Lee Child

Jack Reacher - ex-army MP & drifter

(Jump over to read a review of The Affair)
(Jump down to read a review of Bad Luck and Trouble )
(Jump down to read a review of The Hard Way )
(Jump down to read a review of The Enemy)

"Nothing to Lose"

(reviewed by Hagen Baye JUN 4, 2008)

Since Killing Floor, the first book in 1997, Lee Child has churned out books at the rate of one per year about Jack Reacher, the extraordinary character he created.  With the publication of 2008's book, Nothing to Lose, the series’ 12th, fans of the series (as well as newcomers to it) will not be disappointed.

Jack Reacher is one of the more fascinating fictional characters.  One will find in him elements of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, Walter Mosley’s Fearless Jones and Robert Crais’s Joe Pike.  Yet, in truth, Reacher is one of a kind and there is really no one truly like him.

Reacher was a military policeman for 13 years.  At the time of Nothing to Lose, it's been 10 years since his retirement as an “MP.”  For those 10 years Reacher wondered around the US with no permanent home, no steady job.  His only possessions are “essentials,” the clothes on his back and the following items in his pockets: a foldable toothbrush, an ATM card that permits him to access his savings, and an expired passport for identification purposes.  He carries no bag and has no change of clothes.  Whenever his clothes need laundering, he simply buys new clothes and discards the old.  (He does keep his body as clean as possible.)

Physically, Reacher is a mountain of a man who stands 6'5" tall and weighs 250 pounds, and is “a spectacular mesomorph, built of nothing except large quantities of bone and sinew and muscle.”  Mentally, Reacher possesses a brilliant and shrewd mind that is methodic and meticulous in its analytical approach.  It is unclear how much of his intelligence is a result of military discipline and training and how much is innate, for he does possess an internal clock by which he keeps time (“the clock in Reacher’s head hit one in the morning”) and which even serves as an alarm clock, and he does also possess what he refers to as “mental maps” by which he charts distances and plots locations.  Whatever he does and considers, he plots out carefully in his mind.  This includes his approach to a fight, especially when facing seeming overwhelming odds—and he had little trouble handling 4-on-1 and 6-on-1 situations in Nothing to Lose.  His mind is simply computer-like that can instantaneously gauge the odds of any challenge before him, such as a combination lock controlled by a 10 digit keypad:  “One through nine, plus zero, laid out like a telephone.  A possible 3,628,800 variants.  It would take seven months to try them all.  A fast typist might do it in six.”  When faced with such odds and little time, he simply smashes the lock open.

To further understand this character Child created, one needs to know what Reacher describes as his “operating principal:” relentless forward motion--never turn back.  This includes not backing away from trouble.  Also, Reacher does not like to be told what to do and does not like to be messed with: “If people leave me alone, I leave them alone.  If they don’t, what comes at them is their problem.”  Finally, his approach to a fight is to start it off with overwhelming force, to hit early and hard, to “get your retaliation in first.” 

This is the nature of the man who in Nothing to Lose is traveling from Calais, Maine to San Diego, from the northeastern most point of the US to the southeastern most point, from one extreme (cold and damp) to the other (hot and dry).  As he does not own a car (a non-essential), he travels by bus, by thumb and by foot.  At the opening of the book, he’s in the middle of Colorado, in a town called Hope.  He learns that the next town over to the west is named Despair, and the contrast in names makes him curious enough to continue his trek through Despair.  There being no bus between the towns and his not finding anyone driving that way, he walks the some 15 miles.

