It’s interesting to me how John le Carré’s work has infused the culture around us, sliding shadows across everything from the novels of Joseph Kanon to mini-series such as Homeland and (most excellently) The Americans. (Longform television is a great medium for spy stories, with plenty of room for human complexity, moral ambiguity, and even some deep-dish metaphysics.)
Then, of course, there’s Ian Fleming, James Bond’s pater, less lauded maybe but no less influential (and whose creation is more a commando-hitman than a proper spy). Fleming’s shadow also stretches not only in the movies and numerous follow-up Bond novels but also in the twenty novels of Lee Child, featuring his very Bondian hero, Jack Reacher.
Being a le Carré man, I’ve not read much Fleming since pubescence. I read Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, for the first time a couple of years ago and thought it was all right (except for a howling dangling modifier, which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. No, go on. You’ll blush, I guarantee it). I was surprised by how closely the terrific Daniel Craig film version followed its overall plot.
In the meantime, for those who have read all of Fleming and are yearning for something contemporary (and less reactionary), there’s Mr. Reacher, a contemporary hero who’s a combination of Bond and those mysterious wanderers of the whirlwinds out of Zane Grey and a thousand westerns from William S. Hart through Shane and Sergio Leone’s “Dollar” films (and, if you want to get carried away, Jack Kerouac’s fiction).
I read the first Reacher novel, The Killing Floor, while on vacation in 2008, and as I did with Casino Royale, I liked it fine without wanting more and again. I like Child’s precise way of explaining things, such as the workings of money in modern society, and his vivid action. Still, there seemed to be not much going on underneath, at least not enough to go riding out with Reacher again.
Lately, I thought I’d try again with the latest Reacher novel Make Me.
Here, peripatetic Reacher steps off the train at the obscure Oklahoma crossroads of Mother’s Rest. Right away he senses trouble: for such an obscure smudge on the map, the folks of this tiny waystation seem awfully nervous, both at Reacher’s presence and the presence of Chang, a beautiful Asian-American ex-FBI agent who now works as a private investigator. Ms. Chang is searching for her missing partner, Keever, whose last whereabouts was Mother’s Rest.
Reacher and Chang discover Mother’s Rest to be ground zero in a perverse and evil scheme whose roots reach deep down. The narrative builds slowly, accumulating precise and threatening detail along the way, a quality I like in a thriller, before ripping loose in a bloody chain of brutal action. The plot zigs, zags and circles away from Mother’s Rest, stopping off in Chicago and Los Angeles, before looping back to the tiny prairie hamlet where it lands with a brutal crunch.
Less-demanding readers than I should find Make Me quite entertaining. Lee Child is a master plotter with a magician’s way of twisting his plots about so surprises pop up from every chapter.
The rest of us, the fussier contingent, may find there’s less than meets the eye here. Indomitable and competent though he is, rootless Jack Reacher doesn’t seem that compelling a character to me. Child is British, Reacher American, but somehow the latter doesn’t quite feel quite rooted in this country. He could be from anywhere, making him a true Man from Nowhere.
Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble, Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.