentinel, the 25th Jack Reacher blood-curdler.
You know how, when you roll into a small town for the first time, in search of a slice of pie and a decent cup of coffee, you inevitably uncover a byzantine and nefarious criminal conspiracy, perhaps concerning Russian spies and Nazis? And your sense of justice and your MMA-style fighting skills demand that you stick around long enough to expose the evildoers, protect the innocent, and kick a whole lot of ass?
OK, that probably hasn’t happened to you more than once. But it happens to Jack Reacher all the time. Lee Child’s ex-military drifter-hero is framed for murder in a small Georgia town in the first book of the best-selling series, 1997’s Killing Floor, and he goes on to find trouble with a capital T in sleepy flyover hamlets across America—“tiny polite dots” on the map, as 2019’s Blue Moon has it—in eleven of the subsequent novels, including The Sentinel(Delacorte Press, $29), the first to be cowritten with the author’s brother, Andrew Child, who will take over the series after this installment. …
No one in the history of the world has randomly stumbled onto as many kidnappings as Jack Reacher, who once again thus stumbles, wanting only a cup of coffee, at the beginning of The Sentinel. Implausible, sure. A radioactive spider’s bite bestows spider powers on a teenage boy; a woman unweaves a burial shroud every night for three years without any of her suitors getting suspicious. We tell ourselves stories in order to tune the fuck out, sometimes.
So there Reacher is, fresh in town after hitching a ride from Nashville with an insurance agent, when he sees some heavy operators trying to force an ordinary schlub into a Toyota sedan. Except he doesn’t see them. Being Reacher, he senses the plan unfolding before it happens, apparently drawing on genetic memory. He’s headed for the coffee shop as the schlub, one Rusty Rutherford, leaves it:
Reacher didn’t pay him much attention at first. He was just a guy, small and unremarkable, holding his to-go cup. . . . But a moment later Reacher’s interest ratcheted all the way up. He felt a chill at the base of his neck. A signal from some ancient warning system hardwired into the back of his brain. An instinctive recognition. Pattern and movement. Predators circling. Moving in on their prey. Two men and a woman. Spread out. Carefully positioned. Coordinated. Ready to spring their trap.
What chance do the heavy operators have against Jack Reacher’s hardwired spider-sense? No more chance than a complete sentence has against Reacher’s free indirect discourse.
And then we’re off to the races. …
It doesn’t matter that we’re not exactly dealing with John le Carré and George Smiley here. Child has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for readers who have to get up in the morning. He knows that we know that Reacher will yet again prevail against impossible odds, so it’s the details of each confrontation that matter. With what displays of brio shall our hero sally forth this time, deploying what forms of efficient brutality?
Reacher may lack the self-questioning complexity of Smiley or the queasy nuance of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, but Child makes his simplicity a virtue. Reacher is Jason Bourne without the Sophoclean psychology and heroic quest. He’s just real good at getting there first, whether “there” means anticipating an opponent’s moves or deducing the nature of a conspiracy from the scantest of clues. …