61 Hours, by Lee Childs

For fans of this series, I only have to say “Lee Childs” or simply “Reacher”. That's all you need to know.

When I pick up one of these immensely popular books, I know that nothing more will get done until I've turned the last page. In this 2010 addition to the series, Jack Reacher has caught a ride on a tour bus that skids off a remote South Dakota highway during the beginning of a blizzard. With his customary competence, Reacher plants flares outside, administers first aid to the elderly tourists, and works with the driver trying to get the bus started again so that they don't freeze to death. Andrew Peterson, a local policeman, arrives and arranges for transport to the nearby town of Bolton, a small town that used to be a lot smaller before a prison was built there. Reacher notices some odd things on the way into town, but we overhear Peterson and his boss, Chief Holland, discussing Reacher, asking, “‘Is he the guy?'”

One of the things that I think must be difficult with a series is to continue creating plausible scenarios where the protagonist can encounter murder or other mayhem. This problem is why a mystery series is often based on a policeman or private detective: their business is crime. Otherwise you have a little old lady in a small village where an extraordinary number of murders seem to occur. The television series Murder, She Wrote ran into the same obstacle with its version of Miss Marple, retired teacher and mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, stumbling over multiple bodies in tiny Cabot Cove, Maine. As a workaround, Jessica was often sent off on author tours that make today's authors green with jealousy, and even moved her to New York City for a while to teach a class.

Another problem with a series is maintaining suspense. Every reader has to know that the main character is not going to die, in spite of all the wretched and dangerous situations he or she is subjected to. One way to keep readers worried is to allow beloved side characters to be killed, as J.K. Rowling did in the Harry Potter series. I haven't figured out what other tricks terrific writers like Nevada Barr, Ian Rankin, and Laura Lippman use to send us breathlessly racing through story after story, fearing for the hero's safety. Any suggestions? Add them in the Comments section below.

A countdown clock is a rather obvious way to add suspense to a story, but seems fresh in Lee Childs's hands. On my first reading, I believed that the author only referred to the clock once in a while. However, going through the book again, I see that he hits that refrain often, sometimes several times in a chapter. I guess I was too absorbed in the story to register the steady tick, a credit to the writing because I am easily annoyed by such things. Suspense is also built in this story by the various mysteries, the danger to people we come to care about, and the well-spaced action scenes. Too, Childs's famously short sentences keep the suspense and the pace buzzing, while being completely appropriate for the voice of this laconic hero.

Of course it's hard to worry about Reacher when he is so capable of taking care of himself. Some reviewers have compared Reacher to Philip Marlowe. He is a big man, six-five, skilled with firearms and his own hands. A former MP, he could have ended up Chief of Staff if he'd had a more compliant nature. Instead, he was booted out of the military after a legendary bust-up with a senior officer. For years now, he has stayed on the move, retaining no possessions, even buying serviceable new clothes every few days and disposing of the old.

Reacher doesn't make me think of Marlowe; he makes me think of Shane. He comes to town, recognises the threat, and does what others don't have the ability or the guts to do. Then he leaves.

No wonder I love these books.

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