Lee Child: Definitely a Guilty Pleasure

With Never Go Back, Lee Child has officially become a guilty pleasure. This most recent Jack Reacher adventure is more wildly improbable than ever, and that’s saying something. Reacher plots have never been realistic; but they are (somehow) plausible, at least in the moment, and his ¬†paragraph by paragraph descriptions of everyday life are so realistic that he can sell us on almost everything.

Never Go Back shows Reacher going into the lion’s den. He has gone back to Arlington to military headquarters, to meet Susan Turner, who helped him in 61 Hours. It took him longer than he planned to make it from the Dakotas to Arlington, and when he gets here, the person he meets isn’t Turner, isn’t female and isn’t friendly. Reacher soon finds himself in legal trouble, and then discovers that Turner (who the readers last saw being sent to Afghanistan, like, overnight… or at least that’s what we thought happened,) is, in fact, in military jail on a charge of accepting a bribe.

In short order Reacher has managed the impossible, again, and he and Turner are on the run. They must untangle the frame against Turner, debunk the fake assault charges against Reacher and discover whether, as the military says, Reacher does in fact have a fourteen year old daughter he never knew about. As Turner and Reacher navigate one crisis after the other, two
invisible figures, who speak only by phone, try to stymie them at every turn.

The whole thing is completely unlikely from start to finish, but it’s still a big old treat of stunts and chase scenes, interleaved with dialogue that is snappy, and sometimes heart-tugging, studded with juicy weird facts about numbers, about American history, about words. While I didn’t believe a word of it, I loved Turner and Reacher on the run through the Virginias in a stolen red Corvette (the perfect getaway car, right?)

Even I had to consciously suspend disbelief on the plane ride to LA, though. This was an overreach. Maybe big hub airports are different, but the fact that our two heroes are able to get on a transcontinental flight with fake IDs and someone else’s credit card seemed highly unlikely. The high-security stuff in this book was like a light-switch; on when Childs needed it (the bad guys track their every move), and off when he needed it (no one at the airport questioning, for example, why Reacher doesn’t look anything like the picture on his ID).

Once on the plane, Childs goes over the top with Reacher. This sequence, while emotionally satisfying, left me gasping with disbelief. And how fortunate that while Reacher is doing what he does, he and Turner managed to get an airplane that didn’t have an armed air marshall on it. (Or maybe they don’t do that anymore and just didn’t tell us. Yeah, that’s probably it.)

Once everyone gets to LA, the action slows down way too much. This is a mistake. Childs should not allow his readers enough time to think of anything but the book, because then we start to have questions. And the end, the denouement of the scheme Turner was framed to protect was too ordinary for all the work.

I was disappointed in part because we were set up to think the whole conspiracy had something to do with Reacher himself. Childs is not cheating here; Reacher is also set up to believe that. I’m not crying “foul,” I’m just disappointed. Reacher is an unusual person. As we learned in The Killing Floor, his brother was an unusual person also. I would like to know more about how Reacher became the man he is. Maybe we will some day, but not in this book.

So, it sounds like the book was bad. That might be true, but it was grafted to my fingers for a whole day and far later into the night than I like, because I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I’m still not sure how Childs does that. Maybe for me, the Reacher books are like the Twilight saga for others. I can see how unreal it is; I can mock the coincidences and the suspensions of logic, but I can’t book the books down. Reacher’s adventures remain firmly and proudly on my Guilty Pleasure list.

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