No Middle Name by Lee Child

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No Middle Name by Lee Child

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: As always with short stories, a mixed bag: even Lee Child produces some weak efforts (though that’s probably a relative comment). The introductory novella is classic Reacher and worth the time, and some of the other stories provide interesting back-story for those who are already Reacher fans and are intrigued by how he got here. However, I’d caution against reading this as an introduction to the character, Child is much stronger in long form narrative where he can play with tension and misdirection. Taken on its merits though it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read – or several – and proves that short form fiction is not yet dead and buried.
Buy? Maybe. Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: May 2017
Publisher: Bantam Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0593079010

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There is a theory, to which those who regularly read my reviews will know I sometimes subscribe, which says that the short story's heyday has passed and it has now put itself out to grass. This is particularly true, some say, and I have been known to concur, of the crime and thriller genres. Tosh! I can only apologise to all authors involved and own up: I simply haven't been paying attention. Not even to shorter offerings my by favourite authors. So: big thanks to Lee Child and publishers Bantam Press for putting me straight with No Middle Name: a collection of short stories about my favourite latter-day, American-style, Robin Hood by the name of Jack Reacher.

I have said it before and will keep on saying it until the next film is made with better casting, if your only exposure to Reacher is Tom Cruise, get your mind wiped and start again with the very first book.

Now there's a thing. How do we recommend an order in which to read tales based on a single character? Personally I recommend doing it in the order they were written…but Child is challenging us here, because in his later writings he's started filling in the back-story, explaining how Reacher came to be who he is…so there might be a temptation to start at this end, and follow Reacher's career, rather than his creator's. Hmmm…

Meanwhile… Short stories are designed to be read one at a time, in snippets of time, when you can't dedicate yourself to a sizeable chunk of a fully-fledged novel. That plan didn't quite work here. I read the whole collection in two sittings. Just one more I kept telling myself, with a quick flick through to see how long it was and whether I could justify sitting a bit longer. It turned out not to be 'just one' more.

For those not yet in the know, our hero is ex-Army. He used to be a military policeman. He's 6 foot 5 inches in his socks, 220-250lbs, 50-inch chest, which we can assume isn't flab. Hair: dirty-blond. Eyes: ice-blue. Standard hero material in other words.

Cards on the table: I'm a fan. I love Reacher. As anti-social as he is, with his ever-moving life-style, total lack of personal possessions, he is also unwaveringly loyal to those whose trust he has, and works to a solid internal set of ethics. Of course, this isn't the same as being totally law-abiding.

There are 12 stories in the collection, opening with a new novella Too Much Time in which Reacher is in the right place at the right time to witness a street mugging and bring down the assailant. Just an easy favour on an easy day to support the forces of law and order…or so he thinks until they insist on taking him in to make a statement. Ten minutes of his time, what's the worst that could happen? He's about to find out. Classic Reacher…fast paced, tightly plotted, no twist that you shouldn't be able to work out if you're paying proper attention, but you won't be because you're caught up in the action just like he is.

Second Son takes us back to Jack's childhood, growing up on military bases with a brother who's far more academic and success-focussed than he is, but already he's showing the greater acumen in 'street smarts'. It's a gentle story that captures the essence of its time and the age of its protagonist. Going back to my earlier point about what order you read things in: this is a clear argument for not going chronological with character. The interest in this one is purely because you know the man this child is going to grow to be…it's a story whose value is immeasurably heightened because it is a retrospective.

That elder brother shows up in a few more of the tales, which leaves me thinking I may need to go back to the beginning as I'm not sure where or how he disappeared from the current picture of Jack's life.

Some of the stories are complete 'stand-alones' to the extent that they don't actually need Reacher's presence to work. In fact, they leave you thinking he is only there to trade on the franchise, which in some ways is a bit of a shame. James Penney's New Identity is in that class. It did not need to be Reacher who crosses Penney's path to provide the arc-shift and the fact that it is adds nothing to our understanding of our hero. I'd have liked this one to leave the Agent involved anonymous.

There are a couple of Christmas stories that probably felt better in their original context than they do here No Room at the Motel and Maybe They Have a Tradition. For someone of Child's craftsmanship they almost feel like writing exercises, rather than fully-fledged tales.

Not A Drill’' is an excellent premise that would have been better served by being worked up into a longer format. Done in short form it's rather more trite than I would have liked.

So as a collection it's not without its weaknesses. For Reacher fans it's a must-have addition to the collection because there are insights into the man. For would-be writers it's an exemplary on how to do it, and some inadvertent insights maybe on how not to do it. For those in neither camp, I probably come back to the fact that there was enough satisfaction at the close of most of the tales, for me to immediately start reading the next one.

On balance, I prefer to read the fully-fledged novels, and I think Child is actually better suited to delivering them, that long build up on tension and possibility is one of his keynote skills and he just doesn't have the space to deploy it here.

The edition is subtitled The Collected Short Stories and advertised as published together for the first time so other than the opening novella, all have previously seen the light of day, some only in e-book form, so if you're up to date on all media, there may be nothing new in here for you. If you are new to Reacher, then start devouring the novels anywhere near the beginning…or for a real taste of what it’s like my personal favourite is Make Me – on the other hand if the short form is your thing, we can recommend Thriller 2: Stories You Just Can't Put Down by Clive Cussler (editor).

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