Review: Blue Moon by Lee Child
Lee Child’s latest book, Blue Moon, like all his Jack Reacher books, is more than mere revenge fantasyUpdated: Nov 01, 2019 20:23 IST
Lee Child’s latest, Blue Moon is out and that means something to lots of people.
Like Malcolm Gladwell. Yes, the MG — not the kind of person serious readers would think read Child.
Here’s what he wrote about Child’s hero Jack Reacher in a September 2015 piece for New Yorker. Yes, that New Yorker, Eustace Tilley and all.
“Our contemporary fantasy is about lawlessness: about what would happen if the institutions of civility melted away and all we were left with was a hard-muscled, rangy guy who could do all the necessary calculations in his head to insure that the bad guy got what he had coming”.
And Reacher, of course, is that guy.
As Gladwell adds in his piece, Reacher provides the “reassurance that our psychopaths are bigger and stronger than the bad guys’ psychopaths”
I was introduced to the Reacher books -- there are now 24 of them, and like Gladwell, I too have read every one -- by the man who ran the bookstore in the old Mumbai airport. This was in the early 2000s, before Mumbai got a new airport and the man and his store vanished. This was a man who knew the kind of books people wanted to read on aircraft. He recommended Persuader to me. It is the seventh Reacher book, and I was hooked.
I quickly read up the backlist and found out, a few months later, just how big Child really was going to become.
I was in Chennai, at dinner at an old friend’s home, where I ran into a man who ran one of the world’s most respected publishing houses (my friend was in the books business back then). We talked about books we’d each read recently and liked and I mentioned The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst (”I thought it would become very big”, the publisher said, leaving unsaid the fact that it didn’t). I also mentioned Lee Child. “He’s all the rage,” said the publisher, doing what he thought was a good imitation of Reacher walking down a street. “And he will get bigger”.
Sure enough, he has.
The typical Reacher book begins with Reacher, a drifter in the finest tradition of the travelling gunslinger, arriving in a town or city, discovering a small issue or curiosity or wrongdoing that usually hides a large problem (dead brother, counterfeiting in the first Reacher ever; elderly person who doesn’t belong in a nondescript railway station, snuff films on the dark web in another; loan shark who has got his hands on an elderly couple and fake news in his latest), solving it (the immediate beneficiary is always the small man), and then moving on.
Book 22, The Midnight Line seemed to suggest a shift in Child’s style. It was unusually atmospheric for a Reacher book, with Wyoming being the atmosphere being described. But 23 (Past Tense) returned to the mould.
The books have been called revenge fantasies by some, although they are not strictly that. One reviewer recently called every Reacher book morality pornography, where good doesn’t just triumph over evil, but gives it a good ass-whupping. As Gladwell points out in his article, Reacher, on average, kills a dozen bad guys in each book. He probably kills a lot more in Blue Moon – a gang war is central to the book – but as the reader knows, every one of them deserved it.
There is a sense of sameness about Blue Moon, but maybe because Child writes only one book a year, this is a comforting – more and it could cause reader fatigue.
Morality apart, what works for the Reacher books is Child’s writing, which has three distinguishing features.
The first is the way he relays, ahead of every fight Reacher gets into, the thinking in his protagonists mind -- a sort of storyboard on how the encounter will pan out. For instance, here’s Reacher taking on six guys in The Affair (Book 16): “Basic rule of thumb with six guys: you have to be quick. You can’t spend more than the bare minimum of time on any one individual. Which means you have to hit each of them one time only. Because that’s the minimum. You can’t hit a guy less than once.... I figured I would start in the middle. One two three, bang bang bang. The third hit would be the hardest. The third guy would be moving. The first two wouldn’t. they would be rooted to the spot. Shock and surprise...”
It’s a device Guy Ritchie used to good effect in the Sherlock Holmes films (and which has subsequently been used by other directors).
The second is his detailing.
This ranges from the austere but effective when it comes to some things to the graphic when it comes to some others, usually weapons and the like.
For instance, here’s how he describes Reacher firing a Barrett rifle in Die Trying (Reacher Book 2): “First thing out of the barrel of Reacher’s Barrett was a blast of hot gas. The powder in the cartridge exploded in a fraction of a millionth of a second and expanded to a superheated bubble. That bubble of gas hurled the bullet down the barrel and forced ahead of it and around it to explode out into the atmosphere. Most of it was smashed sideways by the muzzle brake in a perfectly balanced radial pattern, like a doughnut, so that the recoil moved the barrel straight back against Reacher’s shoulder without deflecting it either sideways or up or down. Meanwhile, behind it, the bullet was starting to spin inside the barrel as the rifling grooves grabbed at it”.
Finally, there’s Child’s tendency to resort to what can only be called the retired-sergeant-of-the-royal-marines moment. For those who came in late, Holmes’ identification of a retired sergeant of the marines is what finally convinces John D Watson of his friend’s deductive abilities (A Study in Scarlet). Here’s how he reasons that the people who have just offered him a ride are lying about who they were and how far they had travelled: “The blue denim shirts... were not a corporate brand. They were not crisp attractive items with embroidered logos above the pockets. They had never been worn before or laundered. They were cheap junk from a dollar store, straight from the shelf...; King claimed they hadn’t stopped in three hours but the gas gauge was showing three-quarters full. Which implied the Chevy could run 12 hours on a single tank. Which was close to a 1000 miles at highway speeds. Which was impossible...:
And so on.
Together, all of these have helped sell a lot of books – 100 million by 2015 according to the last publicly available data.
Blue Moon isn’t Child’s best – this review thinks that would be a toss up between Gone Tomorrow and Midnight Line – but it is engaging and diverting. And, perhaps because the bad guys get what they deserve in the end (the law be damned), deeply satisfying.