Jack Reacher is back, but not quite the same. In “The Sentinel,” the 25th entry in the best-selling thriller series by Lee Child, we encounter our hitch-hiking, coffee-drinking hero undergoing an identity shift.
It is a transitional work: The author, at age 65, is handing off the word processor. “Lee Child,” a pen name for James Grant, still looms large on the cover, but now there’s another name below it. “The Sentinel” was co-written with his younger brother and fellow thriller writer Andrew Grant, billed as Andrew Child for continuity’s sake.
Jack Reacher (usually just plain Reacher) is Child’s beloved creation, both simple and subtle, a former U.S. military policeman who stands six-foot-five, pocked with scars and crammed with survival skills. He has an alarm clock in his head and no fixed abode. He has Sherlock Holmes-like intuition. His only dependency is coffee.
He wanders by thumb and Greyhound, like a knight-errant of the American heartland, but without the courtly motivation, meeting the locals and putting the nastier ones in the hospital, with occasional forays into the big city and overseas. The formula has sold more than 100 million books and two movies starring the game, but miscast five-foot-seven Tom Cruise. A new Jack Reacher Amazon series is in the works.
But based on the newest iteration of Reacher, changes are afoot. Even the title is the most thriller-esque of any of Child’s novels.
After an intriguing interlude with a beleaguered IT guy, who is suddenly despised by everyone he meets, we meet up with Reacher. He’s 75 miles away in Nashville, and has left a corrupt saloon owner suspended from the ceiling of his own bar. Already the character is pushing boundaries, although it was in aid of a struggling bar band.
He’s for the little guy, you see: “Reacher was conscious of a voice in his head telling him to walk away. Saying this wasn’t his problem. But he had heard how the guy could make a guitar wail.” Those sentences encapsulate the attitude of many Child stories, but it’s never been stated so baldly.
Reacher hitches a ride with an insurance guy — an important detail. On his way to the (yes!) local coffee shop, he encounters the IT guy, at his wit’s end and unwittingly in mortal danger, a prospect Reacher sniffs out with his sixth sense for trouble.
So far, so promising. I prefer Child’s heartland thrillers, where Reacher is invariably obliged to triangulate beatings of the local thuggery, over Child’s international forays, which require a kind of sleek efficiency that doesn’t perfectly suit Reacher’s personality or sticking-out appearance. Then, elements of international politics wander into the tale, confused and clunky.
It turns out “The Sentinel” is an emergency defense cyber program designed to protect the American electoral system from sabotage. There is ransomware, and whatever secrets lay hidden in a dusty town archive that some party is willing to torture and kill to learn: Russians, or Neo-Nazis, or both — or something else?
But I found it hard to focus. The “Sentinel” remains a McGuffin-style black box and even with a just-completed presidential election, the story feels a couple of years behind the times.
Reacher devotees who have absorbed his previous oeuvre, roughly a book a year since 1997’s “Killing Floor,” will find a hero who is not quite the terse, laundry-averse hitcher of yore. He is almost chatty, although Child does work in the trademark “Reacher says nothing” line 13 times.
He’s also more a plotter, making purposeful statements such as, “another piece of the puzzle.” One could see him, if not carrying a mortgage, at least renting an apartment. Yet Reacher’s also developed a nihilist touch, pulling off what could be described as a prank with almost Joker-like glee.
Obsessives will lament the relative lack of both coffee consumption and walking, a trait Child previously stuck with to an admirable extent, even at the risk of slowing the story. This Reacher can operate a GPS while driving a car. All of this begs the question: Is Jack Reacher suffering a personality crisis?
And now we have to talk about “The Sentinel’s” most frustrating weakness: The fight scenes.
Lee Child prides himself in “writing the fast parts slow,” lingering lovingly over the fisticuffs, anticipating the ballet through Reacher’s eyes, with trigonometry and geometry and anatomy coming into play. But in “The Sentinel” those same scenes can feel not just slow but static. The use of cardinal directions, and “left” and “right” for hands and feet, mark a puzzling stylistic change. Also, is the prose a touch too polished? Do the set-ups to the punch-ups lack relish?
Child’s reliable commonalities of diner, coffee shop, and underground bunker are still lovingly sketched, but somehow their presentation is not seamlessly integrated into Reacher’s ever-alert persona. We don’t register them as he does, as potential avenues of defense and attack. The failure is elusive but real.
Or maybe it’s Reacher that has become the problem. When considering a computer server, he considers that he would “rather be dealing with humans any day of the week” rather than technology, which honestly doesn’t sound like our guy. The Childs are constantly spelling out his empathy, previously revealed with greater subtlety through action. Usually Reacher notices things. Now we notice him noticing things, which isn’t as effective or interesting.
On the plus side, there are richer characterizations of Reacher’s sidekicks. He attracts his usual posse of courageous citizen helpers, often female — “The Sentinel” features several women who conveniently snap in and out of the story when needed, and who may or may not be trusted. The IT guy’s transformation from community pariah is nicely fleshed out. The logistical challenges posed by roadside motels remain, as does Reacher’s dark art of room rent negotiation.
The plot is twisty, but rough-hewn; the parts don’t mesh and it splinters under the strain. Our strong, smart, but clumsy hero just isn’t an ideal fit for cloak-and-dagger spycraft.
The bigger question: Would I find this flavor of Jack Reacher as compelling if this were my first encounter with him? I would say no.
Still, there’s no crisis in the heartland yet. Reacher’s personality is a work in progress, and after 25 books there are still lots of unnamed towns out there for him to save. Just please, Andrew Child, don’t marry him off or make him defuse an atom bomb.