I used to have a rural fantasy. Then I started reading the Jack Reacher novels.
True, plane rides are now less painful thanks to Lee Child’s rough-and-tough hero, a former U.S. Army MP — but I’ll never again be able to drive along the lonelier roads in America without wondering what hideous acts of utter depravity go on within the walls of the quaint wood-frame homes flashing by the window.
Drug-running? Pedophilia? Torture? Murder? Wife-beating? Maybe all of them.
But I wouldn’t be scared with Jack Reacher by my side.
Reacher is the kind of guy you want in your corner when things get nasty. He’s a maverick who plays by his own rules as he drifts from town to town. As it says in an earlier Reacher book, right before he punches a thug — hard! — in the solar plexus, Reacher lives “in a world where you don’t start fights but you sure as hell finish them, and you don’t lose them either.”
In Child’s latest, “The Affair,” which is No. 16 in the series, the author takes us on a diversion. Just as our hero is headed toward Virginia to meet the sexy Susan Turner, a major in the U.S. Army he’d begun a phone romance with in “61 Hours” (in which he takes on a bunch of baddies terrorizing a South Dakota town), we get yanked back to a moment before Reacher started drifting across the nation’s heartland.
Child wants to show us how Reacher became the man he is today. At that earlier point in his life he is still playing by establishment rules, though the Reacher essentials are already reassuringly in place: On Page 48, some local yeehaws give him trouble and by Page 96 they’ve been head-butted unconscious, and it only gets worse for them later.
It also gets worse for Reacher, who’s gone undercover to monitor a murder investigation: A 27-year-old woman in Carter Crossing, a small Mississippi town located at “the back of beyond,” has been viciously raped and mutilated.
Nearby is Ft. Kelham, an Army base. Its soldiers usually blow off some steam with the women of the town, including the poor victim. It becomes clear to Reacher that one of the soldiers is probably responsible. Here’s the problem: One of the base’s infantry captains is the son of a powerful U.S. senator. So what’s one military cop supposed to do when a scandal could threaten that base’s future? Sweep it under the carpet?
Not if you’re Jack Reacher.
OK, so none of this is exactly Dickens or Proust, and having read three Reacher novels so far I’m beginning to see the common threads: Lonely towns. Twisted souls. And, above all, body counts.
“Somebody once said the Reacher series is a detective series where the detective commits more homicides than he solves,” Child said in an interview earlier this year. And yes, there are so many guns and so much blood and antler-locking that it’s a little bit embarrassing to admit to liking the books. But I’m not the only woman I know who does: Just a few weeks ago, a colleague tried to sneak my copy of “The Affair” from my desk, right under my nose.
Another thing to like about Child (his real name is Jim Grant) is that he used to work for Britain’s Granada Television when they were producing highfalutin shows such as “Brideshead Revisited” and “The Jewel in the Crown.” Let go in 1995, he decided to try his hand at writing and scribbled out his first Reacher novel, a satisfying bit of revenge on former bosses.
Something to look forward to: Tom Cruise will play the 6-foot-5, 220-plus-pound Jack Reacher in “One Shot,” based on the ninth book in the series. Werner Herzog will play the villain.