In the opening pages of Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep," Phillip Marlowe stares up at a "glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady" and observes that "sooner or later" he'll "have to climb up there and help him." In these famous few lines, Chandler establishes the hard-boiled hero as a modern-day knight -- only better.
In the opening pages of Lee Child's "Gone Tomorrow," Jack Reacher, the enigmatic ex-military police officer, confirms what fans (called Reacher's Creatures) have understood for years. Reacher is Marlowe's literary descendant, and a 21st-century knight -- only tougher.
This is the 13th book in Child's terrific series featuring Reacher, and it's the most provocative and thrilling one yet. In the middle of the night on a New York subway train, Reacher does something he doesn't do very often -- he screws up. He seriously misreads a situation and as a result gets pulled into the overt violence and covert subterfuge of America's war on terrorism.
Reacher's a loner with few belongings and even fewer friends. He carries only what he needs: a bank card, a passport, a toothbrush, and pocket change. Since leaving the Army, he prefers a transient life to stability and security. Yet, like a medieval knight, Reacher's code of honor draws him into quests, noble pursuits on behalf of those less able to fight for themselves. Reacher's the guy you want watching your back ... or you'd like in your bed. This quest begins as a search for atonement for the mistake on the subway, but it becomes something much deeper and way more dangerous.
Rising suspense and swift pacing are integral to a thriller and Child is a master at both, never sacrificing great storytelling or character development for thrills. Readers are privy to Reacher's observations, but not always to his conclusions. This creates cliff-hanging moments and gasp-worthy twists that lead to the novel's explosive final chapters. From the opening sequence on the train, Child quickens the pace, layering double-crosses, deceits, conspiracies and clues until readers are hurtling across the pages.
In "Gone Tomorrow," Child isn't just giving us the summer's best thriller. He's also bearing witness to the complicated consequences of a war on terrorism, one of which is survivor's guilt, and not just Reacher's -- America's, too. That's why the setting is Manhattan, because "the world is the same jungle all over, but New York is its purest distillation," and it all could be gone tomorrow. Toward the end of Reacher's quest, the enemies he's seeking remain difficult to find, difficult to vanquish, and their motivations difficult to understand. Reacher leads the charge nonetheless. We're behind him all the way.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at carolebarrowman.com