Something satisfying in a good mystery
Jack Reacher is back.
In Past Tense (Delacorte Press, 2018, 382 pages), Lee Child, author of 21 novels about Jack Reacher, plus a collection of short stories, drops the wandering hero into the town where Reacher’s father was born and raised. Reacher has never visited Laconia, New Hampshire, and hopes to see where his deceased father came of age, believing some familiarity with the town might allow him insights into his family’s history.
Meanwhile, Patty Sundstorm and Shorty Fleck, a young couple from Canada, are on the run, making their way to New York to sell the valuables in the trunk of their car and then on to Florida to open a windsurfing rental business. When their car breaks down, they end up in a motel far off the beaten path. Not only do they soon realize they are the motel’s only guests, but they also slowly become aware that the owners have some special treatment in store for them. Soon, Patty and Shorty are prisoners, locked in their room, their every move, their every sound, captured on hidden cameras.
Back in Laconia, Jack Reacher’s search takes him to Ryantown, a nearby village where his father had lived, abandoned 50 years earlier once the town’s tin mill had closed. During his investigation, Reacher becomes acquainted with various townspeople, including a female clerk and a police officer. One night he embeds himself deeper into the town’s affairs when he rescues a woman from sexual assault, stomps the assailant, and so faces a vendetta from the young man’s family.
As the story continues — to tell much more would blow the plot — the links between Reacher and the two prisoners in the motel begin to reveal themselves. We learn the awful reason why Patty and Shorty are locked in that room, and witness their ordeal when they attempt an escape. We follow Reacher through a convoluted investigation of his father’s youth, confused by his findings, wavering back and forth as to what to believe about the past while at the same time facing thugs in the present.
For Jack Reacher fans, Past Tense depicts Reacher in all his glory, the man who exists on black coffee and diner food, who literally only owns the clothes on his back, who rides the bus or hitchhikes rather than owning a car, a large strong drifter, a former military policeman and graduate of West Point who hates injustice and is willing to bust heads when he sees the strong hurting the weak.
Like all the other Reacher novels, Past Tense has a tendency at times to stretch the reader’s credulity. (Once I was listening to one of the Reacher novels on CD — I don’t remember which one; I’ve read several and can never keep the titles straight — and the ending was so ridiculous I would have thrown the audiobook in the trash if it hadn’t belonged to the library.) Overall, however, Past Tense was right up there with the best of the Reacher books. The chase scene at the end kept me glued to the pages and awake into the early morning.
Like Lee Child, David Hewson has also written acclaimed suspense novels named for one of his characters: the Nic Costa Series. In his latest, The Savage Shore (Severn House Publishers, 2018, 278 pages), Hewson sweeps Nic and the team of detectives to which he belongs —Leo Falcone, Gianni Peroni, Silvio Di Capua, Rosa Prabakaran, and Teresa Lupo — away from Rome and drops them deep into Southern Italy, where they work undercover to nab leaders and members of the Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, another crime organization. Nic has the most dangerous job of the team, having to pass himself off as a distant relation of the crime boss and so infiltrate the group. The others wait in the nearby coastal town of Cardidi, acting as a communications center and ready to pounce when Nic gives them the thumb’s up.
As we follow the adventures of these Roman detectives, we gain a real sense of the history of this part of Italy, its culture, the love of its people for their land, their suspicion of outsiders. Though Hewson is British, he clearly spends much time in Italy, as he writes all of these novels with authority. He recreates the harsh landscape of this part of the Italian penninsula so vividly that we can see it in our mind’s eye, and he brings into the book his usual competent working knowledge of detectives and the job they do. Through various literary devices he weaves into his story the myths of the region, ranging from Greek mythology to the origins of the ‘Ndrangheta.
Between The Savage Shore and Past Tense lies one great difference. Readers can make their way through Past Tense without paying close attention, flying along through the story, driven onward by plot and fast action.
The Savage Shore demands a closer reading. The unfamiliar names, the unfamiliar history and culture, the involvement of more characters: you will become quickly lost if you try to consume this novel as though you were eating a bowl of popcorn and staring at reruns of “Leave It To Beaver” on television.
But here’s the thing: the payoff is worth it. You learn many things about Italy, about crime, about culture both modern and ancient. Plus, you immerse yourself in a fine story.