His first stop in Despair is a diner, where he is inexplicably ignored, then refused service, except for a begrudged cup of coffee while being harassed by four police deputies.  He willingly “goes outside” with the four (plotting in advance how to fight them), decks one until a cop intercedes and takes Reacher into custody.  After spending the better part of the day in jail, he is brought before the town judge who rules that Reacher is a “vagrant” ("Homeless for ten years, jobless for ten years, you ride buses or beg rides or walk from place to place performing occasional casual labor, what else would you call yourself?"—Reacher responds, by the way, with “Free and lucky.”) and gives him the choice to either leave Despair voluntarily or spend the next 30 days in jail.  Reluctantly (don’t forget he does not like to move back or be told what to do), he chooses to leave town and the policeman drops him off at the line that divides Despair and Hope, where as per established practice he is met and driven back to Hope by a Hope policewoman named Vaughan, whom Reacher would eventually befriend.
In response to his questions about why he would be so unwelcome in Despair, Vaughan informs Reacher that Despair is a “company town,” controlled by a fellow named Jerry Thurman (who would later describe himself to Reacher as a “born-again-Christian American and a businessman”), who owns the metal recycling plant that employs most of the Despair townsfolk and who also owns its only bank and is the sole church’s lay minister and also appoints the town judge and police.  Vaughan explains that outsiders are viewed as unwelcome competitors for the few available jobs. 

Not having expressed any interest in working there (he told the judge his visit was on account of his being intrigued by the town’s name), Reacher figures there had to be some other reason why Despair is more anxious to expel him than punish him for assaulting one of its deputies.  Given the behavior toward him at the diner (reaffirmed by the behavior of others toward him later), he concludes that the exclusion of outsiders is a pervasive attitude.  And due to being turned back is contrary to how he operates and his not liking to be told what he can and cannot do, Reacher felt compelled to return to Despair to get to the bottom of what exactly was going on there as a matter of principal. 

Reacher’s subsequent investigation, which includes several trips to Despair, clandestine and otherwise, results in his finding that the metal recycling plant is a mammoth operation (the length of 300 football fields with junked cars piled 10-stories high) that includes a huge walled-off area separated from the rest of the plant; that numerous trucks from near and far (as far as New Jersey and even Canada) come to and from the plant, perplexing for there are plenty of recycling plants closer to the far-away trucks’ places of origin; there is an active duty military police base just outside the plant, apparently monitoring the trucks going in and out of the plant—but why?; the workers in the plant appear weak and sickly; there are flights in and out of the plant by a small plane every night following a work day; there are young men sneaking in and out of Despair, apparently unbeknownst to many there; and the one church is an “End Times” congregation which believes that the “precipitating events” alluded to in the Book of Revelations are close at hand.

Reacher sorts out all of the foregoing and arrives at the “only rational explanation” for them all.  One has to read this fascinating book to find out, but were it not for Reacher’s interfering with the diabolical plot that Thurman (that “end times nutcase with technical expertise”) was about to implement, international havoc would have resulted and peace in the Middle East rendered a long-term impossibility.  All of this is done with exceptional skill by Child that keeps the reader in suspense and anxious to learn what is really going on in Despair, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere.

Who is this character Jack Reacher really supposed to be?  Child offers some glimpses.  When Reacher complains about the terribly disorganized and filthily maintained rehab center which housed Vaughan’s husband, who suffered severe brain damage during his second tour of duty in Iraq, the person to whom Reacher complained asked: “Who are you anyway?”   The following dialogue ensued:

“I’m a concerned citizen,” Reacher said.  “With a number of options.  I could embarrass your corporate parent, I could call the newspapers or the TV, I could come in here with a hidden camera, I could get you fired.  But I don’t do stuff like that.  I offer personal choices instead, face-to-face.  You want to know what your choice is?”
“Do what I tell you, with a cheery smile.”
“Or become patient number eighteen.”
The guy went pale.
Reacher said, “Stand up.”
“On your feet.  Now.”
Reacher said, “Stand up, now, or I’ll make it so you never stand up again.”…
Reacher said, “Your patients are not just whatever they send you.  Your patients are people.  They served their country with honor and distinction.  They deserve your utmost care and respect.”
The guy said nothing.
Reacher said, “This place is a disgrace.  It’s filthy and chaotic.  So listen up.  You’re going to get off your skinny ass and you’re going to organize your people and you’re going to get it cleaned up.  Starting right now.  I’m going to come back, maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, maybe next month, and if I can’t see my face in the floor I’m going to turn you upside down and use you like a mop.  Then I’m going to kick your ass so hard your colon is going to get tangled up in your teeth.  Are we clear?”
The guy paused and shuffled and blinked.  Then he said, “OK.”

