Author: Lee Child
Publisher: Bantam Press, fiction
New York, 2.26 in the afternoon on Sept 1, 2014 – the day and the time that Lee Child sits down to write what will become Make Me although at this point he has only the title in his head.
No plot, no plan, and no intention of revising the first draft.
What is written stays written.
It is quite extraordinary.
We know these details because Child allowed a journalist called Andy Martin to watch him create his latest novel out of apparently nothing.
Which is odd when you think about it. Plenty of journalists and photographers like to watch artists at work – but a writer? It’s hardly an exciting prospect.
Child always starts a new book on Sept 1 because that was the day he started the first Jack Reacher novel and launched a dazzling career that sees him top all the bestseller lists every time.
While you are reading this, hundreds of his books will sell worldwide – approximately, it is estimated, one every four seconds. And many of those will be his latest, Make Me.
I would not really describe myself as a Jack Reacher fan because it was not until volume 17, A Wanted Man (Make Me is the 20th in the series), that I really began to take notice.
And I read A Wanted Man and enjoyed it until I got to the finale when I found it, to be frank, both unlikely and rather silly.
But something had clicked because when Make Me arrived at the door I could not wait to start reading. And once I started I found it very difficult to stop.
There is the opening for a start. “Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy.
“It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a water bed.
“So they buried him close to the house.”
Those are the very first words and they pull you in. Who is Keever? Why is he dead? And who are “they”?
The setting of Make Me is a small town called Mother’s Rest and the site of the burial is a farm in the middle of 10,000 acres of nothingness. Reacher arrives there on the train for no better reason that he likes and is intrigued by the name of the town.
As he gets off the train he speculates that the name is due to a young pregnant woman going into labour there or an older woman dying.
He looks for a commemorative stone. There is none.
Instead he finds a sinister mid-west American town which seems to be full of watchers. Wherever he goes he is tracked.
Child evokes this very convincingly – the furtive phone calls, the inquisitorial looks, the reluctance to answer questions.
And when Reacher meets Michelle Chang, a former FBI agent turned private investigator, it becomes clear that something is seriously not right.
She is looking for Keever who, as we know from the opening lines but she doesn’t, is dead and buried.
So who is hiding what and how and why?
From then on, Child plots Make Me with the care of a very good detective fiction writer.
With many series featuring the same protagonist, it frequently becomes evident that a formula is at work.
Not here. The reader is as bemused by events as Reacher and Chang.
The twist and turns in the plot as they try to get to the bottom of Keever’s disappearance are straightforward enough (and convincing enough) to follow and believe but the general direction is never clear.
It takes a very circuitous route of exploration through Chicago, San Francisco, and Arizona before a return to Mother’s Rest for a chilling and disturbing finale.
A number of things lift Make Me into a category beyond A Wanted Man.
One is the relationship between Reacher and Chang. That they will team up is inevitable but the hard-boiled Reacher of earlier books shows a softer side here.
Another is Child’s representation of the agricultural heartland (I was tempted to write wasteland) of America with its vast open spaces, its railroad tracks, its grain silos, hog farms, and its innate suspicion of strangers.
One of the problems Reacher has to solve at the denouement is how you can approach anywhere unseen when a lookout on the top of a grain silo can see for miles and miles in every direction and cover any approach by road or rail.
I am trying hard to avoid spoilers here but I will give nothing much away if I say that, for me, Make Me deals in genuinely disturbing material by the end. Mother’s Rest turns out to be a true heart of darkness and the evil Reacher and Chang uncover is convincing and credible.
As for the writing, it is as clear, hard-hitting and precise as ever.
There are 19 books in the Jack Reacher series before Make Me but I would be very surprised indeed if any of them are better.