I cheated on Patrick O’Brian, with Lee Child. But anybody can tell this is a momentary diversion — for the long haul, who would select Jack Reacher over Stephen Maturin? (For one thing, the movie stars who play them? Tom Cruise or Paul Bettany? I rest my case.)
And I do mean momentary. A Wanted Man is one of Child’s brisk and efficient entertainments. So brisk and efficient that it’s almost robotic. If I hadn’t read the 16 previous Reacher novels, I would have little sense of him as a human being. Here’s a snippet of late-book dialogue, as Reacher tries to estimate the number of bad guys he’s up against:
Reacher said, ‘Do you have an accurate headcount?’
McQueen said, ‘Twenty-four tonight, not including me.’
‘Six left, then.’
‘Is that all? Jesus.’
‘I’ve been here at least twenty minutes.’
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘Just a guy, hitching rides.’
Well, good work, whoever you are.'”
I don’t know, maybe that’s satire. And certainly so close to the end, Child isn’t going to gum up the action with touchy-feely stuff. But I don’t read these books just for the gun battles. Nor do I read them entirely for the suspense, though I do think Child is one of the best writers ever at pacing a thriller: slowing down and speeding up to keep you in his grip. I also like Child’s sense of the geography of this country. I don’t know how accurate it is — this book is set in Nebraska and Iowa and Missouri — but he conjures a sense of history in his descriptions of the landscape. Boom and bust, old motels, former farms, the land as a palimpsest of economic and social changes. Like his creator, Reacher is observant. He notices details in both landscape and people, and draws his conclusions. Best yet, he’s been a surprisingly empathetic hero over the course of this series. But in A Wanted Man, his badly broken nose has to stand in for all of his previous sympathy, kindness, humor, and, yes, even a certain vulnerability.
Looking back I realize that my favorite Reacher novels have been the ones where Jack is on a kind of crusade, or where the motivation for his mayhem is personal. Maybe the real flaw of A Wanted Man is that the enemy is … well, who, exactly? The target keeps shifting as Reacher peels back layers of deception or cover identity. The FBI gets involved, and then maybe the CIA (I sort of lost the thread). By the end Reacher is shooting heads popping out of doorways, or shadows. Fundamentally, this book might function better as a video game.