Another time, Vaughan asked him: “You see something you don't like, you feel you have to tear it down?"  Reacher replied: "Damn right I do….”

Reacher may have retired from the military police, but he never stopped acting like one.  While he used to take his commands from the military, he is guided now by his own sense of righteousness and justice, literally without baggage and without the issues that often impede doing what is right.  Witness this statement Reacher makes to Vaughan, about the deal he says exists between the government (“they”) and those called to serve in combat (“us”):

“…[D]uty is a transaction…. It’s a two-way street.  We owe them, they owe us.  And what they owe us is a solemn promise to risk our lives and limbs if and only if there’s a damn good reason.  Most of the time they’re wrong anyway, but we like to feel some kind of good faith somewhere.  At least a little bit.  And that’s all gone now.  Now it’s all about political vanity and electioneering.  That’s all.  And guys know that.  You can try, but you can’t bullshit a soldier.  They blew it, not us.  They pulled out the big card at the bottom of the house and the whole thing fell down.  And guys … are over there watching their friends getting killed and maimed and they’re thinking, Why?  Why should we do this shit?

Some may say that Child is merely using Reacher to serve as his mouthpiece to sprout Child’s opinion about the present war in Iraq.  While that may be accurate, one may better conclude that Reacher is Child’s model of the authentic American hero, that Child suggests that the true American hero would not “love it or leave it,” but would question and oppose government policy when wrong and guided by such factors as “political vanity and electioneering”--or by unsubstantiated claims of weapons of mass destruction.  Child does have Reacher say right after the passage quoted above:  “I think the answer is for civilians to get off their fat asses and vote the bums out.  They should exercise control.  That’s their duty.”

Regardless of one’s politics, Nothing to Lose is an amazing book that should not be missed.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 654 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Nothing to Lose at Lee Child's website

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"Bad Luck and Trouble"

(reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JUN 4, 2006)

“The unit had organized itself like a small-market baseball team enjoying an unlikely pennant run:  talented journeymen working together, no stars, no egos, mutually supportive, and above all ruthlessly and relentlessly effective.”

There are many reasons to admire Jack Reacher, the taciturn hero of Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble.  He is a low-maintenance individual who travels with just his passport, ATM card, and a toothbrush. Reacher, who is incredibly strong and an expert in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat, will go out of his way to protect the few people he likes and respects.  He is also intelligent, intuitive, and creative; by thinking out of the box, he usually finds the answers to whatever questions are puzzling him.

In Bad Luck and Trouble, Reacher has a reunion of sorts with three of his buddies from the army:  Frances Neagley, Karla Dixon, and David O’Donnell.  They reunite because of a tragic event:  Calvin Franz, who worked with them years ago in the military police, was thrown out of a helicopter in the California desert after suffering unspeakable torture.  The victim left behind a wife and little boy.  Three other MPs from the same special investigations unit, Jorge Sanchez, Tony Swan, and Manuel Orozco, have disappeared, as well.  Reacher and his remaining ex-colleagues band together to find out what happened to these men and why.  He is also plotting revenge:  “There are dead men walking, as of right now.  You don’t throw my friends out of helicopters and live to tell the tale.”  The slogan that Reacher and the others live by is: You do not mess with the special investigators.”

