Night School by Lee Child

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Night School by Lee Child

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Jack Reacher’s lastest outing actually takes us back to an earlier one. 1996 and he’s still in the army, and on the trail of something worth a hundred million dollars. More of a puzzle, less of a thriller than some of the Reacher tales, but the same smart writing that makes for a quick page-turner and a satisfying read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: November 2016
Publisher: Bantam
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0593073902

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The 21st Jack Reacher novel takes us back in time. Reacher is still an US Army MP. In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school.

The medal was a Legion of Merit. Not his first, probably not his last, just another bauble to recognise what he'd done for his country and a plea for him not to talk about it. The 'it' in this case was some police work, in the Balkans, and a couple of shootings. Two weeks of his life. Four rounds expended. No big deal.

This is the first page of Night School in a nutshell. It is sufficient to tell anyone who has not yet got hooked by the Reacher books (and if you saw the appallingly mis-cast film, forget it and go to the books) then this first page will draw you in or convince you it's not for you.

Cards on the table: this review is biased. I am a Reacher fan. I didn't start at the beginning and I haven't had time to go back and do so. I came in somewhere in the middle and haven't yet read one that didn't live up to the billing – though obviously some are better than others. That in itself tells you something about the writing though. Many serial stories don't work if you read them out of sequence. The Reachers aren't like that. They are totally stand-alone. You'll get as much back-story as you need within the telling of the tale at hand. It will tempt you back, but won't make you feel you've missed anything crucial.

Much like stepping into someone else's life. You don't get to be there at the beginning? So what, it's what's happening here and now that matters – and with Reacher, what's happening here and now won't give you time to breath long enough to worry about what happened back in the day.

By making a decision to go back to the day Lee Child, it seems to me, is underlining that point. Whatever you think you know about someone, there'll always be a story they haven't told you yet – and if you stick around long enough, maybe they will.

Of course, it could also be that he's running out of ideas of how to keep his lone traveller, lone-travelling and breaking all the rules without it becoming a parody of itself. Maybe this is a prelude to our anti-hero-hero coming in from the cold? I speculate.

For now: back in time we go. 1996. The wall is down, the Soviets with it, but Germany is still a pretty large U.S. base. One of my favourite quotes in the whole book speaks of how after the Second World War the Germans thought they'd been given a country, the Americans thought they'd bought a military base. As the last century was drawing to a close though, things were changing on mainland Europe and on the western fringes of Asia.

School very quickly turns out not to be anything of the sort, unless it's the kind that teaches the US Army, the CIA and the FBI to work together – and maybe teaches all of them that when they're trying to do it on foreign soil they have to throw local protocols and international diplomacy into the mix as well.

Or not. As the case may be.

A CIA sleeper has heard a messenger talking about a message to be passed on: The American wants a hundred million dollars.

The problem is that no-one can figure out what on earth could possibly be in the wind that is worth that kind of money. Hardware? Software? Intelligence? All that they know is that the messenger was passing through a safe house staffed by a Saudi sleeper cell. The CIA insider doesn't even know why the Saudis are there. It's a long game that looks to have suddenly got very much shorter.

Of all of the players, Reacher is the one with the most field experience, especially when it comes to breaking protocol. He's the one willing to take the Head of National Security at his word when he says: this is serious, whatever you need, you've got. He recruits his trusted sergeant Frances Neagley to ride official shotgun, and heads off to Europe.

Ok, it's Hamburg, not Berlin, and there's the beginnings of modern technology starting to influence the game, but other than that this could easily be a 1960s spy thriller, with Michael Caine in the lead role. But it's none the worse for that. The violence is measured, appropriate, and not overdone. It's played in real slow-motion detail which makes it feel unreal, but then a reality check when you're told it all took x number of seconds to play out. This isn't a dance, it's a fight, and a dirty one, and it's only won because people have trained to do it, and trust their back-up…and it could very easily have gone very badly wrong. You feel the jeopardy, even while you know it won't come to pass.

That's a writer's craftsmanship.

This kind of book is often derided by the snootier end of the literati for its lack of art… but for my money, in books, as well as in many other areas of creativity and production, craft is just as difficult, needs just as much skill and is to be just as much valued.

What Child manages here is to bridge the 'noir' lone protagonist era with the modern more technical era, to bridge the Reacher we've got to know with some of what made him, not only to bridge the nature of the world before 9/11 and afterwards, but to put that in the context of what happened half a century before that… and he does it all in a way that makes perfect sense in his selected timeslot of 1996, but resonates loudly in our reading timeslot 20 years later.

Like I said: craftsmanship.

How does it measure up to the series? For me, it's not the best. I felt there was less of the thriller tension about this one and more of the intellectual puzzling. Not a bad thing in and of itself, but a shift of gear that I wasn't ready for.

I could definitely have lived without the cliché seduction sequence that belongs back in the days of James Bond, which even by 1996 I'd have hoped we'd moved away from. On the whole though – it won't disappoint the fans, and the newcomers will still likely read it in as few sittings as they can manage.

If you like Lee Child, you’ll love Harlan Coben: check out Tell No One.

Lee Child's Jack Reacher Novels in Chronological Order

Booklists.jpg Night School by Lee Child is in the Top Ten Crime Novels 2016.

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