Without Fail, by Lee Child
Reviewed by Martin Kich
[This review was originally published in The Mystery Review.]
This is the sixth novel in Lee Child’s series featuring former military policeman Jack Reacher. In reviews and other commentary, Reacher has been described as "homeless" and as a "drifter." Neither term is strictly accurate. He is, more precisely, an itinerant professional who chooses to live like a drifter but has more resources to draw on than the average person of influence in a settled community. In fact, the phrase "former military policeman" is also misleading in as much as it suggests someone who has made a career out of breaking up brawls in bars or manning the gates of military bases. Reacher is the ultimate survivor, as highly trained in critical thinking as in violence--like Rambo, but with a cold purpose, rather than a hot rage.
Because the first novel of the series was set in the American southwest, Reacher was compared to Clint Eastwood’s avenging drifters in the well known series of spaghetti westerns directed by Sergio Leone. The comparison has stuck even though the settings have changed in subsequent novels in the series, but the comparison is only broadly accurate. Whereas we never penetrate the surface of the characters played by Eastwood in the spaghetti Westerns, we do get enough of a sense of what Reacher is thinking and feeling to find him sympathetic and to accept his point of view. He may be more comparable to the title character in Eastwood’s self-directed film The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Like all of the Reacher novels, Without Fail is superbly plotted. Someone is threatening to assassinate the Vice President-elect, and through a connection to his murdered brother who was a Treasury agent, Reacher is brought in as a "consultant" to the Secret Service. Most of the previous Reacher novels have treated much more mundane criminal circumstances, warranting comparisons to the gritty criminal situations explored in Jim Thompson’s novels. But in Without Fail, Child demonstrates that he is just as adept at building and sustaining credibility and suspense when in the milieu of high-echelon political and military crises which has been explored with great popular success by Tom Clancy. The reader never has the sense that the plot is simply being played out. On the other hand, the plotting never becomes the novel’s major reason for being, as it typically is, for instance, in Robert Ludlum’s novels.
Child is a stylist of quiet versatility. For instance, even though the narrative voice is completely unobtrusive and seamlessly unified, it would be very difficult to describe in detail Child’s manipulations of point of view. Most of the story seems to be told from Reacher’s perspective, but there are passages that are clearly outside of Reacher’s experience. Moreover, in order to keep some distance between Reacher and the reader–that is, in order to maintain the essential element of mysteriousness in Reacher’s character–Child very subtly shifts between limited and objective points of view, so that we are alternately seeing things through Reacher’s eyes and looking at everything from somewhere behind and above him, as if through a surveillance camera. Likewise, although Child’s prose has an almost minimalist directness, it includes what is ultimately a large number of very incisive descriptions and compelling metaphors. Indeed, Child’s prose can be described in much the same terms as Reacher’s violence–both are efficient, compact, quick. Both seem almost unremarkable at real speed, but are so dramatic in their effects that they demand to be reviewed in much slower motion.