Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tripwire by Lee Child

Tripwire by Lee Child, 1999

The danger had ebbed and flowed like a tide for years. He had spent long periods certain that it was about to wash over him at any time. And then long periods certain it would never reach him at all. Sometimes, the deadening sensation of time made him feel safe, because thirty years is an eternity. But other times it felt like the blink of an eye. Sometimes he waited for the first call on an hourly basis. Planning, sweating, but always knowing he could be forced to run at any moment.

He had played it through his head a million times. The way he expected it, the first call would come in maybe a month before the second call. He would use that month to prepare. He would tie up the loose ends, close things down, cash in, transfer assets, settle scores. Then when the second call came in, he would take off. Immediately. No hesitation. Just get the hell out, and stay the hell out.

But the way it happened, the two calls came in on the same day. The second call came first. The nearer tripwire was breached an hour before the farther one. And Hook Hobie didn't run. He abandoned thirty years of careful planning and stayed to fight it out. ---- (pages 2-3)
Tripwire is the earliest Jack Reacher novel I've read so far (only the third), and although I have yet to read a bad Lee Child thriller, it's in the top tier of the series. It's not Child at his most rip-roaring, but it features perhaps the finest villain he's written yet, a huge chunk of character development for Reacher and a plot that, while not lightning-fast, ramps up the tension to nearly unbearable levels.

The story begins with Reacher digging pools in the Florida Keys, saving up money and enjoying his anonymity. When a private investigator named Costello comes looking for him, Reacher's inclination is to hide. Until Costello turns up dead. Feeling responsible, Reacher follows Costello's trail back to New York, where a woman from his past, a deadly secret and a vicious, hook-handed moneylender await him.

Child's plots are usually big, sprawling and complicated, but he tries a somewhat different approach with Tripwire, which has a basically simple structure with only one major twist. A big piece of the book is told from the perspectives of characters other than Reacher, so the reader is nearly always in the superior position. Instead of intricate plotting, Tripwire winds up the story like an old-fashioned noir thriller, the suspense generated by the strong undercurrent of menace and unpredictability that comes from the book's villains.

Hook Hobie, the sadistic, intelligent, one-handed villain, is definitely the most memorable thing about Tripwire. It's nice to see one of the more over-the-top villains again, since the later books in the series have had more generic baddies. Hobie is anything but generic: he's both terrifyingly larger than life and strangely human. Most importantly, he feels like a genuine threat, which is hard for Child to pull off with a hero as infallible as Reacher.

While I initially had my reservations about the lengthy subplot in which Hobie abducts and terrorizes a CEO and his wife, I ultimately found it to be an excellent way to make Hobie seem powerful and competent. Many thriller villains spend the entire novel always just failing to kill the hero or carry out their wicked plot; Hobie spends the book succeeding at nearly everything due to his common sense and meticulous planning. Child seems to almost admire his efficiency and ability to get things done. He's not afraid to make Hobie just a tiny bit sympathetic, too. The sequence in which he narrates Hobie's one-handed routine for getting ready in the morning is absolutely devoid of any obvious appeals to pity, but it's impossible not to see Hobie as a human being rather than a cardboard psychopath.

Reacher sort of does his own thing for most of the novel, crossing paths only rarely with the villains. His main arc has to do with his increasing discontent with the drifter lifestyle. Tripwire takes place only two years after he left the service, and he's not quite as disconnected and solitary as he is in later installments. His relationship with Jodie Garber, the daughter of his commanding officer, shows him a new option: stability, normalcy, an ordinary life with a car and a job and a lawn. The romantic subplot--which is, as always, inevitable--is fine, and I would probably have enjoyed it more if I hadn't already read what feels like the same storyline half a dozen times. Jodie is the usual Reacher love interest: intelligent, mature, spunky, beautiful (I'm starting to suspect that Lee Child himself has a type), and most importantly, a good foil.

What sets the Reacher/Jodie relationship apart is the way it gradually becomes more normal and open as the book progresses, eventually culminating in a shocker ending of sorts: they stay together at the end of the book. That is correct. Jack Reacher ends the book with a house and a steady girlfriend that he cares about. While this state of things obviously doesn't last, it's still the first major break in formula that I've encountered in a Reacher novel. Between the spellbinding final duel between Reacher and Hobie (one of the most intense scenes in any Reacher book ever) and the cliffhanger-ish ending, Tripwire has one of the strongest conclusions to a Child novel that I've read yet. I can't wait to find out what happens next, even though it'll all eventually end up the same as always. There's something comforting in that, I think.

NEXT UP: Things have been slow around here, and will probably continue to be a bit slow; I've been busy writing my own novel and haven't had much time to read. But the next book up is an interesting one: Don Winslow's Savages.

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