I can’t count how many hardcover Reacher novels line the top shelf of my library. Lee Child is that good.
MAKE ME is his latest novel about Reacher, and it’s also good.
Not bad. Not great.
Once again, our hero is (a) wandering the small towns of America only to (b) bump into a beautiful girl with a gun who (c) is investigating Some Crazy Problem Involving This Small Town.
This is also the plot of about 17 other Reacher novels.
The towns change. The nature of the evil plot changes. The women change.
Reacher never does
Lee Child is one of my favorite authors, the greatest living thriller writer, and Reacher is a great character. The brain of Sherlock Holmes shoved into the body of the Hulk, funny, smart and tough. A great hero.
HOWEVER: Child isn’t stretching a single writing muscle here. Don’t think he even had to warm up.
It’s as if the devil snuck into his bedroom late one night and said, “If I promise you riches and fame, the price being you have to write the same book every year—year after year, until you die—do we have a deal?”
If we’re grading Child against other thriller authors, he gets an A.
But we’re not. There’s a huge body of work, that top shelf full of Reacher novels already written. MAKE ME sits among them.
Not bad. Not great.
There is proof that Lee Child can blow expectations out of the water, when he does feel like stretching those writing muscles.
One of the few first-person POV novels he did, THE ENEMY, slayed me with clever clues, revelations and twists. I’ve read it again and again. A great mystery, and the only novel featuring Reacher in the Army.
That’s not a coincidence.
No such thing.
I hope the next novel picks up the mold in Reacher’s big, strong hands and smashes it against the asphalt. That it doesn’t feature a beautiful girl with a gun and a badge who teams up with Reacher, sleeps with him, takes down the bad guys and disappears, like all the others.
I hope the villain is memorable and, for once, a match for the hero. I hope Reacher has to truly suffer, sacrifice and change to actually win.
Verdict: MAKE ME gets four out of five folding toothbrushes.
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.
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.
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.
The library in my secret lair contains Every Thriller Known to Man, including every Lee Childthriller, so reviewing his novels is like riding a bicycle for me.
A bicycle with two seats and training wheels. And a chauffeur.
So let’s make one thing clear, right off: Lee Child is the best thriller writer alive.
Also, Lee is British, though he lives in NYC these days, so he’s got this killer accent to go along with the killer books about Reacher.
ONE SHOT is one of his better books. It’s not THE ENEMY, which is his best. But it’s not one of his worst, and his worst are still good.
Here’s the setup: Reacher is a loner. Six-foot-five. Two-fifty. A giant. He’s some kind of hotshot ex-Army major from the military police, and when you’re investigating bad guys for doing bad things and every suspect is a trained killer, you’ve got to be tougher than they are.
Reacher is plenty tough. And smart. He’s like putting the brain of Sherlock Holmes into the body of Dolph Lundgren, and then giving Dolph another twenty pounds of muscle.
It’s almost unfair to the bad guys. But that’s a post for another day.
ONE SHOT takes Reacher to Indiana, where an Army sniper he arrested years ago in Kuwait, for killing four men, has apparently gone bad again, 14 years later. Except when the sniper is arrested, he asks for Reacher, by name. Because they’ve got the wrong guy, he says. This is despite a rock-solid case against the man, Barr: his rifle did the shooting. Five people are dead. The police have his minivan on tape, driving to the parking garage where it happened. And back in Kuwait, he’d also used a parking garage.
Reacher shows up to keep a promise, a promise meant to keep Barr in line. But he discovers nothing is what it seems. The case it a little too good. There’s a puppet master, pulling the strings, who doesn’t want Reacher asking questions.
Without giving the ending away, it’s a rock-solid thrill ride. Are there plot holes? Yeah, sure. You have to suspend disbelief, especially looking back at the first chapter. There’s a huge gamble there. It’s kind of cheating.
But you don’t care, because it’s too much fun watching Reacher in action. He’s not your typical thriller hero. He’s not suave. He’s not sophisticated. He’s completely rough around the edges, and he doesn’t use spy gadgets or fancy guns. The only thing he carries from place to place is a folding toothbrush.
So, on to the numbers.
Number of beautiful women: Four. An ex-flame who’s now a brigadier general at the Pentagon, an NBC reporter, a defense attorney and a pretty redhead murdered to set up Reacher for her death.
Number of beautiful women Reacher actually connects with: One. I admire his restraint and good taste.
Body count: 13. Five victims of the sniper. Two other men. The pretty redhead. Four thugs. Then the puppet master. I may be missing one or two, but I don’t think so.
Overall: 4.75 glasses of bourbon out of 5.
Sidenote: Yes, it is true — and tragic — that Tom Cruise is starring at Reacher in the big screen adaptation of ONE SHOT. Do not like. Reacher is giant, stone-cold blond, a one-man wrecking crew. Cruise is rather short and hyper. Not a good fit.