Before Jack Reacher, there was Parker.
Reacher, if you don’t already know, is the protagonist of an enormously successful series of excellent thrillers by Lee Child of which “Gone Tomorrow” is the 13th and latest. Child has 22 million copies of his books in print in 40 territories; they’ve all been optioned for movies and the previous two, “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Nothing to Lose,” were No. 1 New York Times bestsellers.
Parker, by contrast, has operated a bit more under the radar. The antihero of a number of books by Richard Stark (a pseudonym for the late mystery master Donald Westlake), Parker never sold that many copies, though current University of Chicago Press reprints are trying to change that. But his cultural influence has been considerable.
For one thing, the classic modern noir “Point Blank” is based on Stark’s “The Hunter,” with Lee Marvin doing a Parker for the ages. As the ad copy on the back of the early paperbacks put it, “Parker Steals. Parker Kills. It’s A Living.” A laconic, impeccably professional, almost indestructible stoic who never went down for the count, Parker was too much of a nihilistic career criminal to be anything but an antihero, but without him the more conventionally heroic Jack Reacher might not have existed.
Reacher shares numerous traits with Parker, including living by a code of honor civilians can’t comprehend, but unlike Stark’s character he wants to do the right thing and invariably does. He’s got a more human appeal than ice-cold Parker, and he cares a lot more about women than his predecessor ever managed to.
Reacher also has an intriguing background and a fascinating MO. As he details in his resume in “Gone Tomorrow,” he started out in the Army, “thirteen years a military policeman, the elite 110th investigative unit, service all over the world.” Then, when the Cold War ended, “suddenly getting cut loose.”
On his own, Reacher decides less is more. He travels around the country with no luggage, no belongings, no home, nothing to tie him down. He goes with the flow to a certain extent, like those tourists who want to leave only footprints, but at a certain point something happens while he’s around and he has no choice but to get involved and tidy up.
“Gone Tomorrow” opens with just such a moment. Reacher is seated on a New York subway train, the Lexington Avenue local headed uptown to be precise, as inconspicuous as someone who is 6-foot-5 and built like a refrigerator-freezer can be. Then he sees a woman who, according to a list of Israeli counterintelligence behavior indicators Reacher just happens to know by heart, has all the signs of being a suicide bomber. What to do?
Don’t worry, I’m not going to give anything away, except to say that “Gone Tomorrow” deals with a candidate for the U.S. Senate, one of the most beautiful women in the world and some of the nastiest terrorists this side of 9/11. The problems Reacher comes up against are more awful than anything his readers have to face and, at the same time, much more solvable.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
Child has a style that in many ways echoes his protagonist’s. Child’s writing is both propulsive and remarkably error-free, and he’s expert at ratcheting up the tension while dispensing all manner of specific information. If you want to know why the Heckler & Koch MP5SD is the short submachine gun of choice, you’ve come to the right place.
Though Child has a tendency to get too fearfully graphic when describing physical violence, his books don’t fully come to life unless and until Reacher unleashes his fearsome physique and destroys whatever is in his path.
Which makes “Gone Tomorrow” something of an odd duck. Perhaps because it deals with international terrorism, this book is at once creepier and more serious than some others in the series, with not as many opportunities for the old demolition machine to go into action.
One of the great conceits of the Reacher novels, however, is here in force and that is the tendency of the folks he deals with to consistently underestimate him. Unlike Sherlock Holmes or Paul Temple, Reacher is not known to the criminal world, and the bad guys are always telling him, “Stay away from this,” “You’re out of your depth” and the ever-popular “You got lucky.” You want to scream at them, “This is Jack Reacher for pity’s sake, he’ll eat you for breakfast!” He will, you know, and that’s why we keep coming back for more.