To understand my reading habits you have to know this. I had never heard of the best-selling thriller writer Lee Child until a few weeks ago. Never.
I am what you might call a semi-serious reader. I like the meatier stuff, books that make you mull over your life and the human condition. If those books are entertaining, so much the better. But about once a year I go slumming. I venture into a book world of pure entertainment, the mystery thriller. I do it for a couple of reasons.
One, my brain turns to mush, or more mushier than usual. I want to read and turn off critical thought. And two, I fall behind in my yearly goal of reading one book a month and seek a quick fix. A “slum” book is the antidote. It can be read in a week or less. I have gone to this remedy in each of the last three years.
In 2007, it was Jon Fasman’s `The Geographer’s Library,” followed in 2008 by Robert B. Parker’s “The Godwulf Manuscript.” Last year, it was David Baldacci’s “The Whole Truth.” I can not to save me recount the plot of any of them. I can’t even remember if I enjoyed them. They were no more than reading practice and a little escape from the tedium that is my life anymore. So enter Lee Child.
I was seated at one of my favorite buffets here in Phoenix, poring through Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle,” as I ate. Then I heard a man’s voice from behind me.
“Do you like to read?”
I craned my neck uncomfortably to see a tall man of about 60 sitting in the booth behind me. His hair was long, neatly cut and graying. He had kind eyes with dark bags underneath. He was an avid reader of mysteries and thrillers. He gave me three authors I should try. Lee Child, John Sandford and a third I was familiar with, Dan Brown. A few weeks passed and, while shopping for a T-shirt at a second-hand store, I came across by accident a pristine copy of Child’s eighth book, “The Enemy.” It was only $1. I thought I’d give it a shot.
“Lee Child,” I learned, is a pseudonym used by the British author Jim Grant for his Jack Reacher novels. Reacher in “The Enemy” is a major in the U.S. military, a commanding officer of a special MP unit and stationed at the fictitious Fort Bird in Virginia. And he is god-like. Six-foot-five, 240 pounds, smart, reflective, violent, idealistic and with a bent for deductive reasoning that would make Sherlock proud. The story takes place in 1989-90 with the capture of Noriega in Panama as backdrop.
“Enemy” opens at rat-a-tat speed. A two-star general is found dead in a sleazy motel room, victim of a heart attack, and his wife is brutally murdered miles away in her home the same night. Two more murders follow. The key is the general’s missing brief case containing a secret agenda for a meeting of high-up Armored officers at Fort Irwin, California. A conspiracy within the military leads Reacher and his beautiful black female assistant, Capt. Summer, deeper and deeper into a pit where both of their careers are at stake. And, as a sidebar, Reacher’s French mother is dying of cancer in Paris with her own secrets.
Child’s staccato sentences, crisp dialogue and the budding romance between Reacher and Summer carried me along for a while. But only for a while. Somewhere toward the middle of “Enemy” I lost the thread. Reacher was taking action based on wild assumptions. And everything was too easy. One does not live long in this life to understand the rules. Begin asking dangerous questions and doors start slamming hard on you. For Reacher everyone seemed to buy in to his program, his investigation. Also Child struggles with the romantic segments. In a book where characters are truly fleshed out, the love affair would impede the investigaton. But here of course it does not.
The ending too was unbelievable. I’m all for idealism, but Reacher’s ultimate decision regarding his career seemed beyond the pale of modern man.
The best scene of “Enemy” came late. When Child sticks to action, he is really good. Reacher goes out on the gunnery range at Fort Irwin in search of the last of the villain-soldiers, Marshall. Shots are fired between the two. A stand-off looms. Marshall finally orders far-off tanks under his command to fire on his own location. He may die, but he’ll take Reacher with him.
I remember the man in the buffet booth telling me how Reacher has left the military and is wandering America, finding trouble as he goes. I like that idea. I may go slumming again soon and give Lee Child another stab.