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Jack Reacher is back, kicking ass and taking names, in Never Go Back

Never Go Back by Lee Child.

Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s protagonist in more than a decade’s worth of thrillers, is an almost perfect hero/anti-hero.

A former U.S. Army major and military policeman/investigator, Reacher is as much a loner at Clint Eastwood’s brutally efficient gunfighter in High Plains Drifter; as well-trained, resourceful and handy in close-quarters combat as Jason Bourne; as brilliantly smart and analytical as a Harvard professor; as quick to quip and wisecrack and refuse to bend to the general idiocy of the modern world as George Carlin (okay, that’s an old guy reference; think Louis C. K.); and as much of a casual babe magnet as George Clooney.

In other words, he is not going to take any shit from you, today or any time soon.

Reacher will roll into town (usually on a bus or on foot), kick ass and kill people who need killing and never forget his friends (and kill the folks messing with them, too) and figure out all the military/drug cartel/international/whatever intrigue that anybody could ever figure out – and he’ll do that, all of it, plus get the girl, while moving restlessly from place to place all over America, from tiny towns to New York and back again, never staying long, buying new clothes and discarding the old ones because he doesn’t want to be weighed down with anything, even a suitcase.  He’s a big, blonde, jaw-breaking, head-butting force of nature/ghost who gets handed (and overcomes) trouble everywhere he goes and then moves on, armed only with an ATM card, a toothbrush and a desire to not be tied down to anyone or anything.

At his best, and that would, for me, include the novels One Shot, 61 Hours, The Affair and his 1997 debut Killing Floor, Child writes about Reacher with a brisk, intricately plotted, no-frills power, sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third, piling fights and mysterious, half-glimpsed bad guys and military protocols and twists and turns and military and civilian folks good and bad and life or death situations on top of each other – these are books meant to keep you reading long past midnight, and if you like this kind of stuff, honestly, nobody does it better.

And, thanks to steadily increasing sales, laudatory reviews and a Hollywood connection that further upped his profile – One Shot was made into the mediocre-but-not-horrible 2012 Jack Reacher starring a completely miscast Tom Cruise – Child is banging on the door of being as big a deal as Stephen King or John Grisham.

Never Go Back, the just-released 18th Reacher novel, both deserves to keep him at least as popular as he’s ever been, and is a bit of a disappointment for those of us who have read all, or at least most, of the previous novels. Which is to say that while this is a worthy addition to the canon, it also provides evidence that Child is slipping – if just a little bit.

Never has its genesis in 61 Hours, in which Reacher deals with bad guys, seen and unseen, with the help of the mysterious U.S. Army Major Susan Turner, who, back on the East Coast, provides all kinds of useful information to help him fight the bad guys while making Reacher wonder if the face and body are as sexy as her voice suggests.

So, this time around, he decides to find out: He goes back to his old stomping grounds, a military base in Virginia, to seek her out. Which is kind of cool, really: Reacher is so up for going anywhere the wind takes him that he essentially travels from South Dakota to Virginia on a whim, to see if he can just take Ms. Sexy Voice out on a date. This is the way most Reacher novels start: he is just sort of going from here to there with no grand plan, not wanting any trouble but not willing to put up with any bullshit. And then, per usual, trouble finds him. At the base he finds out that Turner is in the hoosegow and doesn’t want to see him. But what’s really bad is that the Army says that, first, because of his former rank, he can still be recalled, and they by God are recalling him, right here and now, to face two charges: Murder of some guy in Los Angeles years ago, and a paternity suit involving a woman that he supposedly impregnated while stationed over in South Korea. Also years ago. Reacher, of course, remembers neither incident, but all of a sudden he has the full weight of the American military trying to put him away for the rest of his life.

Reacher novels are built on our hero figuring out a way to wriggle out of impossibly tight jams, legal and physical. This often involves gathering sensitive information about the past and the present while, every now and then, having to fight two, three, four or more guys he doesn’t know and has no beef with in parking lots, while also trying to figure out how the two are related, and how both of those things are related to mysterious and nasty goings-on somewhere else, be it Mexico or the Middle East.

This time that somewhere else is Afghanistan, and it involves two guys under Turner’s command and a bunch of dishonest SOBs at an Army base in North Carolina.

Got all that? Good. The rest of Never is full of fights, double-crosses, travel, dingy hotel rooms, more fights (including one, in a brilliantly written couple of pages, on a commercial airliner), Reacher trying to stay a few steps ahead of a bunch of folks who want to ruin his life, more travel and a final twist involving two old men in America and one old man over in the Middle East on the last few pages. And along the way, we get plenty of what Child always supplies, from the intrigue to the violence to a red herring or two to vivid writing about even the most mundane moments and places.

But that’s just the trouble. The Child formula and all its moving parts are just a little bit stale this time out. While we root for Reacher and Turner, there’s no spark to their budding romance, no real sexiness. Individual scenes (such as the ass-kicking on the airplane) are excellent but the plot is just a tad creaky when sized up against what Child has done before, and there are one or two coincidences that, even given the extraordinary circumstances Reacher is in, just don’t seem believable.

Similarly, the good-hearted military folks helping Reacher and Turner, for perhaps the first time, seem able to gather so much deep intelligence and background so quickly that it strains believability. And the big mystery at the heart of the whole deal – the stuff over in the Middle East that sets all this badness in motion that Reacher and Turner ponder – seems so obvious that anyone with even a passing knowledge of the region could figure it out.

All of which is to say that Never certainly provided several hours of entertaining reading, but it’s not quite up to Child’s previous standards. What Never reminds me of is the way the Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke hummed along so nicely year after year, and then, little by little, and then a lot by a lot, got stilted and repetitive. That’s not a serious concern yet, but you can feel the gears grinding a bit too hard and sense that Child needs to up his game a little bit, find a previously unexplored angle to Reacher’s journey or his relationships with women or his family or the military, if he’s going to truly keep things interesting. While newbies are going to be drawn in by all the attention – including a rave review in the New York Times – this is definitely not the place to start to dive into Jack Reacher’s world.