Jack Reacher has been a part of my life for 20 years, give or take. A thoroughly reliable part of my life. He strides into town every year, beats the blue blazes out of deserving bad guys; writes wrongs, refrains from singing songs and never over-stays his welcome. JR is the high plains drifter of the modern word, and I’m delighted to report that Jack’s most recent escapade, Past Tense, is a total tour de force. It’s pretty much the perfect Reacher novel.
That’s reassuring, because there have been a few wobbles in recent years. Lee Child perhaps reacted to that recurring reader feedback that ‘they’re all the same’, and tried a few different things. Or perhaps he got bored writing the-same-but-different each time around. Who knows?
Either way, JR’s excursion into the dead-eyed world of the long-gun assassin (a la Bob The Nailer in the brilliant Swagger books by Stephen Hunter) was perhaps his least successful outing. The one where he took on an entire militia in a sealed bunker kinda stretched credibility, too. Predictably, an equal number of readers who hated the ‘run of the mill’ Reacher story also voiced vocal disapproval of Child’s efforts to extend his anti-hero’s horizons. Mind you, millions of us still buy the new Reacher book, hoping for the-same-only-more-so. And that’s exactly what we get in Past Tense, a story which could almost pick up where Killing Floor left off.
This time, Reacher returns to his roots, bringing military precision to chaotic civilian brawling. He is the thinking man’s thug, no doubt about it. He deals out righteous bare-knuckle retribution and accepts the consequences of his actions with laudable equanimity. Reacher is at his best when exploring small-town America, and this time we learn a lot about one of the ghost towns of rural New Hampshire – an old industrial community which reveals a whole social history… and sinister implications.
Alongside the reassuringly familiar JR tropes – hope for the best, plan for the worst, so forth – runs an independent, stand-alone narrative. That’s what keeps this series fresh and exciting. The juxtaposition of the familiar with the new. Reacher arrives midway through someone else’s story, a story which is strong enough to merit a crime-thriller novel all on its ownsome, with a mix of well-developed characters and a truly nasty plot.
The only thing that really jarred for me in the entire book was the clumsy description of Reacher navigating around a computer and mouse. Yes, he’s a digital dinosaur but we didn’t need to go through all the scrolling business.
On the plus side, Past Tense delivers a very rare scene indeed – a powerful depiction of Reacher in action from another person’s perspective. Child’s writing is at its brilliantly succinct best when Reacher emerges from the darkness of the forest; a stealthy, hulking menace. In a few lines, Reacher is transformed from our familiar friend – the guy with the travel toothbrush who drinks a lotta black coffee – into an overwhelming force of indeterminate trajectory. He’s genuinely scary. Cross the road if you see this guy walking towards you…
I appreciate that some of Lee Child’s storytelling doesn’t suit every one. If you want a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter and implausible twists that stand no scrutiny then stop reading right here. I, as it happens, enjoy the slow-burn beginning and multiple threads which gradually build to a walloping payoff. The contents of that mysteriously heavy suitcase had me completely hooked!
Oh, and Child also deserves a round of applause for the book’s title. Very clever. This is indeed a throwback Reacher book – one which distils the essence of the series into something close to crime fiction perfection. If you don’t enjoy this book then you probably didn’t like Jack Reacher in the first place.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Past Tense by Lee Child is available at Amazon