A Rumble Offering

The Sentinel: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child and Andrew Child. New York: Delacorte Press. 368 pages. $29.

The cover of The Sentinel: A Jack Reacher Novel

YOU KNOW HOW, when you roll into a small town for the first time, in search of a slice of pie and a decent cup of coffee, you inevitably uncover a byzantine and nefarious criminal conspiracy, perhaps concerning Russian spies and Nazis? And your sense of justice and your MMA-style fighting skills demand that you stick around long enough to expose the evildoers, protect the innocent, and kick a whole lot of ass?

OK, that probably hasn’t happened to you more than once. But it happens to Jack Reacher all the time. Lee Child’s ex-military drifter-hero is framed for murder in a small Georgia town in the first book of the best-selling series, 1997’s Killing Floor, and he goes on to find trouble with a capital T in sleepy flyover hamlets across America—“tiny polite dots” on the map, as 2019’s Blue Moon has it—in eleven of the subsequent novels, including The Sentinel (Delacorte Press, $29), the first to be cowritten with the author’s brother, Andrew Child, who will take over the series after this installment.

This twenty-fifth Reacher novel is the twenty-fifth I have read. Jack Reacher, former military cop, for whom there is no problem that can’t be solved with a well-timed headbutt, is not the sort of person I would hang out with. But what can I say? I like action movies. (Including the two movies, improbably starring the elfin Tom Cruise as the hulking Reacher, made from Child’s novels.) And Child writes the best action movies you can find between two covers today (although I read the last several on my iPad).

String together jacket descriptions of some previous Reacher outings, and you get a sense of The Sentinel and of the series as a whole: “One heartland city thrown into a state of terror.” “It wasn’t the welcome Reacher expected. He was just passing through, minding his own business.” “Jack Reacher is an innocent bystander when he witnesses a woman kidnapped . . . in broad daylight.” “Now, between a town and the man who owns it, between Reacher and his conscience, something has to give. And Reacher never gives an inch.” “Staging a brilliant ruse, Reacher hurtles into the dark heart of a vast criminal enterprise.” “One brave woman is standing up for justice in a small town threatened by sinister forces.” “There’s deadly trouble in the corn county of Nebraska . . . and Jack Reacher walks right into it.” “Jack Reacher never turns back. It’s not in his nature. All he wants is a cup of coffee. What he gets is big trouble.”

No one in the history of the world has randomly stumbled onto as many kidnappings as Jack Reacher, who once again thus stumbles, wanting only a cup of coffee, at the beginning of The Sentinel. Implausible, sure. A radioactive spider’s bite bestows spider powers on a teenage boy; a woman unweaves a burial shroud every night for three years without any of her suitors getting suspicious. We tell ourselves stories in order to tune the fuck out, sometimes.

So there Reacher is, fresh in town after hitching a ride from Nashville with an insurance agent, when he sees some heavy operators trying to force an ordinary schlub into a Toyota sedan. Except he doesn’t see them. Being Reacher, he senses the plan unfolding before it happens, apparently drawing on genetic memory. He’s headed for the coffee shop as the schlub, one Rusty Rutherford, leaves it:

Reacher didn’t pay him much attention at first. He was just a guy, small and unremarkable, holding his to-go cup. . . . But a moment later Reacher’s interest ratcheted all the way up. He felt a chill at the base of his neck. A signal from some ancient warning system hardwired into the back of his brain. An instinctive recognition. Pattern and movement. Predators circling. Moving in on their prey. Two men and a woman. Spread out. Carefully positioned. Coordinated. Ready to spring their trap.

What chance do the heavy operators have against Jack Reacher’s hardwired spider-sense? No more chance than a complete sentence has against Reacher’s free indirect discourse.

And then we’re off to the races. It transpires that the schlub, the town’s erstwhile IT manager, has been framed for a ransomware attack that brought the town to a digital standstill. And some nasty characters want him off the board for reasons that are unclear. A mystery is afoot, with machinations to boot, involving Russians and software and Nazi MacGuffins and double agents and double crosses and triple crosses.

Which is all to the good. It doesn’t matter that we’re not exactly dealing with John le Carré and George Smiley here. Child has a very particular set of skills. Skills he has acquired over a very long career. Skills that make him a nightmare for readers who have to get up in the morning. He knows that we know that Reacher will yet again prevail against impossible odds, so it’s the details of each confrontation that matter. With what displays of brio shall our hero sally forth this time, deploying what forms of efficient brutality?

