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The Cowboy Way

  The Hard Way
Lee Child
Delacorte, 2006
Rating: 4.0

Posted: July 7, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

What makes a hero, well, a hero? Is it selfless dedication to others -- that idealized view we have of police officers, firefighters and soldiers? Is it the decision to employ one's special talents and abilities in the service of a greater good -- Stan Lee's whole "With great power comes great responsibility" dictum? Or, as in Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, is it simply being big, strong, good with a gun and possessed of a disposition suitable to blowing away bad guys without a second thought?

Jack Reacher, the hero ("protagonist" just doesn't seem to cut it) of ten novels by British- born author Lee Child, falls more into the latter camp than the previous two. He's not as one-dimensional as a gun-toting Schwarzenegger action figure, but Child's compulsively readable adventures revel in Reacher's overall manliness, sometimes to the point of devolving into a pulp novel:

"He was calm. Just another night of business as usual in his long and spectacularly violent life. He was used to it, literally. And the remorse gene was missing from his DNA. Entirely. It just wasn't there. Where some men might have retrospectively agonized over justification, he spent his energy figuring out where best to hide the bodies."

And why shouldn't Reacher be the object of such breathless adoration? He's every man's inner fantasy realized. He lives a nomadic existence, meandering from one locale to the other as the mood strikes him, unencumbered by debts, obligations, commitments or relationships. He doesn't pay taxes, doesn't have a fixed address or even a permanent wardrobe. He's blissfully unaware of such modern conveniences as text-messaging. He's an ex-Army military policeman, so he's got the requisite ass-kicking skills. And he often enjoys healthy bouts of no-strings-attached sex with beautiful women. He even has the useful ability to accurately keep track of time in his head without wearing a watch.

In short, he's a maverick, a 21st-century cowboy, a noncommittal yet good-hearted wanderer who travels the globe having adventures. All of which can make relating to Reacher a bit problematic -- few of us, after all, have lived a similar carefree life. More to the point, he doesn't grow. It's hard to trace a character arc (as aspiring screenwriters like to call it) for a character who never changes and forms no permanent attachments.

Good thing, then, that Child crafts such absorbing adventures (and that he slowly unspools bits of Reacher's backstory as he goes along, in the hopes that they'll help the reader understand him and thus make up for that aforementioned lack of "arc"). The wandering-cowboy bit can lend a whiff of formula to the proceedings -- Reacher may act reluctant to get involved as often as not, when you know that if he didn't, there'd be no story -- but once he commits, it's a pleasure to accompany him as he follows false leads, applies his military skill set (tracking, surveillance, interrogation, hand-to-hand combat, problem-solving) and generally dispatches bad guys to gory, well-deserved ends -- with time out for a little nookie.

He does all of the above in The Hard Way, in which he ends up helping Edward Lane, a well-paid mercenary (who lives at the Dakota in New York, no less) whose wife and stepdaughter have been kidnapped. Reacher at first volunteers to help, although his motives become more mercenary (and at the same time more altruistic) as clues and twists pile up and things, naturally, prove not to be what they seem. What to make of the fact that Lane lost a previous wife to an identical kidnapping plot? Or that he left two members of his crew behind in a foreign country -- one of whom might be the kidnapper back for revenge? And who's the woman obsessively observing the comings and goings of Lane and his men, and dutifully reporting them to a local cop?

The Hard Way is as captivating a read as any entry in this sturdy, dependable escapist series, and as good a starting point as any for novices. It's well-paced and easy to follow, if a bit grisly for those with a low tolerance for descriptive violence. The story and its hero may not stick around for long after you've finished -- but then, that's a cowboy for you.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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