Throwing punches and having some fun
Jack Reacher must own the toughest set of knuckles on planet Earth.
About halfway through the latest Reacher saga, The Sentinel (Random House, 2020, 353 pages), I lost track of the number of times Reacher threw a punch into some bad guy’s face. Long ago, when boxing was done without gloves, some of the fighters soaked their hands in salt water to make them tougher. Though Reacher is never shown practicing that technique, we must assume he spent his youth and his years as a military policeman for hours a day with his fingers in a bowl of water that would put the salt content of the Dead Sea to shame.
The Sentinel opens when Reacher prevents the kidnapping of a fired city tech employee, Rusty Rutherford, in the ironically named town of Pleasantville, Tennessee. Reacher had already warmed up for his assault on the would-be kidnappers earlier in a Nashville bar, when he pounded the hoot out of the bar’s owner and his bodyguard for failure to pay their musicians. Reacher takes a liking to Rutherford, and as the novel progresses, we learn that a group of Russians are out to subvert US elections. We meet neo-Nazis — Reacher takes care of them, of course — and he also becomes involved with federal agents, local police officers, some of whom are corrupt, and of course a pack of Russian agents. They have infiltrated some of our agencies on the local and the federal levels, and are utterly merciless in their efforts to put their plans into action.
Jack Reacher has become an iconic and eccentric hero of today’s suspense literature. As a West Point graduate and former military policeman, he is a highly skilled professional in investigative work. He’s also a big man, 6-feet, 5-inches tall and 220 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal.
And like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux, or even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Reacher has certain quirks. He owns no home and stays in no one place. In crisscrossing the country, he has no car but instead takes a bus or hitchhikes. He worships coffee, lives in gritty motels, and eats in greasy diners. He has no credit card, but instead pays for everything in cash. And when he tires of the clothes he’s wearing, he visits a secondhand store like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, buys himself some new duds, throws the old clothes away, and carries on.
Jack Reacher has appeared in 25 novels now — number 26 is due in October of this year — and two motion pictures starring Tom Cruise have celebrated this good-hearted, hard-fisted vigilante. Though I have read seven or eight, possibly more, of these stories, I couldn’t tell you the plot line of any of them. Die-hard Reacher fans could probably rattle off details from novel after novel, but for me the plots are too similar to differentiate one from the other. Jack Reacher arrives as a stranger in some town or city, gets involved in some criminal situation, whips up on the bad guys, spends a few nights with a woman he’s met, most often at the end of the book, and then strikes out again for yet another place.
Books like The Sentinel are what I call popcorn entertainments. By that, I mean I read them as mindlessly as I eat popcorn. They have little real substance, and I won’t remember chowing down on them two or three days later.
Now, this description sounds insulting, but I don’t mean it that way at all. Popcorn books bring me wonderful momentary pleasure. They snatch me out of my life, provide me with bowlfuls of entertainment, and keep my attention while reading them. Sometimes the plots don’t make a lot of sense — I’m still not certain why the neo-Nazis were in this story, except as a front for a Russian spy, but wouldn’t being associated with these storm troopers attract someone’s attention? — but I just close my eyes to these implausible situations and grab another handful of popcorn.
One last note on The Sentinel: Lee Child has now invited his brother, Andrew Child, to co-author these books, which means Lee Child is stepping away from writing them. He apparently considered killing off Jack Reacher to conclude the series, but instead asked his brother to take a hand in the production. In the “Comments Section” on Amazon, some fans express dismay and disgust at this arrangement, claiming this new Jack Reacher is a far cry from the old one. They may be right. Even for this amateur, it did seem to me the style of writing and Reacher’s character had changed, but I lack the expertise to make those charges. I did smile at this arrangement, however, as I thought how someday Andrew’s or Lee’s children or grandchildren may take over this enterprise and keep Reacher in the land of the living until he’s beating some poor bad guy with a pair of crutches.
Do I recommend The Sentinel to readers? Sure, if you want some escapism, lots of fights, and fast-paced action. Given the state of affairs in our country right now, I’d say we’re all entitled to have a little fun. You’ll find that with the indomitable Jack Reacher.