'Night School' By Lee Child Shows A Gentler, More Intellectual Side Of Jack Reacher

British author Lee Child.
British author Lee Child.

Lee Child

Bantam Press (UK)

Published: November 2016

The year is 1996. Jack None Reacher, 6 foot 5 and 250 pounds, is 35 years old and still an M.P. in the United States Army. The succinct and direct opening line of Night School, Lee Child's 21 foray into Reacher's adventures, is perfectly representative of the author and his hero – "In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school." The medal is a Legion of Honour for unnamed services rendered in the Balkans and the "school" is a top-secret interagency operation formed of Reacher and his counterparts in the FBI and CIA, along with Dr. Marian Sinclair, the senior deputy for Alfred Ratcliffe, the National Security Adviser to the president of the United States. The problem? The line "The American wants a hundred million dollars" overheard by one of their moles at a sleeper terrorist cell in Hamburg with young Saudi operatives.

The writing's as crisp as ever, with the author continuing to stick to his hero's maxim on dealing with his superiors—"short words, no math and no diagrams"...

A shadowy terrorist organisation in Afghanistan, with slowly spreading links across a Europe just about clear of the after-effects of the Second World War, is the other player in this potential deal. But who is the American and what is he selling at that price? Are they dealing with Y2K threats that were so predominant in those times? Or is it nuclear-related? In a pre-9/11 era, when the word "terrorist" was still not a very well-known one, and they don't have the aid of modern-day technology like the world-wide web and smart phones, Reacher and company have to pool all their analogue resources and crack the mystery before something catastrophic happens. In addition, they have to deal with a local Neo-Nazi organisation in Hamburg that is operating unknown to them with keen interests in whatever the American is selling.

The writing's as crisp as ever, with the author continuing to stick to his hero's maxim on dealing with his superiors—"short words, no math and no diagrams"—but maintaining an excellent attention to detail, and an innate sense of structure, rhythm and visual energy. It's more than enough to forgive even the use of a few clichés.

"The restaurants and the bars were lit up amber, low and welcoming, as if they were all friendly dim spaces, panelled with oak. On the streets, traffic was steady. Cars passed by, every detail of the glowing scene duly reflected in their waxed panels, their new headlights probing ahead, restlessly, unnaturally blue."

Because of the nature of the subject and the plot, and its focus on intelligence work which is naturally not as immediately gratifying as physical combat, Night School feels simultaneously fast and slow, but not to its detriment. The stakes are high and the three parallel story threads (Reacher, the American and the terrorists) have a quick turnover. But since we are treated to new information a fraction or more before the characters, seeing how, when or whether they figure these out adds a very satisfying but slower layer to what is a complex and ambitious plot.

This brings me to other interesting shifts from previous Reacher books. Our hero has been modelled on western frontier legends—the lone cowboys in unfamiliar terrain against a bunch of bad guys, the nomads who go around defeating evil where they find it. Occasionally, Reacher is paired up with one or two other characters (usually local law enforcement). But in most of the books, he works alone. Here, he's a team player. Well, he still shows clear signs of stubbornness and doing things his own way that characterises the older version of him, but there are still superiors, orders to follow, protocols to observe as an employee of his country, and he can't go all Rambo on them. Which makes for interesting character development, and a chance for the author to show us a different side of him. The side that can't rely on his impressive physical prowess, but has to use his considerable deductive and logical abilities, and also trust in and depend on the others in his team. Especially his former 110 regiment colleague, Frances Neagley, who makes a very welcome return to the series. It is also realistic because the matter to be resolved is one of global security in a European country as opposed to a local issue in the heart of America, and it would have been too much, even for a wish-fulfillment hero like Reacher, to achieve it on his own.

There are still superiors, orders to follow, protocols to observe as an employee of his country, and [Reacher] can't go all Rambo on them.

We get to see why Reacher was such a good military police investigator; at the same time, Child allows us some expertly written scenes of physical combat that seem more explosive in what is a predominantly cerebral novel. The author has always been good at crafting these action scenes, and the ones in Night School are no exception, but I hadn't realised until now that sometimes when we're reading the action on the page and through Reacher's eyes and mind, it's easy to forget how fast it actually happens in reality.

The end feels strangely satisfying and equally lacking because there is no classic climactic combat scene against a formidable enemy, or enemies after the extremely high stakes. There is instead a logical team effort that is the culmination of their quiet, efficient investigative work. Night School is more "subdued" than other books in the series, but in retrospect, it isn't any less absorbing or any less meticulously researched. In fact, after the disturbing depths of the dark web explored in Make Me (the book before this), this is a refreshing, old-fashioned mystery that is distinctly different from any of the previous books and the better for it, even though it's in the character's past (it's also a "sexier" Reacher book in keeping with previous books set in his past, but I'm not complaining!). Is this shift in tone and narrative a planned one that provides us with an insight into the future creative direction of this series? Reacher, in the present day, is fast getting to a point where he will not be able to indulge in adventures of previous intensity, and though the author has adapted the books to his advancing age (including introducing him to physical vulnerability), he will have to answer the question of his hero's mortality sooner rather than later. I also want to know whether he's still with Agent Chang, with whom he drove off into the sunset in Make Me in what was the first possible chance of continuity in a series that has been far from chronological. Bring on book number 22!

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