Review: Killing Floor by Lee Child

Killing FloorThe first Jack Reacher novel — and still one of the best.

One of my favourite things in life — seriously, one of my absolute favourite things— is re-reading my favourite series and charting the development of the author and their protagonist. Over the past couple of years, I’ve re-read Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, and have returned to Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels. I’d love to delve back into Matthew Reilly’s work — Ice Station was such a monumental book for me and completely obliterated my perceptions of what a written narrative could accomplish. But for the foreseeable future I’ve reunited with my old friend: the nomadic harbinger of justice, Jack Reacher, and his creator, Lee Child.

I’ve bemoaned the staleness of the ‘Reacher formula’ in recent years — the most recent novels in particular, Personal and Make Me — and have been trying to decide whether my tastes are somehow evolving, whether I’m the problem, or if the latest novels just haven’t quite hit the heights of their predecessors. Not that Mr. Child should be particularly perturbed by my criticisms: his books remain bestsellers, and I’ll remain loyal to Jack Reacher for a long time to come. Understand, I’m not saying Personal and Make Me were bad books — they were just 3-stars rather than the usual 4 or 5.

Killing Floor is fascinating for several reasons, particularly when examining the text with the gift of hindsight. Reacher is far more talkative in his debut than he is today; far more excitable and eloquent, and prone to moments of fear. Everything we love about him is there, but he hasn’t quite been firmly moulded yet; Child is still working out the kinks in his design, manipulating the character’s traits into the perfect protagonist. Same goes for Child’s prose; it’s still in the developmental stage, still being refined, but damn, it’s still a level above the competition.

The novel is set in Margrave, Georgia — a throwaway town in the middle of nowhere, but a place Reacher has never been, so it’s worth a stop. Besides, his brother Joe mentioned a blues musician named Blind Blake died there; perhaps there’s a plaque. But not long after he sets foot in the diner, Reacher is arrested for murder, and quickly becomes ingrained in a deep-rooted counterfeiting operation. Killing Floor is pure Reacher, and follows the formula that made Child’s novels mega-sellers: the hero walks into a town and rights its wrongs. Simple, but effective; done to death, but somehow elevated in Lee Child’s hands.

Killing Floor remains a wonderful thriller, full of brilliant characters and the heart-thudding tension the series is now famous for. Scenes that particularly stand out include Reacher’s visit to the local penitentiary, where he’s wrongfully isolated in general population, and Reacher’s brutal takedown of the men hired to kill him on a stormy night, thunder crackling above. It’s great stuff, and you won’t read better choreographed scenes.

So, a fine start to the series, then. And a reminder of why I fell in love with Jack Reacher, and Child’s thrillers, in the first place. If memory serves, I liked Die Trying even more. We’ll see.

ISBN: 9780553826166
Format: Paperback (198mm x 127mm x 33mm)
Pages: 528
Imprint: Bantam Books (Transworld Publishers a division of the Random House Group)
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 5-Aug-2010
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Make Me by Lee Child

Make Me

We no longer question whether we’ll get a new Jack Reacher novel each year. Excitement for each new instalment in Lee Child’s long-running series is based on which city or town Reacher will wander into next, and the type of depravity he’ll face up against. By now, with twenty novels under his belt, we are accustomed to Reacher dishing out his particular brand of justice, bedding his female companion along the way, and ending his four-hundred-page escapade with his thump pointing at the sky, awaiting his next journey. It’s never been any secret: there is a formula to these bestselling novels. And while I’ve read – and enjoyed – every single one, Reacher is growing stale; for me, at least.

There is no doubting Child’s ability to craft a page-turner thriller. He is a grandmaster at his craft, and his legion of fans will undoubtedly enjoy his latest – and for good reason. Make Me is packed with all the essential Reacher elements. Which is essentially my problem with it. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. Reacher has taken on far more fearsome foes. He’s solved more compelling mysteries. Make Me feels like just another Jack Reacher thriller. I read it, enjoyed it, put it down… and that will be the extent of my relationship with it. It’s not Persuader; one of Child’s rawest, most brutal thrillers. It is not The Enemy; a brilliant flashback to Reacher’s days as a military cop. And it’s not One Shot, which features one of Reacher’s most enthralling investigations. It’s just another Reacher novel. And I want more, damn it; something resonant. Something to propel the series forwards another twenty instalments.

