The major problem with Lee Child’s last Jack Reacher novel, 61 Hours, was the anti-climactic ending that also managed to be a bit of a cliffhanger; I was thankful when I heard that Worth Dying For was coming out this year. Sadly, while the book continues on from the previous book, it’s more of an afterthought than anything else. Yes, he’s in a lot of pain from the previous events and he’s on the road to get to Virginia to finally meet up with the woman he was talking to on the phone in the last book, but otherwise it has no bearing, earlier events dealt with by a short explanation when the doctor asks what happened to him. Worth Dying For is a decent novel by itself, though - except for the ending and the characters. What is Child’s problem with concluding his books?
Jack Reacher, the ex-military cop turned drifter, is making his way to Virginia from snowy South Dakota, but he ends up stopping in an extremely remote part of Nebraska - so remote that the nearest civilization is sixty miles further south. The area is under the sinister control of the Duncan family, a clan that has the few residents so terrorized that they can do pretty much anything without consequence. When Eleanor Duncan, young Seth Duncan’s wife, calls the local doctor to help her after another beating, Reacher has to basically guilt the doctor into going out to her house. Something as simple as this ends up involving Reacher in a fight against the Duncans, as well as some international agents who are very interested in the cargo that the Duncan family is bringing in from Canada. With Reacher in the way, commerce can’t continue. He has to be taken out.
Worth Dying For is hard to put down. The story moves at a crackling pace; the chapters or story sections are fairly short, encouraging the “just one more chapter” feeling when you really should be getting to bed. Child’s prose style sucks you in with Parker-like dialogue but long descriptions of Reacher’s surroundings and actions. Unlike 61 Hours, winter itself is not a character in this novel. I occasionally even forgot that it was still winter as Reacher travelled around. Child still manages to obtain a sense of isolation for Reacher and his characters. This time it’s geographical isolation rather than being snowbound. Child’s style makes the reader feel cut off from everything else, trapped in the same trap that all of the characters are in.
Unfortunately, it also adds a note of incredulity to the whole thing. We only see four of the residents who are not involved in the criminal side of things. While there are references to other farms and such, the county/town doesn’t feel populated at all. Much happens in the two days that Reacher is there, but we never see any reaction to it from anybody other than the characters Child has shown us. There’s the “phone tree” that the populace supposedly uses to keep tabs on what the Duncans are doing, but the only times we see it in effect, one of the characters is using it. Not that the author necessarily should have created more characters; the town simply shouldn’t feel as depopulated as it does.
Child’s characters could also use some work. Reacher is, of course, pure Reacher: intelligent to a fault, a quick thinker who can size up a situation and almost instantly know what he should do. He’s human, however, and does screw up on occasion. Instead of dwelling on it, though, he just moves forward, trying to fix whatever he’s screwed up.
The remaining characters are pretty bland. Each has a hook, but they’re fairly one-dimensional otherwise. The residents of the town just lie there on the page, not really doing much - there to give Reacher the information he needs and cower at the sight of the Duncans. That’s pretty much all. The bad guys are even less than that, either generic tough guys whom Reacher can outsmart and outfight, or the Duncans, just talking about what they need to do to keep their shipment going or demanding that Reacher be taken out. We get no sense of them being intelligent enough to keep this operation going as long as they have. The Duncans’ customers and their hired guys are worse still and quickly dispensed with.
Finally, there’s the ending. This one isn’t so much anticlimax with a cliffhanger, just unbelievably violent and nonsensical. Reacher and the townsfolk do much that would eventually call the attention of the authorities, and the way Reacher leaves it (“just tell them it was me”) beggars all belief. Child leaves it all too clean and neat in a manner too unrealistic.
Despite all of that, I couldn’t put the book down. Reacher is a hard man to ignore, even when you don’t believe what’s going on around him. Child’s prose and storytelling capabilities are enough to carry Worth Dying For through all its faults. I love the irony of characters making assumptions and acting on them when the reader knows that they’re wrong. I like the near-misses when characters almost cross or actually do cross paths with each other when they don’t know each others’ identities, which adds a bit of delicious tension to the novel.
Worth Dying For is a great read. I just wish I could say it was a good book, too.