Six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK by Lee Child

Let’s say it: Lee Child has a Superman problem.

His hero, Reacher, is beloved by fans for having the brains of Sherlock Holmes and the body of Conan the Barbarian. The man never gets outsmarted and is invincible in a fight. Here’s the last post about these books: Secret recipe for any Lee Child novel

The latest Reacher book, NEVER GO BACK, slams smack-dab into the Superman problem. Because an invincible hero puts the B in Boring.

Did I enjoy the book? Yeah, it’s always fun to read about Reacher. With every new novel, though, Reacher struggles less and less to overcome the bad guys.

If the hero doesn’t sweat, the reader doesn’t worry. Or care.

Because I do care about Reacher and Lee Child, here are six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK.

Lee Child's NEVER GO BACK is something you should read. Do it now.

Lee Child’s NEVER GO BACK. Buy two copies, one of each cover, because I say so.

1) Don’t simply remake THE ENEMY

The only other novel with Reacher in the Army was Child’s best book: THE ENEMY, a true mystery with all kinds of crazy twists and turns and a real sense of menace. Just like that book, the latest novel has big-shots in the Pentagon and such as the criminal masterminds, using other officers as their puppets.

That book was first-person and visceral. It put you in the head of Reacher and made you feel what he felt, see what he saw. I’ve happily read that book seven bazillion times.

NEVER GO BACK starts out feeling like that book, with the full force of the Pentagon and Homeland Security poised to squash Reacher … until he escapes them, easily and repeatedly.

THE ENEMY was amazing, and the ending isn’t a clear win. Reacher is demoted and leaves the service. This latest novel doesn’t hold a candle to that classic.  Which proves that yeah, you should never go back.

2) Give Reacher a real daughter, not a fake one

What are the odds that the bad guys randomly picked a fake daughter for Reacher who looks like him, thinks like him and even talks like him?

I’ll tell you the odds: zero.

The fake daughter is an achy breaky big mistakey. It feels like Child planned on making the daughter real up to the end of the book, then decided nope, Reacher can’t have a teenage daughter, because that would tie him down in future books. So he turned her into a ruse.

If you’re gonna do it, do it.

3) One-sided beatings aren’t really fights

Fight scenes are a Reacher staple. A novel without Reacher getting blood on his elbows would be like a Jean Claude Van Damme movie without him doing the side splits and kicking a single guy in the face.

However: there’s a big difference between a fight and a beating. Every fight in NEVER GO BACK is a cake walk for Reacher, who doesn’t even break a sweat when he takes out two angry rednecks with both hands behind his back.

Give us a real fight. Let’s be realistic and let the bad guys land a punch for once.

This leads to Number 4.

4) Tough guy villains better be tough

In this book, there’s one thug we keep getting told is a giant muscle-freak with weird ears. A monster who looks like a match for Reacher.

So for hundreds of pages, you keep expecting the final battle between these two men to be epic. I was getting the popcorn out.

The fight between Reacher and this incredible hulk was over in about two seconds. Boring, and a huge let-down. Come on. That’s like showing us Darth Vader on screen for 90 minutes and Luke training with Yoda for 20 minutes only to have the two meet for the Greatest Lightsaber Battle of All Time … and have Luke cut Darth Daddy in half within two seconds. No.

The badder the bad guy, the longer the fight should last. Redneck idiots can get dispatched in a paragraph. Medium baddies should take a chapter. The boss villain should take a couple of chapters.

When every villain, big or small, goes down without Reacher chipping a nail, or doing anything at all (see Number 6),  it’s not exciting.

5) The Girl with a Gun has to be some kind of Challenge

It’s totally fine for Reacher to swim in a sea of attractive women, just like 007.

What’s not fine is for the Girl with the Gun to fall in love with Reacher in about two micro-seconds and be like a loyal puppy dog for 300 pages. THE ENEMY had a good love interest, with a conflict: he was an officer, and her commanding officer, and she was a sergeant. There was risk, and you got a real feel for the sergeant with them doing the investigation a long time before falling in the sack. It was credible and interesting.

A perfect woman who falls in love with Reacher instantly and never really does anything, well, she’s cardboard and snooze city.

6) Finish with a bang

So the bad guys are two high-powered dudes with insane connections, the ability to track Reacher in real-time, a lust for power and a network of thugs. It’s suicide for Reacher to go after them, right? They have the full reach of the Pentagon and Homeland Security to smack him like a fly.

Yet the final confrontation … never happens. Because the bad guys shoot themselves in the head.

What?

Maybe I’m nuts, but I believe, deep in my Swedish soul, that the end of a novel or movie should be more exciting than the beginning. The beginning was exciting. This ending wasn’t even as suspenseful as six random rednecks surrounding Reacher in the motel.

If you set up Reacher as some kind of invincible Superman, the bad guys can’t be cream puffs who fold at the end. To make it interesting, you have to make the villains even tougher than Reacher.

That hasn’t happened yet. Not even close.