Lee Child’s Reacher is a modern day cowboy, who generally travels alone from town to town, minding his own business.  Yet, somehow, “bad luck and trouble” always manage to find him.  This time, in a refreshing variation on Child’s usual formula, Reacher takes his place as the commanding officer of a tightly knit and focused team, each member making his or her own invaluable contribution to the investigation.  Neagley is smart and tough, and she has plenty of money to bankroll their operation.  Dixon is a forensic accountant with a sharp mathematical mind, equal to Reacher’s.  O’Donnell is fast, powerful, and fearless.  This formidable foursome is pitted against a group of ruthless adversaries who always seem to be one step ahead of them.

Lee Child has created a cadre of well-drawn heroes, and the fast-paced action never flags.  The terse, often dryly humorous dialogue is enormously entertaining.  In addition, some nifty mental puzzles are thrown in to challenge the investigators’ powers of deduction; brawn without brains just doesn’t cut it in today’s world.  On the downside, the villains are one-dimensional and the finale is a bit too pat to be believed, even in a fantasy such as this.  Still, Bad Luck and Trouble is great escapist fun, and it will undoubtedly appeal to a wide and enthusiastic audience.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 482 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Bad Luck and Trouble at Lee Child's website

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"The Hard Way"

(reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky JUN 4, 2006)

“He was calm.  Just another night of business as usual in his long and spectacularly violent life.  He was used to it, literally.  And the remorse gene was missing from his DNA.  Entirely.  It just wasn’t there.  Where some men might have retrospectively agonized over justification, he spent his energy figuring out where best to hide the bodies.”

At the beginning of Lee Child’s The Hard Way, Jack Reacher is sitting in a New York café sipping a double espresso and minding his own business.  However, as always, trouble finds Reacher.  Soon, Jack is deeply involved in the hunt for whoever kidnapped a beautiful woman named Kate Lane and her eight-year-old daughter, Jade.  Kate’s husband, Edward Lane, assisted by his cadre of loyal ex-military employees, is desperate to find whoever took Lane’s wife and stepdaughter and he is willing to pay Reacher a hefty sum for his services.

Using his considerable savvy as a former army investigator, Reacher begins to look into the case, but he soon gets the feeling that there are key facts that he is missing.  Helping him to uncover the truth are Patti Joseph, the sister of Edward Lane’s first wife, Anne (who was also kidnapped), and Lauren Pauling, a retired FBI special agent turned private investigator.  As time passes, Reacher begins to realize that he has become involved in a complex and ugly situation made much worse by secrets, lies, and a nasty cover-up.

Reacher must make full use of his sharp powers of observation and analysis to pick up subtle clues that others miss.  His brain proves to be a more potent weapon than his considerable brawn, and most readers will root for this strong man who resorts to violence only as a last resort. Adding to the book’s power is a riveting scene in which Reacher interviews a crippled man who survived unspeakable torture and was left severely maimed.  Even an individual as hardened as Reacher cannot help but feel compassion for someone who is in so much pain.

The book’s one-dimensional villain is a stereotypical psychopath, which makes him an uninteresting, albeit formidable foe.  In addition, although I have been a big fan of Reacher for years, Child doesn’t humanize him here as much as he has in the past, and more than once, our hero comes across as a bit too terse and robotic.  The bloody ending has Child casting Reacher in the familiar role of the lonely cowboy pitted against a band of evil desperadoes.  The Hard Way offers escapist entertainment, a few surprising twists, and a dollop of romance, but it lacks the freshness and excitement of Child’s best work.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 476 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Hard Way at Lee Child's official website

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"The Enemy"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 01, 2004)

"This case was like a wave on the beach…like a big old roller that washes in and races up the sand, and pauses, and then washes back out and recedes, leaving nothing behind….Except it did leave something behind…It left a big ugly piece of flotsam stuck right there on the waterline, and [someone had] to address it."

With a taut, staccato style sometimes reminiscent of Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald, Lee Child gives us his eighth Jack Reacher novel, a police procedural with a difference: Reacher is an MP, an army Major at Fort Bird, obedient to a different set of rules and objectives from what one finds in the typical police investigation. Instead of having interdepartmental rivalries and arguments about "turf" and jurisdiction to complicate the solution of crimes, Reacher must deal with larger issues of army chains of command, rivalries between divisions, ambitious generals, and issues of national policy and national security in his investigations.

