‘Night School” is the 21st book in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, but who’s counting? Most of us can merely marvel at the continuing allure of Reacher, think “you’ve come a long way, baby” and leave it at that.
Child, though, is a numbers guy: All of the books, with their emphases on timing, probability, precise logistics and spatial calculations, reveal that. And passing No. 20 must have been some kind of milestone for him. How else to explain the shake-up he has given the series here, taking a solitary character, whose sole traveling companion is usually a toothbrush, and turning him into a team player?
A little history: In most of the books, which take place well after this one, Reacher is a former Army MP who thinks like a knight but looks like a drifter. He stops to right wrongs wherever he finds them, then moves on to whatever locale Child dreams up next. Reacher was kept wandering in the wilderness – or the American Midwest – for four books (“61 Hours,” “Worth Dying For,” “A Wanted Man” and “Never Go Back”) before getting back to the Pentagon, where he found himself in a heap of trouble.
Child has also fleshed out the character by moving him around in time. And he has shaken up the series by going far afield, as with “Personal,” in which Reacher tries to prevent the assassination of the president of France. His previous book, “Make Me,” wandered so far down into the dark web that an about-face was clearly needed.
Child has embedded a 30-something Reacher in a spy story. It’s the old-fashioned kind. It requires teamwork and networks of operatives and in one instance a lamp moved on a windowsill to send a signal. The year is 1996 – and the shrouded villain is the tall, thin leader of a secret organization. He is hidden in a remote part of Afghanistan, spending a lot of money on things that might be weaponized in an elaborate terrorist scheme.
Reacher is still in the Army as “Night School” opens. “In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school,” the book begins. The medal is a Legion of Honor for something gory in the Balkans that Reacher does not remotely regret.
The school of the title is really just a tiny interagency group of U.S. operatives: Reacher, a counterpart at the FBI and one at the CIA. They are all certified heroes and are entrusted with a top-secret mission. The U.S. government has been watching a Saudi cell in Hamburg and knows it has been communicating by courier with the tall guy. It also knows that a person known only as the American is trying to sell the Saudis $100 million worth of something. What is it? Unknown.
Reacher is sent to Hamburg to investigate. Not much is made of his European upbringing (revealed in other books), but this rigid creature of habit is able to adapt to pastry shops instead of diners – barely. He cases Hamburg in the company of Frances Neagley, with whom series fans know he will spend more time in later books. He baits Germans as war losers with alarming gusto. But he doesn’t even have to win his battles alone in “Night School.” He can have a teammate deliver that final kick to the groin.
Still, Reacher plays fairly nicely with others. And while it’s surprising to find him as part of a group in this book, the changeup works. Unlike most Reacher books, which start at breathless velocity and then wind up having to work through huge, empty action scenes later, this one gets better as it goes along.
Child seems also to have indulged somebody’s urge – his own, his readers’, his publisher’s – to make Reacher sexier. In this book he is wowed by a woman in a black dress, perfume and pearls.
It’s not always easy for Child to juggle Reacher’s chronology. But he knows the juggling is necessary to keep the series exciting, and the choices he’s made for “Night School” are smart ones.
Author: Lee Child (369 pages, Delacorte, $28.99)