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Past Tense by Lee Child

Published by Delacorte Press on November 5, 2018

The fact that a new Reacher novel is published the day before an election is no excuse to stay home on Election Day. Get out and vote, then spend the rest of the day reading.

How often do thriller writers have fresh ideas? Not often enough. To his credit, Lee Child managed to invent something new in Past Tense. The main plot isn’t entirely original in concept, but the execution is unique. By the time the concept is revealed, the reader is hooked.

A relatively young man and woman from Canada are driving their Civic through New Hampshire when the car begins to overheat. They can’t abandon the car because they are carrying a heavy suitcase, the contents of which are a mystery. They’re on one of those tree-lined roads for which New Hampshire is famous, far from civilization, when they see a sign for a motel. Their car limps down a side road, where one of the motel owners fiddles with the car, then sets them up in room 10.

The next morning, the car won’t start at all. It will be another day before a mechanic can arrive. By that time, the couple have their doubts about the legitimacy of the motel and its owner. Their doubts are validated when they find themselves locked in room 10, their every word and action recorded on hidden microphones and cameras, as carefully selected guests begin to arrive in anticipation of . . . well, they know what will happen to the couple, but the reader doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Reacher is hitchhiking when he finds himself near the small New Hampshire town where his father was born. He decides to take a look. Being Reacher, it takes only a day before he has been in two fights and made two deadly enemies, one with ties to serious criminals in Boston. The town’s chief of police would like Reacher to leave before thugs descend on the town, spewing collateral damage in all directions. Reacher would like to oblige, but his investigation has triggered evidence that his father’s history is not what he expected it to be. Curiosity overcomes safety, so Reacher stays near the town, which is near the mysterious motel.

The motel storyline builds tension at a deliberate pace. Child weaves Reacher’s scenes into the story to add interludes of action, because Reacher is never in a scene for long before a jaw gets broken. Thus action and suspense are blended with skill so that neither the suspense nor the action become dull. The mystery surrounding Reacher’s father gives the story another dimension.

Reacher is one of the best thriller protagonists, not because he has the extraordinary fighting abilities that are standard issue for thriller heroes, but because he combines those abilities with close observation and deduction. He’s the Sherlock Holmes of thriller protagonists. If Sherlock had beaten villains to a pulp, he would have been the first Reacher. He also makes clever conversation without trying to be clever. It’s hard not to like Reacher.

But I liked Past Tense not just because Reacher is Reacher, but because Child allowed other characters to have their moments of glory. This isn’t a story of Reacher saving helpless victims, although he certainly plays that role. The victims, however, are resourceful and far form helpless. Child makes it possible for the reader to cheer for multiple characters, even for a few who are living normal, sedate, small town lives, simply because they are good, helpful people who aren’t filled with hate or anger. He even tosses in an understated love story to make readers feel good about the world, in between all the scenes of people getting maimed and killed. In the end, it’s all very satisfying, and one of Lee Child’s best Reacher novels.


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