Frayed Man of Action With a Head for Figures

‘A Wanted Man: A Jack Reacher Novel’ by Lee Child
“A Wanted Man” is Lee Child’s 17th Jack Reacher novel and the last to be published before Reacher goes Hollywood with “Jack Reacher,” a big Christmas movie based on book No. 9, “One Shot,” and starring — can’t say it ain’t so, because it is — Tom Cruise. Mr. Cruise seems such a wrong choice to play this jumbo vigilante that this is a good moment to contemplate the essential Reacher: not just what he looks like but also what he really is.

Perhaps in sly response to a movie that will feature a lot of action, Mr. Child begins “A Wanted Man” by confining Reacher to very close quarters. The first 125 pages of this new novel are about a car trip. After waiting exactly 93 minutes on the eastbound ramp of a Nebraska highway, he successfully hitches a ride. The car contains two men and a woman, and Reacher knows nothing about them. Being Reacher, he will spend those first 125 pages observing every detail, watching every move, trying to deduce as much as he can.

His enormous size counts for nothing during this part of the book. Nor does his appearance, although he has a busted nose and is said to resemble a very un-Cruise-like “gorilla with its face smashed in.” And he has no opportunities to resort to his tactic of choice, extreme violence. So he rides along an endless straight road through Iowa thinking about codes and signs and numbers and letters (“Reacher had no patience with people who claimed that y was a vowel”). He is a math guy at heart, and he isn’t likely to meet anyone equally wonky until this series takes him through Silicon Valley.

On the road Reacher gradually figures out that the men, Alan King and Don McQueen, are kidnappers. Their hostage is Karen Delfuenso, a terrified waitress whose car they have hijacked. Reacher arranges to drive the car with Karen in the seat behind him so that they can make eye contact in the rearview mirror. Improbably Karen starts blinking and twisting her head to deliver some kind of secret message. Even more improbably, Reacher cracks her code almost immediately and finds out what she is trying to say.

A third of the way into “A Wanted Man,” his only acts of violence have been hypothetical. “It was technically challenging to take out a guy in the front passenger seat while driving at 80 miles an hour,” he muses while at the wheel. Also, the 6-foot-5-inch Reacher has arms so long that he would need to keep his elbow bent: he wants to slug his passenger, not punch out the car’s side window. In any case, it’s time for Mr. Child to get him out of the car and unleash him on the book’s assorted evildoers.
Outside the car, meanwhile, “A Wanted Man” has been developing one of the best female characters in the whole Reacher series: Julia Sorenson, an F.B.I. special agent from Omaha who is called in to investigate a potential interstate crime. Once Reacher is sprung from the car, he encounters Sorenson, who ought to be his natural adversary. But she, like all the women who interest Reacher, is as smart and methodical as he is, and he impresses her with his irrefutable, conveniently self-serving logic. He easily convinces her that whatever is unfolding, he and she should be on the same side.

Reacher’s banter is usually more elegant than it is in “A Wanted Man.” He can do better than this, which he aims at a trucker who is bothering him: “Option 1, get back in your truck and get breakfast 50 miles down the road. Option 2, get in an ambulance and get breakfast through a plastic tube.” Still, the sang-froid of his delivery is what makes the big impression. And anyone worried about Reacher on screen can rest easy. Just remember how dauntingly Mr. Cruise can deliver that kind of dialogue, how greatly the character’s intelligence outshines his brawn, and how formidable Reacher would be even if he didn’t tower over everyone around him. Size doesn’t matter, as you will see in December.
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A Wanted Man by Lee ChildA WANTED MAN
A Jack Reacher Novel
By Lee Child
405 pages. Delacorte Press. $28.