After two solid but not very memorable Jack Reacher tales (Night School and The Midnight Line), Lee Child delivers a much stronger instalment in the ongoing saga of his two-fisted, razor-sharp drifter hero.
The set-up is not that different from many previous entries in the series. Reacher’s curiosity is piqued by something, and his determination to get answers pits him against whatever nefarious activity is being conducted in those parts.
This time, it’s personal because his road trip brings him to Laconia, New Hampshire – the town where his father Stan said he spent an apparently troubled childhood before running off to join the Marines.
Only thing is, his search for more information about Dear Old Dad yields a troubling fact: There seems to be no record of his father ever having lived there. And that’s just the start of the mystery, which leads Reacher to question everything he knew about Stan.
But there is another strange thing happening not too far from where Reacher is digging for his roots. It involves Shorty Fleck and Patty Sundstrom, a young Canadian couple lugging around a heavy and mysterious suitcase in their quest for a fresh start.
They put up at a very peculiar motel, and find themselves trapped in a slowly unfolding nightmare. The narrative of Past Tense seems, perhaps more than with most Reacher novels, almost like two unrelated stories – Reacher’s search, and the couple’s ordeal – running in parallel.
But Child does one thing that saves the motel’s mystery from being mere filler until Reacher shows up to save the day (or tip the balance, or balance the scales, or however you prefer to view Reacher’s inevitable arrival on the scene):
He makes the couple smart and far from helpless. Well, at least Patty seems to be the whip-smart and resourceful one, although Shorty is not exactly dumb, especially when the stakes are high.
Their predicament is intriguing, as are their reactions to it, although the seasoned Reacher reader can probably figure out their tormentors’ intentions well before the expository passages arrive.
And it does not end with them. Past Tense’s cast of supporting characters is probably the most interesting one Child has conjured up in years – from Shorty and Patty to the helpful townsfolk (and how Reacher plays accidental matchmaker to two of them), to an ageing activist who helps Reacher with his quest, even to the bad guys with their well-laid plans.
All of which helps distract us from the fact that the reason for Reacher being in the vicinity is actually the weaker part of the novel.
Yes, Past Tense is much more gripping when it focuses on Shorty and Patty and the mystery motel (at one point, I half expected the book to veer into Eli Roth cinematic territory).
Reacher’s core storyline is interesting more for the incidental happenings – like the thing that keeps waking him up in the wee hours, and the activist’s own troubles with some local louts – than for the actual question of “Did Stan Reacher ever live here?”
Any weakness in the tale’s structure lies mostly with the way the two halves are brought together. It does seem a bit contrived and predictable, but that does not make the finale any less of a page-turner.
It’s also quite amusing how Child has Reacher casually dismiss one aspect of the evildoers that should have meant something much more to him. This stays true to the character of Jack Reacher and his, um, life choices.
As for those doubts about his Dad – well, we know Reacher’s Mum was badass, so (not spoiling anything here) can we expect any less of Stan?
Eventually, the truth about him turns out to be unexpected but satisfying, and in a way that only strengthens the Reacher mystique. Not quite character growth but, certainly, reinforcement.