Thursday, September 11, 2014

Getting Personal

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is one of the few long-running character-driven tales that sometimes switches between first and third person from one book to another. Child has said that he changes based on what works best for the story he's writing. Personal is one of the Reacher books where we get the story from inside Reacher's head, rather than an omniscient narrator, and it serves the book well.

Jack Reacher has just gotten into Seattle as he wanders the country, and picks up a copy of the Army newspaper. The personals feature an ad aimed at him, and he learns that a former supervisor wants him because someone else aimed a sniper's rifle at the president of France. Among the suspects is a man Reacher arrested who has recently been released. Is he setting up a new career? Is the sniper a specialist from some other country? Reacher will team with some in-the-shadows operators to learn the answer, but will the inexperienced young female agent partnering with him help him or slow him down as he seeks answers in Paris, Arkansas and London?

Personal is probably one of the best Reacher stories in years and ranks in the top level of the series. Although some of its features echo other Reacher books, Child rearranges them in slightly different ways to build his plot. Reacher naturally kicks anybody's behind who dares to cross him, but he does actually have to work at it and the fights themselves are a more natural part of the narrative. Plus, instead of some outlying rural oligarch whose minions cross Reacher, who makes everyone pay in return, Personal sets up an actual mystery to solve, and gives Reacher an actual stake in the story beyond upping his private body count. That it runs parallel to the usual crisp action scenery and Reacher outsmarting and outpunching his opponents is a welcome plus.

It's hard to get a clear sense of what was going on for an author when he or she writes a book, unless the mood or tone of the book is designed to reflect it, then there are usually only impressions. For whatever reason, Personal gives off a vibe that says Child had more fun writing it than he has in some time, and that makes for an exciting and fun tag-along with the indomitable Jack Reacher.
With The Eye of Heaven, Sam and Remi Fargo bring along the third Clive Cussler co-writer since their series began, as Russell Blake follows in the path of Grant Blackwood and Thomas Perry.

The globe-trotting archaeologist/anthropologist/adventurers have uncovered a nearly perfectly preserved Viking longship filled with pre-Columbian artifacts from what is now Mexico. Clues point them towards the ancient and poorly understood Tolmec civilization, and they journey to Mexico to enlist the help of local scientists and continue their search. The longship and its crew could be clues to discovering the grave of the shadowy figure Quetzlcoatl -- part god, part king and bearing no small resemblance to some Europeans of that time frame. But an unscrupulous competitor wants the artifacts as well. And he seems to always be just a step behind the Fargos, or in some cases a step ahead.

Blake's maiden voyage with Sam and Remi is uneven, which is actually a step up from Thomas Perry's swan song, The Mayan Secrets. It starts out almost unreadably, as the Fargos drip cut-rate banter ad nauseum and the reader must slog through detailed descriptions of all of the best and most expensive wines and beverages in the world as the book's characters consume them. The second half of the book picks up the pace, mostly by getting the couple out of their swanky hotels and restaurants and reading more like an adventure yarn than a wine list.

The Fargo series has been froth from the beginning but the first half of Eye makes even froth look meaningful and important. The injection of a potentially long-term adversary helps a great deal and gives some hope for future books. By the time Eye is over, a reader can actually believe that something could happen to actually matter to Sam and Remi, which hasn't been clear for much of the series until now. Those books will still need some work -- Blake tries a hand at foreshadowing how Sam and Remi's plans keep getting found out but it's more like "fore-shout-the-answer-into-a-megaphoning." And his "red herring" for that particular development is never very credible.

All that said, Blake now has the chance to bring the Fargos out of last place among the Cussler brand, and the potential to do so. Fargo No. 7 will say a lot more about how that will go.

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