It is early in the new year of 1990, as this prequel to the series opens, and Reacher has been suddenly transferred to Fort Bird, North Carolina, from his duties in Panama. Instead of keeping an eye on the legal aspects of the search and apprehension of Manuel Noriega, he is now "MP XO," the Executive Officer of the Military Police, dealing with the day-to-day problems of a mid-sized army post. He does not think he has done anything wrong and does not think he has been demoted, but he is concerned because his responsibilities have been drastically cut back and he does not have much to do. Until, that is, a two-star general, newly arrived from Germany, dies of a heart attack in a seedy, nearby motel, presumably with a prostitute. His briefcase, containing the agenda for a top-secret conference in California, has disappeared, and when Reacher and his aide, Lt. Summer, drive to Virginia to break the news to the general's wife, they find her dead, too, bludgeoned to death with a crowbar within hours of the general's death from "natural causes."

With almost military precision, dramatic complications begin to unfold, and Reacher soon finds himself dealing with a brand new commanding officer, to whom he takes an instant dislike, and two more deaths, one of which is a gruesome butchering which takes place on the base, and the other of which involves the highly regarded commanding officer of Special Forces for Fort Bird, found dead in a drug-ridden alleyway in Columbia, South Carolina. Ordered by superiors to cover up murder by calling it a "training accident," Reacher and Summer investigate surreptitiously, wondering how and why the dead general and his two aides, a one-star general and a colonel, all from an Armored division in Germany, have come to Fort Bird at all, when they had only a short layover in Washington, D.C., before flying to California for the mysterious conference. Further intrigue develops when Reacher also discovers that his MP XO counterparts at twenty more bases throughout the world have also been newly appointed to their positions, all of them on or around December 29. Obvious questions arise about who is pulling the strings, who has the power to transfer so many MPs to new posts, and why someone would want to do so.

Child is a meticulous writer who pays great attention to details and to the unfolding of events in strict chronological order. No reader will become confused by flashbacks as the background and details are filled in, and the plot moves at a breath-taking pace, with one dramatic scene following hard on the heels of another. Reacher and Summer are not fully developed characters, but they do not need to be in order to keep the reader's attention as they investigate the complex interactions and relationships which keep the story moving on several levels simultaneously. As Reacher moves from Fort Bird to Paris, where his mother is dying, and on to Germany, the scope of the investigation widens, eventually involving the highest levels of the army and providing glimpses of how influential individuals can use the system for their own advancement.

As specific individuals come under suspicion, Reacher is determined to learn who is controlling the grisly chess game which has resulted in four gruesome deaths, why murder is the only option, and how the murder victims fit into the big picture. All these questions are answered in a grand finale of the most extravagant sort, with twists and turns galore and many surprises. But though the ending successfully brings together all the disparate threads in a most spectacular way, which would be a blockbuster ending to a film, it may also be a disappointment to some readers. The premise behind the plot and the motivation which led to the murders, when finally revealed, seemed unrealistic to me, too cynical to justify the manipulation which underlies the entire novel and the murderous extremes to which "the enemy" goes. Though Child is brilliant in creating an impulsive but likeable main character, an exciting story packed with action, and an up-close and personal view of the army and its generals, the ending left me cold, feeling a bit betrayed by the grim view of humanity depicted in the final pages.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 508 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Enemy at Lee Child's website

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Jack Reacher series:



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About the Author:

Lee ChildLee Child is a native of England and former television writer. His debut, Killing Floor, won both the Anthony and the Barry Awards for Best First Mystery. Foreign rights in the Jack Reacher series have sold in thirty-nine territories.

He lives outside New York City, where, lucky for us, he is at work on his next Jack Reacher thriller.

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