When “night school” and Jack Reacher are mentioned together, my first thought is of a classroom with writer-director Christopher McQuarrie – who made the first Jack Reacher movie – as the teacher.

His fellow movie director Edward Zwick and the screenwriters of the recent Never Go Back movie adaptation are the students.

The course is “How to make a good Jack Reacher book-to-movie adaptation 101”.

And the pupils are all standing in the corner.

See, as action-packed as the recent Never Go Back movie was, it kind of lacked the wind-up, a sense of the stakes, a compelling mystery, and the villain’s point-of-view moments that form the essence of a good Reacher tale, printed or projected.

But this is not the Movies section, so – even if every Reacher book has been optioned for a motion picture – we’ll concern ourselves today with this, the 21st book in author Lee Child’s bestselling series of mystery-thrillers.

Night School is set in 1996, taking Child’s towering drifter hero back to his days as a military policeman in a pre-9/11 world. After “taking out the trash” (a fitting euphemism when we learn exactly what he did) and getting a medal for it, Reacher is shipped off to some nondescript study course, regarded by his peers as a dead-end assignment.

It’s actually just a ploy to disentangle Reacher from the army grapevine so he can work on something big for Uncle Sam. The only other “students” there are a guy from the FBI and a fella from the CIA.

There’s a bee under the bonnet of the intelligence community over a terror cell in Hamburg, Germany, and a mysterious American who wants a hundred million dollars.

That’s one where and one who, but finding out the details of the what and why, as well as the when and all the other whos involved … that’s the real trick.

str2_danightschoolR_cover_daDiving headlong into a mystery is what Reacher excels at, and what Child is so accomplished at writing. So it’s up to Reacher and his coursemates to piece it together – though mostly it’s Reacher who does the legwork and deductive heavy lifting, with the other two soon fading into the background to make way for fan-favourite supporting character Sgt Frances Neagley (yay!).

By now, after 20 previous Reacher exploits (not counting the short fiction), regular readers should know how this is all going to play out. Reacher pokes around, stirs the hornet’s nest (here, a nest quite unrelated to the mission at hand), beats up some tough guys, pokes around some more, makes some leaps of logic, strikes deals that may or may not be total BS, has a dalliance with someone involved in the case and then … well, takes out the trash.

So, Night School does have the ingredients for a good Reacher tale. Child’s writing is tight and punchy. Even when the story is told in the third person – as opposed to those stories narrated by Reacher in the first person – he seems to be writing in the character’s “head space” and voice; maybe it’s just me, but noticeably more in this outing than earlier books.

The plotting is nicely paced too, making reading Night School the equivalent of walking around a courtyard in circles with one foot tied to a pole in the centre. As you walk, the rope gets shorter and more tightly wound, and you know you’re eventually going to bump face-first into that pole; but Child makes you look forward to the impact.

Thing is, I couldn’t get as invested in the mystery here as in the previous book, Make Me. That one, where Reacher undid a complex criminal enterprise simply because he was curious about a town’s name, exemplified the best of Reacher’s wanderer’s spirit and how it impacts those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to cross paths.

Nor was I at any point gripped by a sense of fear or concern for the man, as in the second novel in the series, Die Trying, where he somewhat recklessly crawled “down a slim rock tube, a billion tons of mountain above him, no idea where he was going”.

Oddly enough, this younger Reacher in Night School seems much more self-assured and man-with-the-plan-ish than the slightly older one in Die Trying (which was published in 1998); and almost on the same level as the considerably older and (presumably) wiser one in Make Me.

Still, Night School will certainly grab you from the start and keep you flipping page after page till the very end – and muscle memory will keep you going even after that, most likely.

But Child pulls a swerve in the last few chapters – having that “wrong hornet’s nest” suddenly gain prominence in and relevance to the story – that left me somewhat unsatisfied by the finish.

Possibly, Child was trying an experiment with varying his usual plot progression, though it could have been done in a much less random-seeming manner. Say, any more room in that corner?

Night School

Author: Lee Child
Publisher: Delacorte Press, fiction