Edward Zwick, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, 2016. Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise).
Edward Zwick, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, 2016. Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise).

Reacher may lack the self-questioning complexity of Smiley or the queasy nuance of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, but Child makes his simplicity a virtue. Reacher is Jason Bourne without the Sophoclean psychology and heroic quest. He’s just real good at getting there first, whether “there” means anticipating an opponent’s moves or deducing the nature of a conspiracy from the scantest of clues. “Turn around,” he mentally urges Rutherford when he first spots him being trailed. “Ignore the gym rats. Notice the guy who’s pursuing you.” “I notice things,” he says in The Hard Way (2006). “I notice things,” he says in 61 Hours (2010). He’s the kind of guy who, without trying, memorizes the make, model, color, and license plate of every car in the parking lot. He can’t even pull into a storage facility like a normal person:

Each [building] had a red letter stenciled on the end wall, high up in the angle of the roof. A was level with the office. E was all the way to the left. For a moment the order bothered Reacher. He would have preferred A to E. Not E to A. Then he figured they must have started out with one unit, at the right-hand side of the lot to correspond with the access to the road, then worked their way left as they expanded.

When he’s in a fight, which is like 60 percent of the time, he’s analyzing, calculating, two or three moves ahead. I’m sure my taste for this sort of thing has nothing to do with childhood revenge fantasies in which I bested my bullies.

Apparently two Childs are as good as one, as I wouldn’t have known The Sentinel was coauthored if it didn’t say so on the cover. As ever, the prose is utilitarian, no cream or sugar, like Reacher’s coffee. Words impart information. Sentences tell you what is happening. At one point, Reacher faces down six white supremacists, so within seconds there are six white supremacists writhing on the ground:

The other guy was trying to crawl away, so Reacher went after him and kicked him in the head. Normally he would have used his left foot in a situation like that, where the guy was already down. His weaker foot. But this guy was a Nazi. So he used his right. And he didn’t hold back.

This happened, so that happened, he would have done this, but he did that, and he did it like this. Nothing fancy: that’s the way to write a good thriller. I recently failed to finish a thriller by Dean Koontz, for whom “spiderweb” is how philistines refer to “the radials and spirals of a spider’s architecture,” while “rumpled-laundry clouds” “darken to coralline” and “gray into woolpack.”

Of course there are nits to pick. Reacher is supposed to be a math whiz, but he believes that “forty-eight hours” is three words. The bad guys are awfully gullible this time around. If Reacher signals that they should roll down the window so he can toss an improvised chemical bomb into their car, or drive into an alley so he can beat them up, they do. “You’ll believe a man can fly,” read the posters for Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman. You won’t, but that’s not why you go to the movies.

THERE ARE AUTHORS who don’t so much muddy the distinction between “genre” and “literary” fiction as prove it illusory: le Carré, Highsmith, Eric Ambler, Ursula K. Le Guin, Graham Greene, John Crowley, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe, Larry McMurtry. There’s not a spectrum with Proust at one end and Nicholas Sparks at the other. There are only the different things we want from books, the different reasons we come to them at different times. The Childs write escapist action fantasy, which is one thing I’ve wanted from fiction since The A-Team was on the air.

For many people, what we read is bound up with a sense of who we want to be. In high school I wanted to be a certain kind of person, so I already knew I was going to read all the Big Serious Novels—Ulysses, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, Gravity’s Rainbow, In Search of Lost Time, The Brothers Karamazov. Because you had to read them if you wanted to be that kind of person. That’s a perfectly human reason to read, at least initially, but actually reading these books teaches you that it’s a reason best left behind. Auden quips that “the adolescent . . . has to pretend that he enjoys . . . War and Peace a little more than he actually does.” And once you’ve become the kind of person who really does enjoy War and Peace, maybe you can also get to the point where when someone asks you what you’re reading and you say Jurassic Park or The Hunger Games, you don’t feel the need to make excuses. War and Peace can be really fucking boring. And I never finished In Search of Lost Time, but I’ll be reading the twenty-sixth Jack Reacher novel.

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collections Alien vs. Predator (2012) and Walkman(forthcoming, both Penguin) and the essay collection Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017). He is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University.