A not-so-nice guy takes on truly bad guys

Review Crime Fiction

May 14, 2006|By JANET MASLIN | JANET MASLIN,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Hard Way

Lee Child

Delacorte Press / 371 pages / $25

Manhattan. SoHo. Daybreak. A lone figure moves watchfully down West Broadway until he sees a partygoer passed out in a doorway. In the prone man's pocket he spots a rectangular shape. He recognizes this as folding money: mostly $20 bills from an ATM withdrawal, plus smaller-denomination change from a taxi fare. He's guessing it adds up to $173.

Moving carefully, working one hand's middle and index fingers like a pincer, he reaches carefully into the pocket to extract the cash. And then - ouch! - he is very sorry. Because the sleeping giant in the doorway is Jack Reacher. And he hasn't been sleeping. And for Jack Reacher, there is only one word for this would-be thief: amateur. Reacher, on the other hand, is a professional.

"I call it the dawn patrol," explains the newly injured pickpocket. "There's sometimes two or three guys like you."

"Not exactly like me," Reacher answers. This is an understatement. Nine red-hot books ago, Lee Child concocted the rough, tough Superman of the crime-busting genre, as smart and charismatic as he is unbeatable. And then Child broke the mold.

Reacher returns in this series' 10th installment, The Hard Way. It's one more labyrinthine story that takes off like a shot: As usual, Child has you at hello.

Crime writers will do anything to grab attention in a book's opening paragraph, but Child achieves this without breaking a sweat. There's Reacher at a Greenwich Village cafe. He ordered espresso: "foam cup, no china," because he's a man who might leave in a hurry. "And before it arrived at his table he saw a man's life change forever." Neat little flourish: "Not that the waiter was slow."

Once again Child combines brute force and brilliant deduction in the 6-foot-5-inch person of this footloose, mysterious former military police officer. Reacher's Army training serves him well when he is recruited to find the kidnapped wife of a shady figure named Edward Lane. Lane runs a highly profitable band of mercenaries who have meddled in other countries' affairs all around the globe. As one of them tells Reacher:

"`We go anywhere Uncle Sam needs us.'

"`What about where Uncle Sam doesn't need you?'

"Nobody spoke."

Child is so clever that he makes Reacher too clever. Reacher calmly reels off his suppositions about the kidnapping, and they all turn out to be wrong. That's part of what keeps this game interesting, as are the author's superb plotting skills and fondness for unusual story angles. Not long into The Hard Way it is revealed that the abduction of Kate Lane and her daughter, Jade, is the second of its kind. Why have two beautiful wives of Lane's been kidnapped?

When The Hard Way begins unraveling Lane's history, it winds up in grisly places. The mercenaries' activities in Africa have had lingering consequences, and the book describes them unflinchingly. For instance, there is an imprisoned soldier of fortune who spends a year looking at his hand, for reasons that are ghastly in the extreme.

Lane's role in the book becomes an occasion for what is heavy sadism, even for Reacher. This mean streak goes beyond most readers' capacity for vicarious enjoyment.

But the unalloyed satisfaction in Child's books comes from his main character's thought processes. And Reacher's command of minuscule details remains sublime. There are no casual observations here, not even the superfastidious ones that seem more crazy than canny. Reacher is the kind of guy who has no idea what a Staples store sells (he doesn't have a change of clothing, let alone an office) but scopes out a store with relentless curiosity. The biggest thing Staples sells is a desk, he notices. Which is the smallest? Thumbtack or paper clip? That depends on whether the measure is size or weight.

Once again there is disarmingly dry humor in the contrast between Reacher's brawn and his delicate sensibilities.

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