Reacher was quiet a beat.
“I get uneasy,” he said. “I can’t stay in one place. I’m sure if you gave the VA enough time, they could come up with a name for it. Maybe I could get a check from the government.”
“It’s a medical condition?”
“Some would say.”
“Does it bother you?”
“Turns out I don’t want to stay in one place anyway.”
“How frequently do you move around?”
“Do you think that’s a fitting way for a West Pointer to live?”
“I think it’s perfectly fitting.”
“In what sense?”
“We fought for freedom. This is what freedom looks like.”
As Jack Reacher novels go, here’s another one.
Actually, that’s not quite true. There’s two kinds of Reacher novels: Reacher-alone-on-the-road tales, and Reacher-at-the-seat-of-power stories. I understand why Lee Child does both kinds — the seat-of-power novels seem like a calculated bone to the Brad Meltzer-Vince Flynn apocalyptic-stakes-thriller audience, and a smart author takes advantage of every audience he can reach.
But Reacher tends to disappear inside the roar of the loud machines that power the seat of power, and as a result, I think those novels are the most tedious and least compelling of the Child oeuvre.
Reacher is a lone wolf who doesn’t play well with others, and so it’s in the on-the-road novels that Reacher is able to be his Reacheriest: a sort-of-sociopathic, slightly semi-autistic, surly and seemingly reluctant knight-errant. As he put it in his very first appearance in The Killing Floor: “I don’t care about the little guy. I just hate the big guy.” Not a very likable stance, or, really, a very likable person, and yet much of the world loves Jack Reacher. Kind of like Donald Trump. Who we know Jack Reacher would hate.Go figure.
Me, I’m not so much a Reacher fan as I am a Lee Child fan. Child’s detractors tend to focus on his flat prose and his fantastical character, who never develops as a character from one book to the next and whose every action seems to stretch the bounds of suspended belief beyond their breaking point.
But what they overlook, in my opinion, is a simple bit of genius. Every story starts with a completely blank slate. There’s almost no backstory to ever bog down the beginning, which unfolds with deceptively lazy speed that you’re not aware something is happening until a first violent encounter, which can sometimes happen more than a hundred pages into a Reacher novel. There’s a lot of low humming silence in a Reacher book, and I think thriller readers appreciate the occasional break from the Michael Bay blast-a-thon of the typical thriller.
Lee Child is a master of malignant quiet.
Anyway. The Midnight Line is one of the good ones: a story that starts with Reacher and his famous folding toothbrush on a bus through Wisconsin after a three-day romantic relationship hits its hard expiration date. The setup is one of Child’s best: Reacher happens to spot a ring in a pawnshop window. It’s a West Point class ring, and as a West Pointer, Reacher knows that nobody who earned such a ring would give it up except under the most extreme duress.
So, with nothing but time on his hands, Reacher decides to track down the ring’s owner. The trail leads to western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming, and crashes hard into a timely controversy: America’s opioid addiction crisis. Child does one of his best character studies here, of a injured soldier from the Afghanistan war who is not only addicted to fentanyl, but has no interest whatsoever in not being addicted to fentanyl, and makes a compelling case for a life better lived within a constant painkilling high.
Critics from The New York Times and The Washington Post have praised The Midnight Line as a major character-arc-developer for Reacher, but I think that’s overselling an otherwise good but not absolute-top-of-the-line Reacher novel. We’ve had feints in this direction before. Remember a few books back when Child teased us with the possibility that Reacher might have a teenage daughter?
For one, the novel suffers — somewhat — from the lack of a truly first-rate villain with plenty of blustery justification and page time. For another, however deeply Reacher gets involved in the problems of the ring’s owner, is there really any doubt that he’s going to walk away in the end and start out on a new road to his next adventure? (Come on. You know that was never really going to happen, don’t you?)
The Midnight Line is the twenty-second Reacher novel. The quality of the series, from book to book, is wildly uneven, but this one I’d place in the bottom of the top third. There is a sameness to the book that feels tired, but Lee Child himself doesn’t seem particularly tired of doing what he does best, and in the end that makes this novel one I’d recommend.