At a time when bad crime novels tend to dominate the market – much to the distress of a discerning reader – it is comforting to know that Lee Child remains as engrossing as ever. While there is no question of his latest offering being comparable to his truly great novels (namely Killing Floor and Tripwire) 61 Hours continues what has become an annual celebration for the millions of devout Reacher fans worldwide.
Jack Reacher is very much the modern knight. He travels across America and unerringly finds a damsel in distress. He adheres to a strict code. He carries nothing more than his wallet and replaces his plain, functional clothing only when absolutely necessary. Property, material wealth and the notion of settling down to a routine life hold no appeal to the retired military policeman. His dabbling with a house in a previous novel ended badly and merely served to reinforce his desire for a nomadic existence. It is of little surprise to his readership that he encounters an elderly woman in danger when the Greyhound bus he is traveling on breaks down in the small town of Bolton, North Dakota.
This nondescript town could have featured in numerous Stephen King books; it is rural American life. Whatever the criticisms of Child’s minimalist use of language may be, here the author captures the life of the town in a manner more ‘literary’ authors would be incapable of. Bolton is located beside a maximum security prison and it has generated much needed income for the impoverished community. The local police are protecting a key witness and, of course, require the services of Jack Reacher to aid them in their efforts against arctic adversity and weather conditions. Reacher steps up, once again, to protect an innocent victim of circumstance and cruelty.
Speaking of which, the villain in 61 Hours seems to have been influenced by such 1980’s cinema classics as Commando. Whatever fear he may instill in his fictional foibles, in this reviewer he instilled the lingering expectation of a cameo from a muscle bound Austrian with an even less developed sense of humour. This villain, ‘Plato’, is a South American of vague origins who is feared in his homeland. He has built a reputation on brutality that stands in contrast to his diminutive stature and name. As in the majority of Reacher novels, the villain is of subsidiary importance. We want Reacher to be challenged. We want to fear for his wellbeing. While we may delight in his violence and ability to inspire fear simply by entering a room, we also want extended fight scenes with at least a possibility of Jack not surviving, let alone winning hands down. In Plato we have a seemingly weak threat. The inescapable physical confrontation is typically one sided. Reacher is a mountain. Plato cannot possibly be seen as a viable danger to our beloved hero, which is perhaps why the novel, unlike most of Lee Child offerings, has relatively few fights. Yet when the inevitable showdown does arrive it is well worth the wait. Reacher is at his best when confronted with a target that he can quash.
The ending of 61 Hours is left unresolved, the reader is unsure as to the fate of Jack Reacher. It has become, inevitably, a bestseller and the winner of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. The character retains his mass appeal. His charms are not yet diminished on an audience that awaits the arrival of the latest episode like a child awaiting Christmas. He offers the purest form of escapism, the notion of being answerable to no one and riding out of town the hero on a horse (or Greyhound bus) with another dastardly individual vanquished. He stands at 6.5 and weighs between 220-250 lbs, allowing us all to be that bit bigger than life as we eagerly await his return in a matter of weeks.