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For more than a decade, millions of readers worldwide have been delighted that Lee Child lost his British TV job in the mid 1990s. Child had worked in a backroom broadcast role on some all-time great British television dramas like Brideshead Revisited, Prime Suspect, and Cracker. But when downsizing finished his first career, he shifted to the United States, and began writing thrillers starring transient loner Jack Reacher (who'd similarly been 'let go' from his career in the Army). More than a dozen internationally bestselling novels (almost 20 million copies sold) later, it seems that for Child and his legions of fans worldwide, the dark cloud of his (and Reacher's) redundancy has definitely had a very big silver lining.
In 61 HOURS, the fourteenth annual instalment in the Reacher series, the maverick ex-military policeman finds himself marooned in a snow-swept South Dakota small town, after the senior citizen tour bus he hitched a ride on ends up skidding into a ditch. But Bolton is no ordinary rural backwater: the population (and police force) has quickly swelled after a federal prison opened nearby; drug-running bikers have set up a squatter camp by a mysterious stone building out on the prairie; there are rumours a hitman is on his way to the town to eliminate a key witness under police protection; and fate has dumped Reacher smack in the middle of it all.
With the over-stretched and under-trained police on the lookout for an out-of-town hired gun arriving with murder in mind, Reacher's unexpected entrance provokes plenty of suspicion at first. Especially given his demeanour and physical prowess - which quickly come to the fore during a night-time confrontation between his police escort and some hardnosed bikers. But once they realise he's not there to kill the witness, some of the police find themselves (cautiously) turning to Reacher for help. Hemmed in by a freezing snowstorm, coupled with his sense of duty and honour kicking in through the arctic cold, Reacher finds himself sticking around, and trying to protect the elderly witness and uncover what is really going on in Bolton.
After some 'big' terrorism-themed plots in his past few Reacher books, Child has in a way stripped things back in 61 HOURS, both with the storyline and Reacher himself; and it works very well. While still having his impressive capabilities when it comes controlled violence, Reacher also seems more human and fallible in this instalment. Even though it's told in third person (Child alternates between first and third person storytelling throughout the series), if anything we learn even more about Reacher and his past in this book than many of its first person predecessors.
Although Reacher is in some ways the epitome of the all-action hero, the strong-but-silent type, Child also imbues the ex-MP with compassion and some complexity – and even more so in 61 HOURS, where Reacher even has some (minor) doubts about himself, his skills, and his life, exacerbated by the freezing climate. Some readers who love Reacher most as an all-action superhero may therefore not enjoy this book as much, but overall I think what Child has done here works very, very well. And I wouldn't overstate things – it's not like Reacher has turned into the overtly self-aware, flawed, and doubting detectives of Scandinavian fiction and much of modern crime writing – he is still the Jack Reacher that millions of readers have come to know and love; the modern day cowboy, knight errant or ronin warrior, traipsing from town to town, looking to help out where he can, before moving on. Unencumbered by a job, a house, or any baggage (physical or emotional).
Storyline-wise, Child builds the momentum well throughout 61 HOURS, slipping in some unexpected twists along the way to keep the reader guessing on the way to an explosive conclusion. But along with being an exciting story in a well-evoked setting (you may find your teeth chattering in sympathy for the coatless Reacher battling against the wintery elements), more also comes to light about both Reacher's past, and his views on the world. In particular, the character of Major Susan Turner is a welcome and well-written addition, and allows the reader a few more insights into Reacher's army past.
Overall, Child has crafted another cracking page-turner, masterfully building tension to a crescendo finish; and a cliff-hanger ending that will leave readers stunned. And really, really looking forward to a break with tradition, this coming September.
Reviewed by Craig Sisterson, March 2010
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