The world is divided into two camps: those who have read a Jack Reacher novel – in which case, they’ll almost certainly have read them all – and those who have yet to discover Lee Child’s fantastically readable creation.
If you’re a Reacher fan you’ll already be heading to the checkout to buy this. But if you haven’t come across him before, let us give you a little background.
Jack Reacher is an ex-US Army Major. He was in the Military Police, and quit when he was 36. Since then, he’s roamed America, travelling light and stumbling into one adventure after another. He’s a classic knight-errant; a chivalrous, mysterious stranger compelled to right wrongs and seek justice for those unable to achieve it for themselves.
He’s also fearsomely good at unarmed combat. Child’s fight scenes, which pepper all Reacher stories, are utterly gripping, choreographed like a ballet and described in second-by-second forensic detail. Even when facing four opponents, Reacher’s brain works with calm, cold logic, drilled into him in army combat school.
“The rule of thumb when up against four was to make it three pretty damn quickly. And then to make it two just as fast, which was the win right there, the whole ball game, because obviously any graduate of any such school could not possibly have a problem going one-on-two. If he did, it would mean the instructors had done a pretty poor job of instructing, which was of course logically impossible in the army.”
Trust me, you don’t want to go up against Jack Reacher.
The Midnight Line opens in nowheresville; a dusty, nondescript western town where Jack Reacher has just climbed off the bus. Strolling past a pawnshop, he is intrigued to see a West Point Academy graduation ring in the window. It is very small – obviously a woman’s – and dated 2005. Reacher knows from his own experience what the original owner went through to earn that ring and he cannot understand why she would give it up.
So he decides to track it back to her. And he does so, step by step, ending up in the deserted badlands of Wyoming. He just wants to check that she’s okay. If she is, he’ll move on. But if anyone tries to get in his way, they’ll regret it. Deeply.
Reacher has a no-nonsense relationship with women. He carries no negative preconceptions about them. He likes strong, realistic women but never cuts them any slack because of their gender. If he likes a woman, he’ll be her friend. But if necessary, he’ll kill her.
Many Reacher fans say that this latest story has an emotional depth that earlier ones don’t. Without giving too much away it’s fair to say that the reason the West Point ring was pawned turns out to be harrowing and disturbing, and Child writes his closing pages with great sensitivity.
It’s also not giving anything away to say that Jack Reacher lives to fight another day. Which is good news for him, his creator – and us.
Read an Extract from The Midnight Line by Lee Child
Jack Reacher and Michelle Chang spent three days in Milwaukee. On the fourth morning she was gone. Reacher came back to the room with coffee and found a note on his pillow. He had seen such notes before. They all said the same thing. Either directly or indirectly. Chang’s note was indirect. And more elegant than most. Not in terms of presentation. It was a ballpoint scrawl on motel notepaper gone wavy with damp. But elegant in terms of expression. She had used a simile, to explain and flatter and apologize all at once. She had written, You’re like New York City. I love to visit, but I could never live there.
He did what he always did. He let her go. He understood. No apology required. He couldn’t live anywhere. His whole life was a visit. Who could put up with that? He drank his coffee, and then hers, and took his toothbrush from the bathroom glass, and walked away, through a knot of streets, left and right, towards the bus depot. She would be in a taxi, he guessed. To the airport. She had a gold card and a cell phone.
Just a two-minute conversation. But the message was clear. As clear as such messages could be.
At the depot he did what he always did. He bought a ticket for the first bus out, no matter where it was going. Which turned out to be an end-of-the-line place way north and west, on the shore of Lake Superior. Fundamentally the wrong direction. Colder, not warmer. But rules were rules, so he climbed aboard. He sat and watched out the window. Wisconsin flashed by, its hayfields baled and stubbly, its pastures worn, its trees dark and heavy. It was the end of summer.
It was the end of several things. She had asked the usual questions. Which were really statements in disguise. She could understand a year. Absolutely. A kid who grew up on bases overseas, and was then deployed to bases overseas, with nothing in between except four years at West Point, which wasn’t exactly known as a leisure-heavy institution, then obviously such a guy was going to take a year to travel and see the sights before he settled down. Maybe two years. But not more. And not permanently. Face it. The pathology meter was twitching.
All said with concern, and no judgement. No big deal. Just a two-minute conversation. But the message was clear. As clear as such messages could be. Something about denial. He asked, denial of what? He didn’t secretly think his life was a problem.
That proves it, she said.
So he got on the bus to the end-of-the-line place, and he would have ridden it all the way, because rules were rules, except he took a stroll at the second comfort stop, and he saw a ring in a pawn shop window.