I hope someday it will. Because that would be an amazing book.

Related posts:

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Guy - Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Guy – Photo by Suhyoon Cho

Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller (FREEDOM, ALASKA) that won some award (PNWA 2013).

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7 Comments

Filed under 4 Writing Secrets Wednesday, Fiction, Thrillers and mysteries

7 responses to “Six ways to fix NEVER GO BACK by Lee Child

  1. I agree with all the points you made, with one partial exception. I enjoyed reading about the almost-daughter in NGB. It was the only truly redeeming point in the book. It was a chance to see deeper inside of Reacher’s head, and I liked the way Lee handled Reacher’s inner conflict over it, and left us thinking maybe Reacher was disappointed to learn she wasn’t his daughter.

    I am a die-hard Lee Child fan and devoted Reacher Creature. But, I have to say, I’ve noticed a seemingly downward slide in the last three books, starting with The Affair. It kind of breaks my heart, by hey, NGB is the 19th book, so kudos to Lee for keeping his fans happy for so many books in a series. No easy trick, there.

    For me, the most noticeable change is the writing style. If you go back and take a look at Killing Floor, then compare it to the last three novels, it’s like night and day. That clean, crisp, pared-down writing style has become quite a bit fatter. In fact, with the latest book, NGB, I found myself thinking it seemed like a ghost writer had written it. I truly did not care for the style of the opening in NGB. It reads very removed to me, and kind of bumpy because we see the six guys at the motel, then get a quasi-flashback to the events in the office earlier that day. It was strange.

    As much as I love Reacher’s character, the thing that I truly love best about Lee’s books is the mystery that underlies the stories. I love watching Reacher figure stuff out. The more complicated, the better. For me, the best mysteries in the Reacher series are those that are centered around things or situations, rather than a dead body. Hands-down, Killing Floor had the best mystery factor. I found myself in awe over Lee’s ability to mastermind that whole counterfeiting scheme.

    My pointers for improving the next books are: 1) Make the mystery really good; 2) Bring back one or more past characters in a situation kind of like Bad Luck and Trouble, because I love watching Reacher interact with people he cares about; 3) Make the fights less one-sided.

    • This is an awesome and beautiful comment, packed chock full of Truthiness.

      I agree with you about the faux daughter. He meant her to be real, and wrote it that way, then backed off. No bad guy could pick a random girl who matched up so perfectly VERBALLY. Physically, maybe. Not both.

  2. Naomi L

    So I get introduced to Reacher in an interview Child had on the Book report radio show (an archived version on their site), and almost immediately afterwards I’m feverishly looking at reviews on his new book – he seems too good to be true. At first I was confronted by waves of Reacher Creature’ -like reports. And then to the surface bobbed some discontent fans. I wanted to know whether any of these sequel books could be read on their own, and some seemed to think so, contradictory to the references of characters from previous books. After reading some more reviews I came to the conclusion that NGB was probably not the best Reacher book out there, and that I’d be better off starting at the very beginning. Thanks to your review, and the contributions made by the commentators the list has been cut down quite decently.

  3. Reacher has had exactly two enemies that were close to him in brains and brawn, but never both at the same time. The first was the villain from TRIPWIRE, who was very, very smart. The second was Paulie, the vicious steroid giant from PERSUADER, who almost beat Reacher to death bare-handed.

    I’d love to see Child come up with an enemy who had both qualities over Reacher. A real challenge for a change.

    • Chris the Farnsworth,

      You only speak the truth. Reacher always outclasses his villains, and the earlier books make it toughest on him. The older Reacher gets, the quicker he dispatches the bad guys.

      The beautiful terrorist and her mentor in GONE TOMORROW were scary with their skill with knives, and that climactic fight was good — but the way Reacher finished off the female villain (strangling her) threw me off. Ugh. Shoot her, throw her off the 18th floor, whatever. Strangling her felt creepy, like Reacher was turning from reluctant tough guy to serial killer.

      I hope Child does what you suggest. Give us a villain who’s as smart and tough as Reacher — or tougher AND smarter.

      Also: how goes it? I’ll send you a secret email in a second.

      -Guy

  4. To me, Reacher stories suffer from a lot of the same issues as the romance genre. There’s never any doubt about the outcome. Reacher (and most love duos) don’t really struggle to overcome great odds. Reacher, the uber-hero, hardly breaks the sweat which is OK in real life, I guess, but boring in fiction. The romance heros and heroines are typically separated by The Misunderstanding or The Lie or Some Trumped Up Foolishness which is just as boring. These novels make money but they’re not satisfying. As the late great Elmore Leonard said, “Skip the parts nobody wants to read.”

    • You speak the truth.

      An epic and memorable Reacher story would have him lose and the uber-villain get away. Then everybody would want the next book. But there’s no suspense.

      To borrow a meme from NEVER GO BACK, it should be a 50-50 chance. He wins or he loses. Never is with Reacher — always wins.

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