Review: Tripwire by Lee Child

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Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels provoke wildly divergent reactions amongst lovers of crime fiction and related genres. While plenty do, a lot of folks just plain don’t like these books, even though superficially they should be right up their alley.

I’ve seen two main complaints. Let’s start with the first one, which is that Reacher is ridiculously superhuman. The reason this is a flaw (or at least is thought of that way by many) is that Reacher starts the series already superhuman with little background given. In the Destroyer series, Remo Williams (who I see as the character closest to Reacher despite significant differences) develops into a superhuman over the course of dozens of novels. Child takes the opposite approach–Reacher debuts superhuman, and both the explanations for his great abilities and the demonstrations of his humanity are developed with moments, flashbacks, and prequels over the course of the series.

In Die Trying (#2), we get the first real insight into Reacher’s background, conveyed through his mentor, General Garber. The first attempt to humanize Reacher comes in the third volume and the one under review, Tripwire.

In Tripwire, amongst the skullduggery and derring-do, we find a Reacher showing a heretofore unseen insecurity. He is questioning whether his drifting lifestyle is sustainable, and also recognizing that it might be a manifestation of some psychological problems. He has doubts. He makes errors.

The doubts begin before the action really starts, but they are brought to the fore when Reacher learns that General Garber has died and left Reacher his house and, intentionally or not, his daughter Jodie, thirty now, who Reacher had felt an inappropriate longing for when she was fifteen and he was twenty-four.

Often adept at sketching functional secondary characters, Child falls flat with Jodie. Jodie is successful and beautiful, of course, but unlike previous leading ladies, there’s not much interesting about her beyond that; certainly not enough for the reader to understand why Reacher has carried at least the embers of a torch for her for fifteen years*. Since Reacher attracts every gorgeous, intelligent woman he meets, why does this one cause him an identity crisis?

Child flounders in addressing the first complaint, and seems determined to wallow in the second, which is that these books are just too damn long. I didn’t really mind the length of the first two novels because the characters were great and the plots were epic. Reacher himself describes the bad guys in Tripwire as small-time, and there’s nothing wrong with having a book featuring small-time crooks as the antagonists. But that book should not be 500 pages**. There isn’t nearly enough plot or action in Tripwire to warrant that length and I found myself getting impatient, something that hadn’t happened with the previous two volumes. I doubt the publishers would have accepted a 200 page Reacher novel–must look good on the shelves at the airport newsstand, you know–but Tripwire should have been one and likely would have been great fun had it been.

In a book I found disappointing, one thing should be noted that is very much to the positive, which is Child’s willingness to shake things up. After Die Trying, I would have guessed that General Garber was going to be around for quite some time, and if he left us several volumes down the line, it would be in a dramatic and heroic death scene. Nope. Instead, a terrific character dies before the novel even starts, upsetting both Reacher’s entire world and the reader’s expectations just like that. It’s a bold and admirable move, and it means I’ll go on to number four despite my lack of enthusiasm for this one.

If you’re a Reacher fan, you’ll read and find some things to enjoy in this book despite its problems. If you’re only looking to sample the best of the series, step over this Tripwire.

* This hurts the novel greatly, although it’s somewhat made up for by the character of Marilyn Stone, a seemingly regular housewife who proves to have great reserves of strength and cunning when she and her husband are threatened.

** It’s situations like this where the occasional optimist in me thinks that the advent of digital publishing could be a huge boon–perhaps authors will start writing to the length of the story rather than to the length demanded by the publisher. Child recently published a Reacher short story (Second Son) that was about 50 pages long for $1.99. How about a 200 page Reacher for $5.99?

Posts in this series:

Review: Killing Floor and Die Trying by Lee Child

Review: Tripwire (this post)