Tripwire by Lee Child
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
“What kind of book is this?” he asked.
I thought about the answer to that a moment.
“What kind of book is this?” he asked again.
There are many ways to respond to that question. I should think about this for a second longer.
“What kind of book is this?” he asked a third time.
It’s the kind of book that has somebody repeating questions a whole bunch of times while other characters ponder things so if you’re already irritated you should probably avoid it.
Ex-military policeman Jack Reacher has been living in Key West where he’s earning a living digging swimming pools, and his idea of a good time is drinking a bunch of mineral water. (No, seriously.) Reacher has no interest in disrupting his quiet routine, but when a private investigator comes around looking for him it kicks off a chain of events which eventually lead Reacher into digging up the secrets of a murderous man in New York City with a dark history that leads back to the Vietnam War.
My experience with this series is weird. I hated the first book, but people I trust told me the series gets much better. Then I saw the Jack Reacher movie and enjoyed it quite a bit so I tried the second book, and it was OK but still didn’t blow my hair back. So here I am trying the third one, and it had about two dozen things that made me roll my eyes. Yet I didn’t absolutely hate it.
I get the appeal of these. The idea of the manliest man to ever walk the face of the earth randomly stumbling into adventures is fun if you like a certain style of action thriller. Child has made big improvements in these early books already like moving from first person to third means that I don’t have Reacher himself telling me how awesome he is on every page. Plus, he’s scaled back the idea that Reacher is a Sherlock Holmes level of detective genius who can make incredible leaps based on the slimmest of clues.
The core story here is pretty good, but as with the first couple of books there’s a constant parade of things that are just so ridiculous or outright stupid that they take me out of the story. One of the biggies is that the main villain in this is a complete cartoon sadist straight out of James Bond with a burned and scarred face as well as a hook used in place of an amputated hand, and it’s so far over the top that it’s hard to take him or the book seriously.
There’s also a very icky subplot where Reacher reconnects with the daughter of his old Army mentor who has recently died. Jodie was a teenage girl, and Reacher was in his mid- twenties when they were around each other back in the day. Yet it becomes very clear that they both had that the hots for each other, and they both still have these old feelings. Child spends a lot of time justifying and rationalizing this plot, and yeah, now they’re both adults and nothing physical happened when she was underage. But it’s just so unnecessary to play it this way.
Why couldn’t Jodie have been in college and Reacher only a few years older when they met and were attracted to each other? Then it’s not an issue at all and makes Reacher far less creepy. (The only thing I can think of is that Child had a Hollywood idea of what a couple in this kind of story looks like, and god forbid we have a lady over thirty hooking up with the hero even though he’s pushing forty himself.)
Another thing is that the book constantly contradicts itself and then goes out of its way to underline that it’s doing so in the most forehead slapping way possible. For example, at one point Reacher thought he knew how some thugs would come after him and Jodie. Yet they use a different tactic which takes him by surprise and almost works. Afterword, Reacher calmly notes that he hadn’t thought about them doing that which was almost a fatal mistake. Yet later in the book when it looks like an assumption that he made was wrong Reacher has a complete meltdown about it where he bemoans the loss of his once perfect record at following his hunches and wonders what he’s supposed to do in life now that his skills have so obviously failed him. So Reacher shrugs off making an error that almost gets them killed, and yet when a blue sky guess he made that has no immediate potential impact looks like it might be wrong he falls apart.
There’s lots more like that, but I’m going to spoiler tag these next few. I’m not giving up the ending, just some things that happen along the way. (view spoiler)[
I mentioned at the start of this review how Child had a habit of characters repeating questions constantly. Reacher is as bad as anyone else in the book about making people ask the same question over and over without answering as well as repeating himself multiple times. In fact, at a climatic point in the book when someone has called him with critical information Child has Reacher asks this person to explain it to him FOUR TIMES to be sure he understands it.
Then in the next chapter Reacher has beaten up a bad guy that he desperately needs information from. He essentially tells the guy to help him or die. The bad guy refuses. Reacher again states that the guy will either help him or die. Then Reacher remembers how his mentor once told him, “Ask once. Ask twice if you have to, but by God never ask a third time!” And so he immediately breaks this guy's neck.
I guess it’s a good thing Reacher decided to ignore that rule when he made someone repeat themselves FOUR TIMES in the previous chapter or else he might have had to kill himself on the spot.
Another example, at one point Reacher and Jodie do some traveling as part of their investigation. First they go to St. Louis where Reacher makes buddies with an Army guy named Conrad in charge of a records department. This leads them to Dallas, and the next clue makes Reacher insist that they have to go to Hawaii even though Jodie has to be back in New York the following day for her job. (They have been attacked by bad guys so it does make sense that Reacher doesn’t want her traveling alone.) This trip involves a whole lot of airline miles, and only gives them four hours in Honolulu before having to jump on another plane back to New York.
There is absolutely no reason that they couldn’t go to New York to keep Jodie’s appointment first, and then fly to Honolulu. There is a clock on the bad guy’s side of things, but Reacher doesn’t know that. There’s no logical story reason for him to demand that they go to Hawaii right that second, but that’s what Child needs for the plot to work so that’s what they do.
In Hawaii they meet an old Army friend of Reacher’s and eventually some information is gathered in another ridiculous scene where the guy at first won’t tell him anything because it’s classified, then he makes Reacher deduce a few things from looking at some recovered remains of servicemen, and then he just goes ahead and tells them the whole story anyhow. Then they jump on a plane to New York. After arriving there Reacher gets some more information which causes him to say, “I have to go back to St. Louis.”
What we learn later as part of the twist at the climactic moment is that Reacher doesn’t actually go to St. Louis but is still in New York. Why didn’t he go? And this is the actual quote in the book: “Why fly himself all the way down there when there were telephones, and he had already built a working relationship with Conrad?”
So the guy who made another person fly from Dallas to Honolulu to New York just to meet with an old friend of his for four hours suddenly realizes that telephones exist and that he can call up people to get information on them, particularly if you actually know the person at the other end of the line.
And you can’t even say that Reacher viewing the remains in Honolulu was critical because he just figures out what his old buddy already knew, and that’s not even the really important part of the story. The classified stuff that the guy finally gives up is the key stuff. Which he could have done OVER THE GODDAMN TELEPHONE!
Jesus wept. (hide spoiler)]
There’s another factor that made me cringe a few times while reading, but this wasn’t Child's fault. The book was published in 1999, and the main villain has an office in the World Trade Center which is where a lot of the action takes place. Plus, at one point Reacher pays cash an airline ticket to New York using a fake name. Those were big reminders that the world was a very different place back then, and while there’s no way Child could have known what was coming it does give the book an uncomfortable vibe at times.
There are other nitpicks to make, but these are the major ones that took what started out as a very solid action thriller/mystery and turned into a hot mess. Child has storytelling skills, and at their best these books are a hoot. But did no editor every look at this and suggest some changes that would tighten up the story and keep him from highlighting the things that don’t make sense? It would have helped a lot.
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