July/August 2007 -- Thriller writer Lee Child sure knows how to grab a reader on page one.
In the first chapter of his eleventh bestseller, Bad Luck and Trouble, nameless men hover over the California desert in a Bell 222 helicopter. They lift from the floor a bound man on a stretcher, whom they’ve already tortured viciously.
Then they dump him, still alive, out of the aircraft to plunge three thousand terrifying feet to his death.
Their victim is Calvin Franz, a former military policeman who belonged to an Army special investigations unit. But bad as things got for Calvin, things will soon get much, much worse for the guys who murdered him.
You see, the M.P. unit’s motto had been, “You do not mess with the special investigators.” And this tightly knit team was led by a man you definitely don’t want to mess with: Jack Reacher.
At six-feet-five and 250 pounds, shrewdly intuitive and utterly self-sufficient, Reacher is a kind of hybrid of Goliath, Sherlock, and Shane. Ten years out of the military, he’s become a drifter and loner, without address or ties, his sole concessions to society being a folding toothbrush, a passport, an ATM card, and the clothes on his back. Only one of the clever investigators from the old unit could possibly figure out how to contact this ghost: She leaves a deposit in his bank account in an amount that Reacher quickly deciphers as a coded message—a call for help.
The donor is Frances Neagley, the toughest woman Reacher ever knew. They meet in Los Angeles, where they learn about Calvin’s murder—and before long, about the similar grisly deaths of other members of the unit. Soon, in a sober reunion, they’re joined by the team’s last two survivors: beautiful forensic accountant Karla Dixon and tough-guy detective David O’Donnell.
“There are dead men walking, as of right now,” Reacher tells them. “You don’t throw my friends out of helicopters and live to tell the tale.”
Somebody’s just earned a heap of bad luck and trouble.
What follows is a delightful departure for the Reacher series, as this lone wolf rejoins a pack of pals bent upon revenge in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a tale in the timeless tradition of The Magnificent Seven—or perhaps a better analogy might be to the “Doc Savage” pulp novels of decades past, with Reacher in the title role and leading a band of formidable friends against ruthless adversaries.
The colorful quartet stoically masks its deep bonds of affection with plenty of playful insults and dry, understated wit. One of the funniest scenes occurs when they return to their motel to find their rooms ransacked and their property trashed. Reacher’s terse, one-word response is hilarious. You know he won’t stop until justice is delivered.
But—delivered to whom? In keeping with previous thrillers in the series, Child weaves a devious mystery throughout a tapestry of unrelenting action. Why were the special investigators targeted? Was it due to blowback from some case in the distant past? Or did one of the victims stumble upon something ugly and unwittingly draw the others in? The clues to be cracked include obscure numerical patterns—fodder for the deductive talents of math-freak Reacher—and the baffling password to a murder victim’s computer.
Bad Luck and Trouble is one of the best thrillers available.
The plot ultimately sends the reader on a collision course with today’s most chilling news headlines. And for the white-knuckle finale, which pits the indomitable Reacher and his comrades against the bad guys in the inevitable violent confrontation, Child delivers the perfect resolution.
Lee Child is a master craftsman of the thriller form and a brilliant stylist. His prose is lean as a blade and as sharp. Short, tightly wound sentences and sentence fragments uncoil down the page in hypnotic cadences, revealing plot and character nuances with deft, economical precision.
Reacher to Neagley, outside an upscale hotel:
“I can’t afford to stay here.”
“I already booked your room.”
“Booked it or paid for it?”
“It’s on my card.”
“I won’t be able to pay you back.”
“Get over it.”
“This place has got to be hundreds a night.”
“I’ll let it slide for now. Maybe we’ll take some spoils of war down the track.”
“If the bad guys are rich.”
“They are,” Neagley said. “They have to be. How else would they afford their own helicopter?”
Volumes of data delivered here, in staccato bursts as terse as a telegram.
But the best treat of this and the other Reacher novels is the character himself. Child has done the near-impossible in creating a character that is completely three-dimensional yet without a single tic of neurosis. It’s hard to recall many popular fiction heroes as ethically clean and psychologically serene. Reacher doesn’t ooze self-confidence; it gushes from his pores. You don’t think: “Boy, in a jam, I’d sure like Jack Reacher at my back.” You think: “Boy, in a jam, I’d sure like to be Jack Reacher.”
Bad Luck and Trouble is one of the best of the Reacher tales. Which is to say: It’s one of the best thrillers available. Like all the books, it doesn’t require familiarity with the earlier outings; they stand on their own and can be read in any order.
This novel would be a good place to start, one certain to pull you into the ranks of the “Reacher Creatures.”