The second comfort stop came late in the day, and it was on the sad side of a small town. Possibly a seat of county government. Or some minor part of it. Maybe the county police department was headquartered there. There was a jail in town. That was clear. Reacher could see bail bond offices, and a pawn shop. Full service, right there, side by side on a run-down street beyond the restroom block.
He was stiff from sitting. He scanned the street beyond the restroom block. He started walking towards it. No real reason. Just strolling. Just loosening up. As he got closer he counted the guitars in the pawn shop window. Seven. Sad stories, all of them. Like the songs on country radio. Dreams, unfulfilled. Lower down in the window were glass shelves loaded with smaller stuff. All kinds of jewellery. Including rings. Including class rings. All kinds of high schools. Except one of them wasn’t. One of them was West Point 2005.
It was a handsome ring. It was a conventional shape, and a conventional style, with intricate gold filigree, and a black stone, maybe semi-precious, maybe glass, surrounded by an oval hoop that had West Point around the top, and 2005 around the bottom. Old-style letters. A classic approach. Either respect for bygone days, or a lack of imagination. West Pointers designed their own rings. Whatever they wanted. An old tradition. Or an old entitlement, because West Point class rings were the first class rings of all.
It was a very small ring.
Reacher wouldn’t have gotten it on any of his fingers. Not even his left-hand pinky, not even past the nail. Certainly not past the first knuckle. It was tiny. It was a woman’s ring. Possibly a replica for a girlfriend or a fiancée. That happened. Like a tribute or a souvenir.
But possibly not.
The bus blew its horn three times. It was ready to go, but it was a passenger short.
Reacher opened the pawn shop door. He stepped inside. A guy at the register glanced up. He was a big bear of a man, scruffy and unkempt. Maybe in his middle thirties, dark, with plenty of fat over a big frame anyway. With some kind of cunning in his eyes. Enough to calibrate a response to his sudden six-five two-fifty visitor. Driven purely by instinct. He wasn’t afraid. He had a loaded gun under the counter. Unless he was an idiot. Which he didn’t look. All the same, the guy didn’t want to risk sounding aggressive. But he didn’t want to sound obsequious, either. A matter of pride.
So he said, ‘How’s it going?’
Not well, Reacher thought. To be honest. Chang would be back in Seattle by then. Back in her life.
But he said, ‘Can’t complain.’
‘Can I help you?’
‘Show me your class rings.’
The guy threaded the tray backward off the shelf. He put it on the counter. The West Point ring had rolled over, like a tiny golf ball. Reacher picked it up. It was engraved inside. Which meant it wasn’t a replica. Not for a fiancée or a girlfriend. Replicas were never engraved. An old tradition. No one knew why.
Not a tribute, not a souvenir. It was the real deal. A cadet’s own ring, earned over four hard years. Worn with pride. Obviously. If you weren’t proud of the place, you didn’t buy a ring. It wasn’t compulsory.
The engraving said S.R.S. 2005.
The bus blew its horn three times. It was ready to go, but it was a passenger short. Reacher put the ring down and said, ‘Thank you,’ and walked out of the store. He hustled back past the restroom block and leaned in the door of the bus and said to the driver, ‘I’m staying here.’
‘Not looking for one.’
‘You got a bag in the hold?’
‘Have a nice day.’
The guy pulled a lever and the door sucked shut in Reacher’s face. The engine roared and the bus moved off without him. He turned away from the diesel smoke and walked back towards the pawn shop.
Book Club Questions for The Midnight Line
1. Lee Child writes in a distinctive style, with short sentences and short chapters. How do you think this affects the reading experience, and how does it differ from other thriller writers? Is this why his books appeal to so many readers from lovers of literary fiction to hardcore thriller fans?
2. When Lee wrote the first Reacher book Killing Floor, twenty-one years ago, living off grid wasn’t as unusual as it is now. With a world connected by the internet and smart phones to the degree where people check their phones hundreds of times a day, does Reacher’s way of living with nothing but the clothes he’s wearing and a folding toothbrush hold an appeal to you?
3. In The Midnight Line, Lee explores the impact of opioid addition (through the illegal trafficking of prescription painkillers) that has swept the US and has in particular affected ex-servicemen. Do you think it could happen in the UK?
4. Knight errant, lone ranger, vigilante, lover, righteous thug, dispenser of justice – Jack Reacher has been described as all these things. What do you think is the secret of his popularity? Which of his character traits particularly appeal to you?