Make Me begins with Reacher arriving in the small town of Mother’s Rest for no good reason. And that’s absolutely fine. The name intrigues Reacher, so he steps off the train to check it out. That’s a very Reacher thing to do. He has an inquisitive mind. He’s instinctive. If wants an answer so something, he’ll go find it; sometimes it involves the cracking of skulls. Other times, just a gentle meander, which is all he intends his visit to Mother’s Rest to be. But almost immediately he’s drawn into the mystery of a private investigator’s disappearance. The PI’s partner – a woman named Chang – seizes on Reacher’s investigatory experiences, and utilizes his skillset to further her enquiries. Their quest for answers takes them away from the small town – to Los Angeles and Chicago, then back again – and along the way they confront a variety of unseemly characters, who are dealt with in typical Reacher fashion.

Make Me USABut this time, Reacher’s not bulletproof – and what a breath of fresh air this is, seeing the bad guy get a couple of hits in; witnessing Reacher dealing with the consequences of a violent confrontation. Reacher’s almost-invulnerable status was exciting, once upon a time; more recently it has grown tiresome. It’s great to see Child acknowledge this, and dangles the possibility of repercussions further down the line. Our heroes need to display some degree of vulnerability; without it, they become caricatures. I never viewed Reacher as Rambo, but he was coming close. Make Me provides a wonderful step backwards.

The first hundred pages of the novel are riveting. Child keeps the villain’s and their nefarious schemes shrouded in mystery; Reacher and Chang are literally chasing shadows and digging for scraps as they seek to uncover the truth behind the PI’s disappearance. But the ultimate reveal pales in comparison to the build-up. The climactic confrontation is sufficiently executed, but lacks the gusto of Reacher’s finest moments. Again, there’s nothing overtly wrong, here – it’s just lacklustre in comparison to the series’ best.

The Jack Reacher novels were once synonymous with thrillers of the highest quality. There are intimations in Make Me that suggest the series can hit those heights again. I’ll be back in 2016, with my fingers crossed.

ISBN: 9780593073896
Format: Paperback
Pages: 432
Imprint: Bantam Press
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Publish Date: 10-Sep-2015
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Personal by Lee Child

PersonalPERSONAL, the nineteenth Jack Reacher novel, is a perfectly adequate thriller. There’s the requisite action and intrigue that aficionados demand, plus a villain with exaggerated physical dimensions who provides an actual physical threat to Reacher, and while there is enough here to sate irregular thriller readers who are perhaps not entirely cognizant of the genre’s trappings, for the rest of us, who have been with Lee Child and his nomadic hero since the beginning, PERSONAL continues the gradual decline of a once-great series. There is still plenty to enjoy, but there is a definite lack of the pizzazz the series’ best offered – which, in my mind, peaked with PERSUADER.

Justify it any way you want, PERSONAL’s narrative is founded on the pure coincidence through which Jack Reacher is pulled into a conspiracy involving a sniper – possibly more than one – with his / their sights set on a spectacular assassination attempt of an unknown government leader at the forthcoming G8 summit. He – or they – have already demonstrated their capabilities by taking a crack at the French president, who was saved only a layer of bulletproof glass. Reacher’s involved because very few marksmen could pull off such an audacious shot – and he imprisoned one such candidate, recently escaped, back when he was a military cop. Reacher caught him once; he can do it again, right?

