Monday, January 30, 2017

Have Tough, Will Travel

Peter Ash's time in the miltary in Iraq and Afghanistan left him with no visible scars, but he now suffers from a claustrophobia that keeps him sleeping in his truck or outdoors and makes almost any time indoors a stress-filled proposition. Thus he's the title character in Nicholas Petrie's debut novel, The Drifter. But when Ash learns a fellow Marine committed suicide, leaving behind a widow struggling to make ends meet, he ventures back into society to help her.

And finds a suitcase stuffed with money and explosives under the porch he's repairing. Did it belong to his late friend Jimmy, who had moved out several months prior to his death? Where did he get the money if it did, and what's been planned with all of the explosives? Will the original owners come calling for their material, and can Ash protect his Jimmy's widow Dinah and her two children?

The obvious comparison to the ex-military drifter not trying to cause trouble but finding it anyway is Lee Child's Jack Reacher, and Child himself offered a laudatory blurb about the book. Petrie is a lot less mannered and stylized than Child when it comes to things like fight scenes or action sequences  -- no two-page discourse on tranquilizers and their delivery systems for him. Ash's drifting tendencies are a little more organic than Reacher's, stemming from his PTSD claustrophobia rather than just vague wanderlust. And Ash is friendlier as well, partnering with a local crime boss who once knew Jimmy and Dinah and feels some obligation to her.

Even with all the comparisons, Peter Ash is more than just a Millennial generation version of the late-era Boomer Jack Reacher. Petrie writes his own story with his own goals in mind, and Drifter, despite some implausibilities and a rather hurried ending, stands on its own as a solid debut and a welcome invitation to further -- and farther -- travel.
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Nick Mason may have been a crook, but the time he's serving now was a setup. After he straightened out for his wife and new daughter, old acquaintances roped him into one last easy job. Which went bad and brought about the death of a cop, and earned Nick 25 years in prison. Five years into his time, Chicago crime lord Darius Cole presents Nick with an offer that gets him out early. He takes it.

But though no longer behind bars, Nick is no less a prisoner, as the condition of his release is an agreement to answer a call from Cole's lieutenants to do whatever Cole asks. Naturally, Cole doesn't ask him to man the Salvation Army Christmas kettle. As Cole's orders lead to more violent and more dangerous crimes, Nick finds himself drawing more attention from the police and less able to try to re-establish a relationship with his ex-wife and daughter -- who may become targets themselves.

The Second Life of Nick Mason is tautly written, quick-paced and never lags. Nick and the other characters are well-drawn and Steve Hamilton's hand with an action sequence is already well-practiced in his Alex McKnight series. It struggles with some pretty improbable turns of events and implausible actions on the part of some of the people in it, but not so much as to slow down the story.

The sequel to Second Life already has a May publishing date, and I have no desire to read it. Nick's life is bleak and by the end of this book he's really no better off than he was before. The friend who passed this one on to me noted that real noir -- which Hamilton shoots for and largely hits -- doesn't really work well for a series character, and I think that's right. Maybe if Nick gets a third life that's not so depressing I can check back in.
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The above-mentioned Jack Reacher is probably the premier tough guy on the literary market today, and for his 21st outing, Lee Child takes him back to 1996 for a strange training assignment in Night School. In 1996, Reacher was still an investigator and still in the United States Army, having yet to adapt his wandering lifestyle. He finds himself in a "class" with two other men -- one FBI and one CIA -- and all three are assigned to uncover the meaning of a cryptic message from an undercover agent in a jihadi terrorist cell in Europe. An unnamed American wants a hundred million dollars for...something. Reacher and his "classmates," along with his co-investigator Sgt. Frances Neagley, need to find out who the American is, what he's supposed to have that's worth $100,000,000 and who in the terrorist community is trying to buy it.

Child has been dropping these flashback novels into the regular series every now and again with mixed results. On the plus side, it helps him dodge the fact that in the regular timeline his main character is pushing 60 and a little less likely candidate for unstoppable fighting machine who's irresistible to the ladies. On the down side, some fans prefer the rootless traveler to the Reacher who's still a part of a heirarchy and structure. Night School probably won't convince those folks, but it does let Reacher work as an investigator and in the shadowy world of espionage instead of having to punch out yet another back country oligarch whose wealth, power and control issues make him dangerous to the poor people he bullies.

As before, Child does a decent job of writing the 20-years-ago Reacher with a little bit lighter touch that the current version. Unlike the last flashback novel, 2011's The Affair, he spends less time showing us how Major Jack Reacher prefigures Wandering Knight-Errant Jack Reacher and more time telling his story. He also does a credible job setting a story in a world that is pre-9/11 in its concerns about terrorism, but still working under increasing stress following the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Child hints that 9/11 organizer Osama bin Laden plays a role in the group seeking a new avenue of attack against the United States.

Night School also tones down the Superman antics Child sometimes scripts for his mainstay character, allowing the story to move forward with some fewer "Oh, please" eyerolls. Time spent reading it is time passed much more than time wasted, and that's enough to ask of any Jack Reacher adventure.

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