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I discovered Lee Child a few years back and loved his first book ‘Killing Floor’. It had an interesting hero, Jack Reacher, who is an ex-military cop. In the first book he wanders in the highway in the middle of nowhere trying to reach a small unknown town, in search of an obscure singer. He doesn’t have any bag with him and no ID. He reaches the town, gets into a diner and tries to have breakfast and coffee. Soon after, the police swoop into the diner and arrest him on some trumped up charges and put him in prison. Jack Reacher then decides to find out why he has been arrested and then the story starts moving fast at an electric pace. When I went to the library a few days back, a recent Jack Reacher book ’61 Hours’ popped out at me from the shelf, and I thought I will give it a try. I finished reading it yesterday and here is the review. 

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

Winter in South Dakota. Blowing snow, icy roads, a tired driver. A bus skids and crashes and is stranded in a gathering storm.

There’s a small town twenty miles away, where a vulnerable witness is guarded around the clock. There’s a strange stone building five miles further on, all alone on the prairie. There’s a ruthless man who controls everything from the warmth of Mexico.

Jack Reacher hitched a ride in the back of the bus. A life without baggage has many advantages. And crucial disadvantages too, when it means facing the arctic cold without a coat. But he’s equipped for the rest of his task. He doesn’t want to put the world to rights. He just doesn’t like people who put it to wrongs.

What I think

Jack Reacher is one of the coolest characters in thriller-fiction. He is six-feet-five-inches tall (one of the descriptions of him goes like this – “Men want to be him. Women want to be with him”), is typically wandering on a highway, has no family and friends and no ID and wanders into a town for some obscure reason. He somehow gets sucked into a tragic event in the town and ends up fighting for justice. He can almost read the minds of the villains three moves in advance and is a tough guy physically – “Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis all rolled into one, a superman for our time”, as one description says. In some ways Jack Reacher reminded me of the tough heroes in Alistair Maclean novels, who Lee Child says he is a big fan of. But Jack Reacher also has a heart of gold and is kind towards good people and old women and fights for justice even when the odds are stacked up against him. He is also able to handle anything the villains throw at him and puts them in their place in the end. How can one resist this character and this kind of a storyline? 🙂

On ’61 Hours’, it has the same formulaic story – Jack Reacher instead of walking and wandering into a small town in the middle of nowhere, travels by bus as an odd passenger and wanders into a town in the middle of snowy winter. Then surprising things happen in the story and it moves at a rollicking pace. The identity of the villain is shocking. (But having read quite a few Agatha Christies by now (and specifically ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’), I can now predict the villain in most stories. I generally guess that it is the most unlikely character in the story. I guessed correctly in this story too, though I later realized that there were a few clues). But unfortunately the motivation of the villain is not strong enough and there is another main villain who looks like a cartoon character and is not very impressive when he actually appears on the field of action.

Inspite of the formulaic story, the redeeming qualities of the book were the interesting passages that Lee Child comes up with, the interesting characters in the story, Janet Salter, the librarian who is also the witness protected by the police, and Amanda, a character who only speaks on the phone. The conversations between Reacher and Janet Salter on one hand and Reacher and Amanda on the other are some of the most interesting parts of the book. The conversations between Reacher and Amanda reminded me of the conversations between Spenser and Susan Silverman in Robert Parker’s Spenser series.

The ending of the book is a bit sad in some ways and makes the reader want to find out what happens next.

Janet Maslin of the NYT has put ’61 Hours’ in her year-end top-10 list of 2010. She also calls it “the craftiest and most highly evolved thriller in Mr. Child’s smashing Jack Reacher series”. (You can find her raving review of the book here). I have to say that I am glad it is there in her top-10 list, but I have to also say that ‘Killing Floor’ is better than ’61 Hours’, though Jack Reacher fans will love ’61 hours’.

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

Here is a conversation where Jack Reacher describes his philosophy in life, to Janet Salter.

      ‘Your disavowal of possessions is a little extreme. History tells us that asceticism has powerful attractions, but even so most ascetics owned clothes, at least. Shirts, anyway, even if they were only made of hair.’

      ‘Are you making fun of me?’

      ‘You could afford to carry a small bag, I think. It wouldn’t change who you are.’

      ‘I’m afraid it would. Unless it was empty, which would be pointless. To fill a small bag means selecting, and choosing, and evaluating. There’s no logical end to that process. Pretty soon I would have a big bag, and then two or three. A month later I’d be like the rest of you.

      ‘And that horrifies you?’

      ‘No, I think to be like everyone else would be comfortable and reassuring. But some things can’t be done. I was born different.’

Here is another.

      ‘What’s your secret of success?’

      ‘I don’t like getting beaten. Better for all concerned that it just doesn’t happen.’

      ‘That’s a heavy burden to carry, psychologically. That kind of burning need for dominance, I mean.’

      ‘Are there people who enjoy getting beaten?’

      ‘It’s not black and white. You wouldn’t have to enjoy it. But you could be at peace with whatever comes your way. You know, win some,  lose some.’

      ‘Doesn’t work that way. Not in my line of work. You win some, and then you lose one. And then it’s game over.’

Here is a third one.

      ‘Did he tell you about the chinooks?’

      ‘No.’

      ‘Chinooks are hot winds out of the Black Hills. One day in January of 1943 it was minus four degrees, and then literally two  minutes later it was plus forty-five. A forty-nine-degree swing in a hundred and twenty seconds. The most dramatic ever recorded in America. Everyone had broken windows from the thermal shock.’

      ‘Wartime,’ Reacher said.

      ‘The hinge of fate,’ Janet Salter said. ‘That exact day the Germans lost control of the airfields at Stalingrad, many thousands of miles away. It was the beginning of the end for them. Maybe the wind knew.’ 

Here are two other passages I liked.

The sandwich was nicely fried, and Reacher was ready for the calories. Like throwing coal into a furnace. Being cold was like being on a diet. He understood why all the locals he met looked basically the same, all lean and fair and slender. Fair, because of their genetic inheritance. Lean and slender, because they were freezing their asses of for half the year.

      Caleb Carter was considered a low man on the totem pole. Which he thought was richly ironic. He knew a little about totem poles, and Native American culture in general. He knew a little about a lot of things, but in a random unstructured way that had paid no dividends in terms of high school grades or employment opportunities. So he had turned to the Department of Corrections. The default choice, for his graduating class. Probably the default choice for many graduating classes to come. He had been trained and equipped with a radio and a polyester uniform and assigned to the night watch at the county lock-up. He was the youngest and newest member of a four-man team. Hence, low man on the totem pole.

      Except that calling a new guy the low man on the totem pole was completely ass-backward. Totem poles were what? Twenty, thirty feet high? Native Americans weren’t dumb. They put the most important guy at the bottom. At eye level. What important guy wanted to be twenty or thirty feet off the ground, where no one could see him? Like supermarkets. The eye-level shelf was reserved for the best stuff. The high-margin items. The big corporations hired experts to figure out stuff like that. Eye level was what it was all about. Thus the low man was really the high man, and the high man was really the low man. In a manner of speaking. A common misconception. A kind of linguistic inversion.

Final Thoughts

I liked ’61 Hours’ though I felt that it was not as good as ‘Killing Floor’. I am hoping to read the second book in the series ‘Die Trying’ soon. If you would like to explore Lee Child’s books, you can try books in the Jack Reacher series. They are light reads and fun.

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