Book Review: A Wanted Man, by Lee Child

A Wanted Man (A Jack Reacher Novel), by Lee Child. Dell Paperback. 2012. $10.

In Child’s 17th Jack Reacher novel, we pick up Reacher where he left off, in far western Nebraska, in the wintertime. As Reacher is want to do, he is hitchhiking. But, just how attractive a hitchhiker is Reacher, at 6’5″ and 230lbs give or take. Then, add in his broken nose, suffered from taking a rifle butt to the face, giving him the appearance of a pale gorilla. If you’ve read Reacher before, “you should have seen the other guy,” applies. Actually, in Reacher’s case, the other “guys” is more appropriate.

Reacher is collected from a highway cloverleaf in far western Nebraska by a dark blue or dark grey sedan, driven by one fellow, and occupied by a second man and a young woman in the backseat. Reacher is never given a ride by people with simple lives. How interesting of a story would than make?

My guess is Reacher was collected somewhere around Exit 126 on Interstate 80 (above). We learn he is close to a split in the interstates, one road leading to Salt Lake City, the other leading to Denver. The town of Ogallala pretty much fits the geography, as well as the cloverleaf south of town.

Reacher senses something is awry not longer after getting a ride. The people in the car are dressed like they have just come from a trade show, wearing similar and nondescript denim shirts, both gentlemen in the front seat somewhat convivial, the young woman in the backseat quiet. The supervisor of the trio works out an arrangement with Reacher for him to do a little driving, they swap seats, and soon the boss is snoozing while Reacher drives everyone east.

As they travel east along I-80, they pass through a couple of law enforcement roadblocks. FBI is looking for a solitary male, maybe two, heading east. The officers don’t really communicate much to Reacher, give he, the car, and the occupants a cursory examination and pass them through.

Meanwhile, somewhere around Ogallala, probably – more on this later –  the FBI and the local sheriff’s department are trying to figure out who killed a man out in the middle of nowhere. The FBI is curious as the dead man might have been a terrorist. Or, he might have been a State Department official. Or, he might have been a CIA section chief, well out of his jurisdiction, since CIA is forbidden to operate in the United States. A local waitress is missing, too; and a drunk claims to have seen three men enter a shed, and two men leave.

Reacher’s trip to Virginia is later complicated when he is abandoned and left for dead. Except Reacher has a hard time allowing bygones to be bygones. No one shoots at Reacher and doesn’t suffer some serious health setbacks. Involved a woman or a child, or in this case, both, and Reacher operates like the arrow on a compass, always seeking North. In Reacher’s case, he seeks justice.

Reacher’s trip across Nebraska almost lands him in Omaha, turned over to the FBI. Not exactly collected while hitchhiking, Reacher is picked up by FBI Special Agent Julia Sorenson. They form an uneasy alliance to track down the two men and the woman who left Reacher for dead, who may have kidnapped a waitress, and who may be working with terrorists.

But, just as soon as they begin to figure out some details, Sorenson is pulled from the case, and Reacher is arrested and placed in protective custody. Jack finds his protective environment a bizarrely remodeled motel south of Topeka, Kansas. Again, in the middle of nowhere, Jack runs up against the motel’s other residents, the drunk eyewitness to the original murder, and the woman who he shared his initial car-ride with. Karen Delfuenso is also a FBI agent, working undercover inside her own law enforcement organization. And, she is a mother of young girl. Just when Reacher thinks circumstances could not get more odd, Julie Sorenson arrives at their odd motel. Sorenson is not visiting, though; she has just become the newest resident.

Wakarusa, Kansas, is a few miles south of Topeka, the capital of Kansas. Topeka is about 100 miles west of the Paris of the Plains, the City of Fountains, Kansas City, Missouri. The odd little motel Jack, Karen, and Julie find themselves the guests of is potentially nearby. Once one gets off the interstate Kansas seem very isolated. You don’t have to trust me, though I have personal experience with central, southern, eastern Kansas, and stretches from Kansas City to Denver. I was raised along I-70, from birth until today, actually. Though, these days, I tend to travel the St. Louis to Kansas City, Missouri route far more frequently. My immediate and extended family can be found from Wichita to Lincoln, from Denver to Kansas City.

