Lee Child’s decision to share writing duties with his younger brother Andrew could have been a big risk. Jack Reacher is an established favourite in the world of crime fiction, having appeared in 24 previous books as well as a feature film starring Tom Cruise. Fans might be worried that with the author handing some of the writing over to his younger brother, Andrew, that Reacher might not be quite the same in book number 25 – The Sentinel. Is that anxiety justified?
Well, the important thing is that Jack Reacher is back and just like he has done in so many of the previous novels, he gets off a bus and gets into trouble, though it might be more accurate to say that other people get into trouble with him. This time around Reacher has arrived in a small town outside Nashville, Tennessee. All he wants is some food and coffee, perhaps a little music, then a bed for the night before hopping on another Greyhound to who knows where. Instead, in a nice little appetiser before the main event, he has to help a band who’ve had the fee taken and guitar confiscated by an unscrupulous bar manager.
This little vignette goes someway to reassuring us that our favourite character remains in good hands. The action is tightly written in that familiar style, where it is explained just how wrong the bad guys get things in the fight and the outcome never feels in doubt. It’s counterintuitive in a thriller for the result to be so predictable perhaps, but still hugely enjoyable.
It is the following day that the main story begins. Reacher arrives in this no-name town to find hackers have placed the municipal systems in a cyber-lockdown, which means all kinds of havoc for the locals. Traffic lights don’t work, the local police can’t access their crime computers and it’s a perilous state of affairs. Whoever did it won’t allow the town back online until a ransom is paid. Reacher gets involved after spotting then stopping a professional kerbside kidnapping. The potential victim, Rusty Rutherford, was the town’s IT guy before being fired over his failure to stop the cyber-attack, and he spills all to Reacher over breakfast.
Reacher finds the situation intriguing and, like so often before, inserts himself between the small guy and the trouble. It’s not long before Reacher finds himself a wanted man. Lockhart, the local police detective, is afraid of him and wants him gone. And, the six-man team that tried to take Rutherford before now target Reacher.
At the same time, Reacher starts digging into the history of the town, only to discover something called the Spy House, a local residence that in the 1960s was home to two brothers who it turned out were Russian sleeper agents. Could something similar be happening again? Together with Rutherford, a computer analyst, and an undercover FBI agent and her boss, Reacher sets off to find out.
The story is much more complicated, of course. It expands outwards, to fill over 350 pages, and is surprisingly topical. The police are involved, the FBI too, also neo-Nazi groups and agents of foreign states. Fake news is hinted at, electoral fraud too. I wonder if this topicality is something that Andrew Child has brought to the table since it’s not been a particular feature of previous books in the series. It works on this occasion, but I wouldn’t want to see it too often. At heart, Reacher is a fantasy, and too much cold, hard reality wouldn’t suit it. Crime fiction can be a great setting to explore political and social issues, it’s such a broad church, but it’s not the purpose of this series.
The brothers handle the plot with all the panache expected from a pair of veteran writers. Reacher is of course an old friend, and some of the secondary characters are nicely developed. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that the final act felt a little rushed.
All in all, The Sentinel is a solid effort in the world’s most popular fiction series, and will hearten anxious fans worried about Lee stepping away from his famous creation.
If you want to know more about Lee Child and Jack Reacher, then pick up a copy of his biography, The Reacher Guy, but first read our interview with his official biographer, Heather Martin.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars