Sunday, February 13, 2022

61 Hours

61 Hours
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 15+

While crossing South Dakota in the middle of winter, a charter bus swerves on a slippery bridge and gets stuck in a snowbank. Most of the passengers are older couples on an off-season tour to see Mount Rushmore, and residents of the nearby community of Bolton take them into their homes until they can get moving again. One of the passengers, however, is Jack Reacher – a former major in the Army's Military Police, now living on the road, by choice, with nothing to his name but what he wears on his back. A bright young police officer immediately sees the potential in Reacher to help with a big problem: A nice old lady is set to testify against a local drug gang, and she's under police protection in case the gang tries to silence her. Except the police are obligated to drop everything, including protection details, to form a cordon around the federal, state and county prison just outside of town, in the event of an escape or a prison riot. And they expect one or the other to happen soon, as a cover to get at courageous Janet Salter.

While Reacher breaks the habit of a lifetime, passing up the first ride out of town to help protect the lady, another character 1,700 miles to the south is also breaking lifelong habits – a drug kingpin named Plato, who has decided to get personally involved in the assassination of Janet Salter so that that he can sell a certain asset to the Russian mafia. It's all a matter of having a clear title before the deal closes. The real estate involved is an apparently abandoned military installation whose purpose no one can recall. Even when Reacher reaches out to his successor at the 110th MP and talks her into looking into the records (in return for helping her with a case of her own), what's hidden at the site remains elusive while the hours tick away to an explosive confrontation between Reacher and the bad guys.

Each development in this book is marked by a steady countdown to the end of the 61-hour period after Reacher arrives in Bolton, S.D. It simultaneously generates suspense and a sense of mystery about exactly what it's building to. Shocking murders are part of it. Deadly betrayal. A forgotten military secret. Also, a lot more insight into the character of Reacher than you may have picked up in any single book in this series apart from the first – such as his ability to predict, almost to the exact street address, where the MPs will find a wanted fugitive several states away. His personal mottos: "Hope for the best, plan for the worst. ... Never forgive, never forget. Do it once and do it right. You reap what you sow. Plans go to hell as soon as the first shot is fired. Protect and serve. Never off duty." His early development as someone who runs toward danger rather than flinching back – revealed by a psychological study he was part of at age 6, and that made me laugh and get choked up at the same time. One character's assessment that fighting him hand-to-hand would be "like having a running chain saw thrown at you." And another character's apt description of him as "the sort of guy who sees things five seconds before the rest of the world." You want there to be heroes like Reacher in dangerous times. This book fulfills that wish, but at greater cost than most other installments in the series.

As I write this, it's closing in on Valentine's Day in my current hometown of Park Rapids, Minn., where the weather has been above freezing once since Christmas, and most days the average temperature has been below zero (often in double digits), and when it isn't it's usually snowing, and there's still snow on the ground that's been here since November, and now and then we get a blast of wind out of the Dakotas that makes it feel like -50 degrees and that turns the usually well-plowed highway into an obstacle course of wind-polished ice and skid-inducing snowdrifts. So when Reacher suffers through a week in South Dakota during a bitter cold snap with winds out of Wyoming, I know his pain in intimate detail. He experiences an even more unusual pain, for him, in this book – the feeling of being beaten. And for once, Lee Child keeps you on the hook to the last page, and beyond, wondering whether he'll stage a comeback. If it was the latest Reacher novel (which it isn't), you'd lie in bed after finishing this book, wondering if it was the last. And I don't know if this is a spoiler or the exact opposite, but on a certain level, you'll never know how he makes it out of this one. Doesn't that just drive you wild?

This is the 14th of 24 "Jack Reacher" novels by Lee Child, not counting the latest three, which are ghost-written by his brother Andrew Grant (writing as Andrew Child). It's also the 12th installment that I've read, since I'm covering the series in random order as the books come within grabbing range. This doesn't seem to be much of an impediment to following the franchise, however. Only once have I read a book in this series (Worth Dying For) that began with consequences carrying over from an installment I had missed; and this is the first book in the series that I can recall ending in a way that left me wondering what shape I would find Reacher in in the next book. And guess what? That next book is Worth Dying For. As for me, the four Reacher books that I have on my to-read pile, at this writing, are The Enemy (No. 8), The Affair (No. 16), A Wanted Man (No. 17) and Make Me (No. 20). Which still leaves a lot of holes for me to fill in. I can definitely detect a certain kinship between this book and Worth Dying For; not to mention a pattern that there always seems to be a door with something awful hidden behind it in this series. But the thing that makes this volume stand out from the set is the sense that Reacher could actually lose – and maybe does, this time; unlike any of the other Reacher novels, it leaves you guessing at the end.

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