Saturday, October 29, 2011

Without Fail by Lee Child

Without Fail by Lee Child, 2002

"Better just to walk away now," he said.

They didn't, like he knew they wouldn't. They responded to the challenge by crowding in toward him, imperceptibly, just a fractional muscle movement that eased their body weight forward rather than backward.
They need to be laid up for a week, he thought. Cheekbones, probably. A sharp blow, depressed fractures, maybe temporary loss of conciousness, bad headaches. Nothing too severe. He waited until the wind gusted again and raised his right hand and swept his hair back behind his left ear. Then he kept his hand there, with his elbow poised high, like a thought had just struck him.

"Can you guys swim?" he asked.

It would have taken superhuman self-control not to glance at the ocean. They weren't superhuman. They turned their heads like robots. He clubbed the right-hand guy in the face with his raised elbow and cocked it again and hit the left-hand guy as his head snapped back toward the sound of his buddy's bones breaking. They went down on the boards together and their rolls of quarters split open and coins rolled everywhere and piroutted small silver circles and collided and fell over, heads and tails. Reacher coughed in the bitter cold and stood still and replayed it in his head: two guys, two seconds, two blows, game over.
You've still got the good stuff. He breathed hard and wiped cold sweat from his forehead. Then he walked away. Stepped off the pier onto the boardwalk and went looking for Western Union.--- (page 19)

One of the things that kept cropping up in my mind while reading Without Fail was the durability of Lee Child's formula. After reading six or seven of his Jack Reacher novels, recurring patterns clearly start to form. In truth, most of the Reacher thrillers are pretty similar in structure. The setting, characters and details all change, but there's usually a comforting sense of familiarity to the way things are going to go down. We know from the start that it's going to end with Jack Reacher kicking some ass and then riding off into the sunset. It speaks to Child's grasp of storytelling and his terrific sense of pacing and tension that the ending is always white-knuckle anyway.

Another sign of Child's superiority is his ability to do new things with his basic formula, keeping the series feeling fresh even when very little about the novel's skeleton changes. Without Fail, like all of its predecessors, is a fantastic thriller/mystery with a twisty plot, lean writing and terrific action scenes. But it also contains some very finely wrought bits of character development and world-building that Child sneaks in with such finesse that it's easy to overlook, what with all the shooting and punching and such.

The plot: Jack Reacher is in Atlantic City when he's approached by an old ex-girlfriend of his brother's: Secret Service agent M.E. Froelich. Froelich has an unusual proposition for Reacher. She wants him to assassinate the Vice President-elect, Brook Armstrong. Froelich is running a security audit and wants to see if her system can be breached by a professional. However, a team of real assassins are closing in on Armstrong, and it falls to Reacher and Froelich to foil their plan and save the Vice President-- who knows more about his would-be killers than he's letting on.

The novel's basic premise is a little rickety, especially when the Secret Service takes on Reacher as a consultant, immediately making him privy to all of their classified intelligence. The novel's midsection is also a bit humdrum-- a lot of running around between the Secret Service office and various hotels and restaurants, not a lot of action, a couple of too-convenient plot devices. Having Reacher actively working for law enforcement is an interesting and atypical move, but it also makes us wait until the end for the usual sense of vigilante justice.

A slower pace isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it gives the novel time to develop a highly interesting subplot: Reacher dealing with the death of his brother and coming to terms with their difficult relationship through the lens of Froelich's memories. Reacher's family is a thematic undercurrent that has subtly run through the series (most notably in The Enemy) and Child prises apart Reacher's emotional armor with exceptional delicacy and understatement. Like many good writers, he lets the moments of emotional revelation come in dialogue rather than in description, and there are several conversations between Reacher and Froelich that are surprising in their emotional impact. The storyline's main Achilles heel is that Froelich herself is a fairly bland character, and having her serve as the Obligatory Love Interest feels both boring and a little cheap.

Much more interesting than Froelich is Frances Neagley, who makes her first appearance in the series here (she also shows up in Bad Luck and Trouble, a few books into the series). Violent, damaged, smart and insightful, Neagely is my favorite recurring character so far. She's one of the rare characters that is truly presented as Reacher's intellectual and tactical equal. It's a lot more interesting to give Reacher a potential love interest who, like him, is an emotionally scarred warrior (he's had way too many tough-but-vulnerable flings over the course of the series). Child keeps their relationship fairly low-key, not hinting too strongly at a romantic connection. Hopefully theirs is a relationship that will be explored further.

Without Fail is not the most dynamically plotted of the Reacher novels; the clues and twists are well-placed and deployed with Child's usual verve, but there's little that's highly shocking. Child seems to be setting up his bowling pins a bit too carefully in the opening segments. The novel hums along entertainingly until a big twist in the narrative about three-quarters of the way through. From there, things get kicked into high gear and yes, the finale is, as always, something special. This time the showdown takes place in a remote, snowbound Wyoming town. The last forty pages are a little masterpiece of building tension and the climax, while not as over-the-top as some, is masterful. I don't think I've ever read an author as accomplished at this kind of sequence as Child. I also liked the fact that the villains were not professional killers or assassins (although they're certainly deadly enough).

The parameters of the series are a bit too clear for my taste, it's true. I would love it if Child branched out a little more, exploring different stories and trying different methods of telling them. He could also work on more interesting supporting characters; there are several in Without Fail who make next to no impact, including the crucial character of Froelich. There have been encouraging signs throughout the series that Child is indeed trying out different things, such as Without Fail's surprisingly emotional subplot.

But let's face it: with a formula this rock-solid he doesn't really need to try new things. Child has already found a structure that more or less guarantees excellent thrillers, and Without Fail is another great one, despite a couple of saggy sections. I suppose the old ain't-broke-don't-fix-it adage applies. When the you-know-what is hitting the fan, very few writers can deliver the pulse-pounding tension and suspense like Lee Child. And even though I usually talk up the action and thriller elements, his writing is sometimes disarmingly sharp and insightful, even a bit poetic, in a hard-boiled sort of way. Good suspense doesn't really work unless you care, and Child does a wonderful job of making you care about where it all ends up, even though you know it'll end the way it always does: the victorious, lonely Jack Reacher taking a bus out of town.

NEXT UP: Mario Puzo's modern classic The Godfather.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. Just finished this one (my seventh, having started with Nothing to Lose). I don't usually even think about whether there are reviews of Reacher novels. But Without Fail was weird, and I had to know what other readers thought. You wrote up most of what was striking to me, so thanks for the sense of validation. Only one additional thing (and somebody else mentioned it in Barnes & Noble reviews): why the hell was Reacher wearing and actually using a watch here? There had to be other ways to get to the squalene resolution. Seemed a major inconsistency in a remarkably consistent character.