By Lee Child. Delacorte Press, New York, November 2016. 384 pages. $28.99.
You don't always learn a lot in night school.
In Lee Child's 20th Jack Reacher thriller, "Night School," we go back in time to 1996. Reacher is in his mid-30's and unlike most Reacher novels, he's still a major in the Army and he's experiencing success as a special MP. Fans know Reacher primarily as a tough ex-MP who zigzags the country alone and untethered. How come? Where did the idiosyncratic do-gooder get his motivation? "Night School," we expect, may shed some light on the enigmatic loner with a fold-up toothbrush and no luggage.
In "Night School," Reacher and a handful of others have been asked, essentially by the President of the United States, to look into a pending $100 million transaction between an unknown American and three Saudis with radical allegiances just three years after the first bombing of the World Trade Center. What costs $100 million? When we meet up with the 35-year-old version of Reacher, he's just been awarded a medal for accomplishment and has better sex than he does a decade later -- or is that just Lee Child getting better at writing sex scenes?
Reacher is already a tough guy back in 1995, but he's more of a team player because the Army demands compliance. He has a female boss he digs physically and a female partner, also possibly his type except she can't abide being touched. Reacher is already a rogue player, and that's one reason he's brought onto the team. They expect him to veer off and they are ready to cut the cord if he fails.
The story takes place in Hamburg, Germany, a shipping port where, possibly, the thing for sale may come or go. It takes a long time for Reacher to track down the American and the $100 million item he's selling. For the first half of the book we're reading to find out what that big ticket item is. It's a simple plot that author Lee Child complicates with clever detection. Reacher/Child are masters of the obscure fact and have, readers are sure, never lost a round of Trivial Pursuit.
A subplot adds interest. Reacher's team and the cooperating German police are shadowed by a large group of Neo-Nazis bent on returning Germany to the Germans. These guys have moles everywhere, which means that they easily intervene in the U.S./German strategies and derail plans. Sometimes Reacher guesses wrong, lacks his later prescient ways and doesn't yet possess that loner mindset we fans love. These weaknesses make for more suspense but do not endear us to our protagonist in the same ways as previous novels.
We fans of Lee Child's 6-foot-5 protagonist know that Reacher matures into a loner who cuts all ties with everything and everyone. Since it's his way or the highway after he leaves the Army, he does take to the road. He roams the United States, drawn to situations where justice needs righting and bad guys need offing. What makes the books interesting is this one question: How is this loner going to get out of this crazy mess? Fists, sharp elbows and handy baseball bats assist, as does lots of interior problem-solving. Even at 250 pounds, it seems unlikely that Reacher can flatten four to six hulks who want him reduced to pulp.
The solitary enforcer's genesis is of great interest. In "Night School," his body isn't as scarred and he's not yet the pariah he will be, but Child's early Reacher is not that different from the man we love now. And there's too much espionage and not enough Reacher, almost as if envisaging Tom Cruise reprising Reacher in a third action-adventure loosely based on Reacher. "Night School" is entertaining but not that enlightening.
-- Rae Padilla Francoeur's memoir, "Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair," is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.