Child freshens up proceedings by shifting locales – Paris and London is where the action is primarily set – but the British thugs play the same roles as their US counterparts: unchallenging fodder for Reacher. Which is the problem: the more things change, the more they stay the same. As innovative as it once was, the Reacher formula has become stale. There’s a distinct lack of stakes in PERSONAL. I’m accustomed to the Reacher novels spiking my heart rate; they should be pulsating readers. But in this case, my heartbeat was steady. PERSONAL feels very by-the-numbers and methodical; Reacher doing what he’s done before, no better, no worse: but it’s all too familiar.

The introduction of Casey Nice is the highpoint of PERSONAL: a young, capable but troubled operative, who doesn’t take on the trademark role of Reacher’s lover – she’s simply a worthy ally, with enough about her to warrant further exploration. Of course, if Child is consistent, Nice is destined to fade into obscurity, which is a real shame.

A disappointing instalment, then – but only because Child revolutionized the modern-day thriller, and each new release comes with gargantuan expectations. Maybe it’s time he took a break from Jack and tried his hand at something new. I’d love to read the result.

Review: Never Go Back by Lee Child

Never Go BackLee Child’s 17th Jack Reacher novel, A WANTED MAN, suffered from a major tonal shift in its third act, which had Reacher in full John McClane mode, blasting away at a facility full of bad guys, facing odds that seemed just a tad too insurmountable. For the first time, Reacher flirted with the dark abyss where archaic action heroes go to die. He hadn’t yet fallen in, but he was close, right there on its edge, one step from oblivion.

With NEVER GO BACK, Reacher has leapt away from that black hole. His feet are firmly planted on the ground. He’s safe. He’s secure.

Jack Reacher is back, baby.

NEVER GO BACK sees Reacher return to his old unit, the 110th MP – but not the way readers will expect – and he’s immediately thrown into a complex conspiracy that dates back to his previous stint as a military cop. It’s an intricately plotted mystery, punctuated by moments of classic Reacher violence and humour – which often occur simultaneously. It’s been an epic experiment by Lee Child – three of his last four novels (excluding THE AFFAIR, which was based in the past) – have taken place in close proximity, detailing Reacher’s long journey to meet Major Susan Turner. NEVER GO BACK represents that journey’s end, and, quite rightly, Reacher feels like a changed man. The final line of the novel resonated with me for a long time, like there was a deeper meaning behind those words. I’ll be interested to hear what other fans think.

Child’s novels have always featured strong female leads, and Major Turner is one of the best. She confronts Reacher on his lifestyle, questions his choices, and wonderfully never falls into the role of damsel in distress. Reacher and Turner are a potent duo, and I wonder, with references made to Reacher’s age – early on he’s referred to as “old man” – whether it’s possible Child might one day return to her. I’d certainly be open to it. But it would be foolish to think Reacher won’t still be kicking butt when he’s in his twilight years.

My fears expunged, just like the old days, I’m counting down the days until Child’s next release.

Review: Deep Down by Lee Child

Deep DownDEEP DOWN presents a younger Jack Reacher than we’re used to, in his mid-twenties, tasked with identifying a traitor operating inside the Capitol, selling military secrets to enemies unknown. The catch? The traitor must be identified clandestinely; and all four suspects are women.

Lee Child emphasises Reacher’s youth and relative inexperience as he questions his ability to woo these women into revealing their secrets. Nowadays, Reacher is a master of bedding beautiful women, and it’s a nice touch, reading about a Jack Reacher who isn’t quite as capable or as sure of himself, as he is today. Child hints at the man Reacher will eventually become, but he’s not there yet, hasn’t experienced what was necessary to become the nomadic hero we’re accustomed to. Though by no means is this essential reading, I certainly appreciate the author’s efforts in explicating key moments from his protagonist’s past, and the short-story medium is a great avenue to explore these in.

DEEP DOWN is brisk, easily read over an hour lunch break, but the plot lacks the punch of the Reacher novels. There are few thrills and spills here; rather, this is a competent, enthralling snapshot of an early Reacher mission, very much a straightforward narrative, told in Child’s usual style. It lacks that special something that has allowed the Reacher series to resonate, but nevertheless, this is enjoyable bite-sized entertainment.