Reacher and his crew find a means to leave their accommodations in east-central Kansas. Loaded with a handful of clues suggesting Syrian terrorists have set up shop in central Missouri, Reacher, along with Agents Sorenson and Delfuenso, head to Kansas City. At this point in the book, about page 414, Child grabs my attention, and I mean slap-my-face attention.

Child, through Reacher, begins describing where I live. I don’t mean describing Kansas City, a city where I spent about 21 years of my life, went to school, church, concerts, the zoo. I mean describing where I live as in how to get to my house, my neighbor, the places I grew up.

“It’s a suburban house,” Delfuenso said. “South of the city, and a little east.”

“How far out of town?”

“Maybe twelve miles.” (pg. 414)

My neighborhood. Where I rode my bike, went to the movies, read at the library. Even more.

Delfuenso … headed east again on a federal reaod with a new number, and they entered Missouri in the overtaking lane at ninety miles an hour, following a sign to a place called Lee’s Summit. (pg. 417)

Again, striking even closer to home. But, the team doesn’t quite reach Lee’s Summit.

But, they turned north well before they got there, toward a new place called Raytown, but they never got there, either. They turned off before it slid into view, heading north and west, into multiple acres of suburban sprawl backed by what Reacher took to be a large park.

I have to say when I was reading through these pages I was like, Holy Sh!t, Jack Reacher is running around in literally my neighborhood. Reading a book with familiar geography really raises my interest level. When authors use real geography I tune right in. When said geography is my neighborhood, I lock in on that like a laser-guided drone strike.

I’m pretty sure my mom saw Jack, Julia, and Karen at the McDonald’s drive-thru

A Wanted Man was my 17th Jack Reacher novel. Yes, I fall into the cohort who was appalled by the casting of Tom Cruise as Reacher. I would have preferred Eric Bana, or maybe even Dwayne Johnson. The most entertaining aspect of this novel was Child dipping his toes into my personal geography, though. While Child’s embedding of my personal geography into this novel piqued my interest, the bulk of the novel was not particularly exciting, thrilling, or captivating. A Wanted Man doesn’t really add much to Jack Reacher’s canon, other than to help convey him closer to his destination, Virginia. If you are reading the novels in order, #17 leaves him hitching a ride in central Missouri.

One of the issues I have with Child’s writing is his use of vague geography. For instance, we never really know where Reacher is picked up hitchhiking in western Nebraska. No real toponyms are provided; we don’t even know what road Reacher is on. We are never told some of the action occurs along Interstate 80. We aren’t provided the route taken by the FBI to deposit Reacher at his motel. The route into Kansas City is vague. I’m not really sure why Child is vague about the geography in which Reacher’s tales occur when other authors like Paretsky, Burke, Baldacci, and Connelly use real places in their novels.

A Wanted Man exemplifies Child’s writing style. His prose is terse; he wastes nothing on excessive verbiage. I can appreciate Child’s lean writing and attention to detail. Being a geographer, though, and interested in how authors weave geography into their craft, I am often frustrated by Child’s vague geographies. I would like to be able to plot Reacher’s adventures in Google Earth, for example, like I’ve done for Dave Robicheaux, James Lee Burke’s protagonist. Geography brings the environment to life. Reacher fancies himself a polymath, I think, bringing out superficial historical information, or economic details, or demographic characteristics. That Reacher likes numbers is fine, but Reacher doesn’t seem to back up his experience and his interest with reading or any sort of study. We never catch Reacher reading “The Naked Economist” or “The World Before Tomorrow” or reading “The Economist” magazine. More attention to geography and a little more attention to Reacher’s interests would make these books more robust crime genre literature and less like a novelized movie screenplay.

Thanks for reading.


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