Lee Child’s 14th offering reads like High Noon blended with the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, in which our strong, silent hero finds himself stuck in a blizzard-trapped town, reluctantly helping out the beleaguered local police force.
Child is an unusual thriller writer in that his novels - which all feature the same protagonist, Jack Reacher - are sometimes told in the first person voice, others in the third. 61 HOURS is a third-person narrative, which affords an emotional distance from Reacher. This is not strictly speaking a necessary device, as Reacher is an impassive character who is rarely if ever given to emotional displays.
That said, Reacher is himself a likeable character. Although he has been compared to James Bond, his status as a drifter (albeit an ex-military man) precludes him from carrying weapons in 61 HOURS. He proves himself very resourceful in other ways, however, and his eye for detail - and Lee Child’s impressive research - is frequently entertaining.
On the downside, the fact that he is a series character lessens the tension somewhat, given that Jack Reacher will inevitably reach the end of the story in one piece, regardless of how high are the odds stacked against him. Mind you, 61 HOURS ends with an explosive climax, from which it’s difficult to see Reacher escaping. (We’re promised another Jack Reacher novel in six months’ time, so you would have to assume that he survives.)
Child also creates a number of interesting secondary characters, chief among them the local deputy of police Peterson. A hardworking, blue-collar guy, Peterson represents the morality of the piece, along with Janet Salter, an aging librarian who has witnessed a murder and is under police protection. The Chief of Police, Holland, is potentially a more fascinating character, given that his moral compass is skewed, but Child tends to create characters who are either all good or all bad. A Mexican drug lord called Plato accounts for the latter in this novel; again a potentially interesting character, his story becomes little more than a litany of ruthless and often lethal actions as the narrative progresses.
61 HOURS is neither emotionally nor morally complex. That may well be the price readers of high-concept thrillers pay, but there are clear hints that Child is capable of far more complex work than is evidenced in this novel. Despite the attention to detail, and the fact that Child roots the story in an utterly plausible reality, there’s a cartoon quality to Jack Reacher and his world in terms of its black-and-white depictions of good and evil.
For that reason, 61 HOURS demands a suspension of disbelief from the reader that can be hard to sustain. As a kind of trade-off, Child maintains a blistering pace throughout, employing brevity when it comes to chapter length, with each chapter ending on a cliff-hanger.
The caveats are minor, though. This was my first Jack Reacher novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Child’s style is terse and economical, and while the book is a page-turner, the swift pace never felt rushed. - Declan Burke