In 1995 at age 40, Lee Child lost his job in television and decided to pursue his dream of writing crime fiction. His dream paid off. A Wanted Man is the 17th novel in his popular series about crime-fighting American vagabond Jack Reacher. I've read five. Child is a gifted craftsman and storyteller who has created a memorable character, but the quality of his books varies considerably with the strength of their plots.
Certainly, Reacher is a great male fantasy: After 13 years in the U.S. military police, he became a rambling man, unburdened by wife, fixed address, car or credit card. He moves around America and finds trouble wherever he goes. But that's okay because he's a 6-feet-5, 250-pound one-man army. Women adore him, but his adventures leave him little time for their charms.
Reacher recalls John D. MacDonald's big, brawling Travis McGee, who lived on a houseboat in Florida, but there's a difference. Reacher's exploits are mythic; he's a superhero, endowed with special powers.
As A Wanted Man opens, Reacher is hitchhiking when he accepts a ride in a car with two men and a woman. Soon he suspects that the men have kidnapped the woman. The complex truth in time involves terrorism, the FBI and the CIA. There are some nice moments. A female FBI agent impresses Reacher and readers with smarts and style. An old sheriff's end is movingly related: "The brain would be the last thing to die. ... He was going to switch off like an old black-and-white TV, collapsing to a tiny spot of light that burned bright in the center of the screen, before dimming and then disappearing forever."
But the novel is too long. Reacher drives endlessly until the reader fears carsickness, and the plot twists are often baffling. Depending on your fondness for Reacher, A Wanted Man could be rated either a so-so read or a shaggy-dog tale. Child can do better and surely will.
There is, by the way, a Jack Reacher movie coming soon. And who will play the huge, unstoppable one-man killing machine? Why, who else but Tom Cruise? Is this a great universe or what?