Lee Child course-corrected his Jack Reacher series back in 2003 with the publication of Persuader, which saw a rawer, more violent Reacher (more reminiscent of the man we met in his debut, Killing Floor) face off against a dangerous figure from Reacher’s past. Not that the series was flagging up until that point, but it was coasting, author and hero comfortable in their roles. Persuader provided the shot in the arm Reacher needed, and some of the character’s best adventures followed, including One Shot, The Enemy, and Never Go Back. Fourteen years later with The Midnight Line, Child has reinvigorated Reacher again, but in a very different way, which will please some readers and possibly concern others. This novel feels like a pivotal point in Reacher’s journey.
The Midnight Line starts in typical fashion. Reacher hops off a bus at a rest stop in Anytown, USA and discovers a West Point class ring in a pawn shop window. With his military background, Reacher understands the severity of the experiences its owner must have gone through to earn it, so he buys it, with one simple goal in mind: to return it. In doing so, he finds himself up against a ring of opioid dealers, and allied with a former FBI agent-turned-private-detective, and the sister of the ring’s owner.
Child’s books are rarely topical or timely, which isn’t intended as a derisive comment, rather one of the pleasures of his thrillers: they are timeless, rarely focused on the societal or political issues at the time of publication. Influenced, perhaps, but always nuanced. But The Midnight Line deals with a very prevalent issue, that of illegal drugs, and how widespread they are in white and rural America, and the government’s flawed attempt to crack down on the problem. Child, surprisingly, for he’s perhaps better known as a wham-bam, cracking-heads author, paints a sympathetic portrait of addicts, and how necessary and fundamental the pleasure and pain relief these drugs provide for people are. The message here isn’t Drugs Are Good! Instead, the underlying message of The Midnight Line is that these drugs are oftentimes necessary for a person’s survival. Addiction is the antithesis of everything Reacher believes in; this is a man who believes in piloting his own destiny, and living by his own moral code. Drug addiction overrules all of that. But as events unfold, he learns to understand how reliant certain people are on opioids, particularly military veterans, whose road to addiction was instigated during their service, and who are left to fend themselves following their discharge.
Reacher’s mortality has floated to the surface in recent books, so too his own personal realisation of his complete and utter loneliness. It’s not that he wallows in it, but there is a bittersweet acceptance of his solitude in The Midnight Line, and his inability to settle, to never stay in one place for more than a few days at a time. Early in the series, Reacher and readers understood his nomadic state to be a result of his insular years in the military, forced from one base to another, always under a superior’s command. Cut loose, he decided to roam free, see the parts of the country he’d never encountered. But years have passed now, and that nomadic inclination hasn’t abated; if anything, it has grown stronger. The Midnight Line makes us wonder: what’s the endgame? Where — how — does Reacher’s journey end?
The Midnight Line lacks the suffocating kind of suspense and heart-pounding thrills provided in the best Reacher adventures, and some readers will groan at the overly-sentimental climax, but there’s still much satisfaction to be had from this more character-driven yarn. Not vintage Reacher, but still damn good.