Past Tense provides the quintessential small-town Jack Reacher thriller, but thanks to a personal touch and more-complex-than-usual plotting, it’s the best one in a while.
I tend not to use the phrase “guilty pleasure”, mostly because I can’t be bothered appeasing snobs, much less the literary variety, which is to say that I totally and unironically love the Jack Reacher novels. Not all of them, granted; the absurdly popular author of these tomes, Lee Child, does have a tendency to rest on his laurels occasionally, secure in the knowledge that his legions of fans expect certain things and that as long as he provides them they’ll be perfectly satisfied. For the most part, though, I count myself among their number. And while Past Tense is indeed a Jack Reacher novel in the manner those fans will be expecting, it’s also a slightly better one than usual.
Child’s sparse, utilitarian prose is compelling to me because, whether written in the first or third person, it utterly encapsulates the personality of his protagonist. And it’s that personality, more so than his penchant for vigilante justice or his implausible dimensions or his serial womanizing, which fans keep returning to. Reacher is an itinerant ex-MP (that would be Military Police, not Member of Parliament) who will intercede on behalf of the downtrodden, but he’s also a man who will sit down in a diner and internally criticise the crockery. Not out of snobbishness, but pragmatism. Reacher’s world is one of optimal results. Everything he does – from eating to travelling to breaking arms and legs and necks – he does efficiently or not at all.
This is obviously a neurosis of the character, and one suspects of Child himself, but it’s also a neurosis that on some level most people wish they had. In the same way that life is too short to not enjoy novels you otherwise would out of fear of being judged for doing so, it’s also too short to do things incorrectly. The great theme of all these novels is that it doesn’t so much matter what you do – by definition, most of Reacher’s adventures are sprung from arbitrary decisions made on a whim – but that you make a point of doing it well.
I can’t think of a popular author besides Child who is better at communicating this kind of characterisation through prose. It seems the only voice he’s capable of speaking in is Reacher’s, even in, as evidenced by Past Tense, sequences which don’t even include him. In this, his 23rd Reacher novel, Child devotes almost half of the story to a young Canadian couple trapped in an isolated motel, yet despite being fully-formed and empathetic their plight seems unmistakably that of Reacher too, even though their parallel stories don’t intersect until very close to the end.
In some ways, this speaks to Child’s limitations as a writer, but then again, and as already explained, Reacher’s viewpoint and old-fashioned principles are why readers seek out these stories in the first place. It gives Child a lot of latitude in playing with the established formula without losing the essence of the character. The Enemy, The Affair and Night School were prequels set during his military service; Persuader sent him undercover; and from 61 Hours to Never Go Back, Child experimented with a more direct approach to continuity. Each of those books contained differing amounts of action, slight twists on romantic liaisons (or none at all), and often wildly distinct central plots, but throughout them all Reacher remained a constant. His refusal to change or develop in any meaningful way has anchored twenty-three novels and many novellas and short stories within the same logic-driven universe; a world where the same knight-errant can be deputised in Texas, thwart an assassination plot in New Jersey, and foil a suicide bombing in New York, and can on each occasion walk out of one novel and into the next as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Past Tense begins with one of Child’s favourite classical setups: a fork in the road. One path leads to nowhere in particular. The other leads to Laconia, New Hampshire, where Reacher’s father, Stan, allegedly grew up. We have looked at Reacher’s family before, mainly through the lens of his late brother Joe and some bits about his late mother, Josephine. (The Reachers aren’t big on flashy names.) The personal connection gives Reacher’s investigation in and around Laconia a slightly different vibe than usual, even though it’s still the same archetypal framework. But there are some fun bits that play on the established Reacher mythos, like the suggestion that Stan might have been a criminal and a coward, which is not at all the Reacher way. (For what it’s worth, one of my favourite dopey Reacherisms is a story he tells in one of the books about him as a kid being taken along with a bunch of other Army brats to see a monster movie, and while all the other children were recoiling in horror he was attacking the screen with a pocket knife.) Eventually Past Tense swells to incorporate not just the investigation into his parentage but a mostly go-nowhere revenge plot after Reacher humiliates some kind of connected underworld figure, and then there’s that creepy business at the motel.
It’s more going on than usual, and Child handles the additional burden well. The gradual reveal of the motel plot is excellent, and both story strands build to a satisfying denouement. As is typical and deeply comforting, Reacher learns little, doesn’t change at all, and is barely challenged physically or morally. In most thrillers that would be a negative, but never here, not in the giant-fisted embrace of Child’s superhuman immortal avatar. Reacher’s rigorously mathematical world is immune to petty dramatic concerns; it’s a place designed to satiate our appetite for bad guys who get properly punished for the bad things they do, and it remains as welcoming a place as ever.