The Midnight Line by Lee Child – book review

by Peter Calder / 23 January, 2018

Lee Child. Photo/Alamy

Jack Reacher joins the war on drugs in a sloppy and sludgy new thriller.

Is Donald Trump a Lee Child fan? Insiders have reported he never reads anything that’s not about him, and has not even read ghost-written books that are nominally of his authorship.

But The Midnight Line, the new Jack Reacher novel and the 22nd in the series, touches on the opioid crisis in the US that Trump recently declared a national public health emergency. Maybe he used it as briefing material.

Full disclosure: I’m not a great admirer of Child, though, like any writer, I’m insanely jealous of him (the blurb on this one says he sells a book every nine seconds), and I have read plenty of airport fiction. I found One Shot (the raw material of the first Reacher film in 2012) a well-constructed thriller, but getting through Never Go Back was an effort.

This new one will surely be my last, because a third read reveals Child is more cowboy builder than fine cabinetmaker. Even the best popular-fiction writers are let down by editors – in The Godfather, Mario Puzo noted twice that Don Vito Corleone “was notoriously straitlaced in matters of sex”. Child goes one better, telling us that one of the book’s evil drug dealers regarded putting information to work at once as “rule one in the modern business environment”, on the very next page that the “number one rule in the business environment” is that “productivity [depends] on the maximum use of all fixed assets”, and less than 50 pages later that in “the modern environment … business [is] all about velocity”.

Of course, Child writes books for the reader to rattle through, and they are ill-served by the kind of close reading that pencil-wielding reviewers can’t help engaging in. But sloppiness of this sort suggests a lack of respect for the reader other than as a source of income.

The poet Bob Orr once told me that he doesn’t read this sort of fiction because it condescends to and manipulates the reader. The Reacher novels fit his description well. The seven-on-one fist fight, amusing when first encountered, feels tired and formulaic; the fact he never eats anything but pancakes, eggs and bacon in a diner every few days, once engaging, now just irritates; his habit of discarding clothes when they’re dirty rather than going to a laundromat has become infuriating (does he never change his undies?).

In The Midnight Line, our hulking hero, on a bus from nowhere to nowhere (these are the only buses he ever takes), spots in a pawnshop window a small ring of the sort West Point graduates wear (he is one, but he doesn’t, natch). He knows such rings are hard-won, sees its lady-finger size and scents a damsel in distress.

His path to her rescue is long and tortuous, and, to be honest, my attention wandered because the storytelling is as sludgy as a bad opioid hangover. When the writing attempts to avoid cliché (he has his coffee “black, fresh, hot and strong”, which is a libation rarely encountered in America), the metaphor is clunky; one character is “as awkward as a stepladder”, and stepladders are the opposite of awkward. And he gets Reacher to make random observations that, when they’re not weird, are just plain wrong.

All this will make no difference to Child’s fans or sales. But, for this reader, Reacher has worn out his welcome.

THE MIDNIGHT LINE, by Lee Child (Bantam, $38)  

This article was first published in the December 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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