Tuesday 16 January 2018

Reacher in race to solve $100m question in 1996-set prequel

Thriller: Night School, Lee Child, Bantam Press, hdbk, 394 pages, €20

Big hit: Lee Child with Tom Cruise, who plays his creation, Jack Reacher
Big hit: Lee Child with Tom Cruise, who plays his creation, Jack Reacher
Night School by Lee Child

Myles McWeeney

According to the American business magazine Forbes, the Jack Reacher series of thrillers is "the strongest brand in publishing". In the 19 years since the first book in the franchise - Killing Floor - was published, its creator Lee Child has achieved sales in excess of 100 million books worldwide and become a millionaire many times over. Last week, the 21st Jack Reacher novel, Night School, hit the bookshelves, and its publication neatly coincided with the recent release of the second Reacher movie, starring Tom Cruise, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.

Reacher fans were apocalyptic when it was announced that Cruise had optioned the film rights to some of Child's books. Munchkin Cruise could not possibly play the 6ft 5in, 250lb ex-military policeman with any authority, they opined. They were wrong. The 2014 Jack Reacher movie was a huge box office hit, raking in $218m in ticket sales, comfortably trebling its $60m budget.

Audience reaction to the latest movie suggests it, too, will be another big hit for the 52-year-old action star, whose religious beliefs may be wacky, but whose business acumen is sharper than a Masterchef's paring knife.

Child himself has always been hugely diplomatic about Cruise's lack of stature, and he has also been extremely sanguine with the liberties that film producers often take with their literary source material. In a recent interview in Vanity Fair, the British-born New York resident says that while a lot of writers worry about what Hollywood is going to do to their books, "the point is they don't do anything to your book. Your book exists before and afterwards, completely unchanged".

A movie, he says, is someone else's version of it, and he would actually prefer if they didn't stick too closely to his work. The new Reacher novel, Night School, reaches two decades back into Reacher's military past. Set in 1996, Reacher has just been awarded a medal, his second Legion of Merit. He's not too impressed because what he did to get it, he feels, wasn't much to boast about... "the Balkans, some police work, a search for two local men with wartime secrets to keep, both soon identified and located, and visited, and shot in the head. All part of the peace process... four rounds expended. No big deal".

He's also less than impressed that within hours he is told to report to a interdepartmental school to study. But when he gets to the 'school', he realises there are just three pupils - himself, an FBI agent and a CIA analyst. He's on a new secret mission and he has a new boss, Dr Marion Sinclair, the senior deputy to Alfred Ratcliffe, America's National Security Advisor.

There is, she tells them, a flat in Hamburg, home to four apparently wealthy young Arab men with no jobs. They had a visitor recently, a messenger from some shadowy jihadist group somewhere in the Middle East, who stayed with them while arranging an important meeting. The NSA's mole in the group has said the message he was bringing back to his bosses in their Yemeni desert lair was just seven words - "The American wants a hundred million dollars." The questions Reacher and his two colleagues now have to answer is: for what? And from whom? Another surprise is that a former colleague he thought he would never see again, Sergeant Frances Neagley, appears on the scene. She was the best soldier he had ever worked with and, possibly, his best friend, and now they are in a desperate race against time to save the world from a nightmare event that they find hard to even imagine.

As ever, Child delivers a satisfyingly complex, exciting and well-researched story and tells it in his trademark addictively unfussy and economical prose. There is no doubt that Reacher #21 will fly off bookshop shelves worldwide, and be devoured by fans overnight, all of whom will probably spend the next 12 months feverishly anticipating Reacher.

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