Perhaps no living writer is more closely intertwined with a single creation than thriller writer Lee Child is with Jack Reacher. A quintessentially American character brought to life by an English writer, Reacher is a character known for his quirks as well as his simplicity.
He’s a former U.S. military policeman turned laconic hitchhiking loner, six-foot-five, pocked with scars, and crammed with survival skills. He eschews cars, smartphones, washing machines, and credit cards while downing prodigious amounts of black coffee to power his cross-country walking treks.
Invariably, he wanders into pockets of corruption in the heartland, reluctantly hanging around where he’s needed and compelled to serve up justice through his fists and smarts, before once again boarding a Greyhound to nowhere. “Reacher said nothing” is a notorious phrase in the Child oeuvre, although the latest thriller, “Better Off Dead,” is one of the rare books in the series told in first person.
Jack Reacher’s appeal is undeniable — more than 100 million books have been sold, and there are two Reacher movies starring Tom Cruise. The Amazon Prime series “Jack Reacher” made its debut in early February.
While “Better Off Dead” is the 26th book in the Reacher series, it’s only the second Jack Reacher novel that’s been co-authored. Author Lee Child (a pen name for James Grant) is gradually handing over his prized creation to his younger brother, fellow thriller novelist Andrew Grant (now billed as Andrew Child).
The first brotherly effort, 2020’s “The Sentinel,” suffered from clumsy plotting and a main character undergoing an identity crisis, making their latest effort a vital entry for the future of the franchise. Does it pass muster?
“Better Off Dead” begins with a twist on the usual Reacher formula — a flashforward featuring an unnamed “stranger” dispatching some bad guys, Reacher-style, before being shot and killed. Even after the beleaguered local doctor slides out the morgue refrigerator rack so that the novel’s paranoid heavy can look at the body, we can’t quite believe it when that body is identified as Reacher, Jack.
But it takes more than merely dying to keep Jack Reacher down.
When the present-day action begins, Reacher is minding his own business, as usual, hitchhiking toward the Pacific Ocean on a whim, when he stumbles onto trouble by the highway. There’s a confrontation, and after some well-reasoned punches, he hitches a ride with a woman in a Jeep to a nondescript town on the Arizona-Mexico border.
The woman is Michaela Fenton, an army veteran turned FBI agent on the outs with the bureau. She is searching for her twin brother Michael, who sustained psychological damage during his tours of duty as a bomb specialist. She’s pretty sure the secretive, dangerous Dendoncker (full name Waad Ahmed Dendoncker) knows where he is.
Michaela doesn’t wholly trust Reacher, the hulking figure who just happened to wander by, but she accepts his help trying to find her troubled brother, who was “derailed” after being exposed to chemical weapons during the second Gulf War. (The Gulf War is a calamitous catalyst for many of the warped deeds committed in Child’s books.) Reacher comes up with a trick to draw the shadowy Dendoncker out, and hopefully lead Michaela to her twin brother.
Michaela fears he has turned rogue and is making bombs for Dendoncker, who is using an airline catering service as a front for something secret but surely sinister.
The title of “Better Off Dead” comes from a quote from Michaela, who feels she has little to lose. The line also applies to the fear his henchmen feel if they fail him, as demonstrated by a macabre and curious scene involving an airbag and a quarter. Michaela thinks Dendoncker is all villain and Michael an innocent, but is that the whole story?
The opening sleight-of-hand gingerly shakes up the formula, but honestly, one doesn’t pick up a Reacher for a particularly interesting plot twist or compelling villain. It’s for the man himself and all the familiar tropes he rides into town on. No flash-bang thriller wizardry here; this isn’t “Mission Impossible.” But a staged accident and some trickery with a prosthetic boot provide pleasingly lo-fi cleverness.
Welcome doses of dry humor abound, like the riffs on the merits of the Lincoln Town Car, which has “Plenty of room for passengers. Conscious or unconscious. Alive or dead.” Reacher gets stuck in a hellhole where the coffee comes with sugar.
Lee Child has a feel for small American towns; he has particular fun with hidden passages that have fallen off maps and subsequently used by those who prefer to operate in secret. Rarely does Child get tripped up by not being a native — “joined the dots” is a rare Britishism that slips through.
It’s a shame that the town here (the fictional Los Gemelos, which translates, not coincidentally, as The Twins) fails to come alive, seemingly composed of a morgue, a strange empty house, and a disappointingly characterless coffee shop. (Reacher really likes his coffee.)
Although the fight scenes are well-choreographed, one misses the balletic pleasures of Reacher taking on several bad guys at once. Mostly Reacher deals with a single heavy, a resourceful thug named Mansour, who almost matches Reacher in strength, size, and guile.
Child perhaps made a strategic error in previously providing Reacher an exact birthday date, so it’s best to ignore the chronology implied by the technology being used and puzzled over by Reacher, which begs the question — could this fearless brawler really be 60?
The sentences are terse and the chapters short, tactics meant to build momentum but result in repetitiveness. There’s also an emotional hole at the heart of the action — it’s difficult to care about the fate of a person we haven’t met yet and consequently can’t care enough about. Thankfully, Reacher’s rougher, more realistic edges have re-emerged. He’s less earnest, less omni-competent and he even gets lured into feints a couple of times.
Those small details are what save “Better Off Dead,” details Reacher dredges from his past that lend authenticity to the present, like the bundles of used 20-dollar bills whose sweet, sharp smell convinced him they were real.
Reacher’s glory days may be past, but after listing in “The Sentinel,” it appears the franchise’s platform has stabilized. Verdict: Reacher isn’t “Dead” yet.