Well, it has been way too long since I last reviewed a novel (novel reviews will become a regular feature late this year/early next year though). And, I hadn’t planned to review one today – but, after spending about five and a half hours binge-reading a second-hand charity shop copy of “Night School” by Lee Child, it felt appropriate to review it too.
This review will contain some PLOT SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.
“Night School” is a novel from 2016 that is the 21st thriller in Lee Child’s famous “Jack Reacher” series. Like in the other novels in this series that I’ve read, “Night School” tells a self-contained story that doesn’t really require any knowledge of other novels in the series.
The story is something of a prequel to many of the other novels, with the events of the story taking place in 1996. Jack Reacher is an American military policeman who has recently been awarded a medal for a covert mission in Eastern Europe.
He’s on the up and up, and there’s a lot of military gossip about his next assignment. But, when Reacher is summoned to the Pentagon, he learns that he’s been… assigned to take a training course in forensics and inter-agency co-operation.
Of course, when he arrives at the facility, there are only two other students. A highly-commended member of the FBI and an outstanding member of the CIA. Between the three of them, they quickly realise that they aren’t there to study inter-agency co-operation or forensics……
One of the very first things that I will say about this novel is that about the first two-thirds or so of it are better than the later parts. Like any good thriller, the novel starts out in a mysteriously exciting fashion.
In some ways, the beginning and middle of “Night School” are reminiscent of an American TV show like “24” or “NCIS” and, in other ways, these parts of the story are more like a classic modern European thriller (like a more fast-paced version of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played With Fire”).
Yet, during the later parts of the story, there’s less suspense. The plot twists seem predictable, hollow and clichéd. The ending also seems somewhat anticlimactic. So, this is a story that is more about the journey than the destination. Everything leading up to the later parts of the story is fast-paced, complex, mysterious and thrilling (enough to warrant a marathon binge-reading session). Yet, the story gradually starts losing dramatic value as it progresses.
From what I’d heard about “Night School” before I read it, I expected it to be more of an “action movie”-style novel. But, it is very much a traditional-style thriller. Yes, there are suspenseful chases and a small number of well-written fight scenes (eg: a 2-3 page description of part of a fight that only lasts a few seconds). But, this is more like a cross between a spy novel, a political thriller and a detective novel than an action thriller novel.
A lot of the story includes several parallel narratives involving various agents, detectives and criminals. For example, there are scenes where the novel’s main antagonist is a few hundred metres away from the main characters, and neither of them realises it. Like in many good thriller novels, these scenes are interweaved in all sorts of cool ways.
One cool thing about this novel is that Reacher’s old colleague Frances Neagley makes an appearance here. Although I’ve read at least one novel featuring Neagley (“Bad Luck and Trouble” in 2009/10), I couldn’t remember a huge amount about that novel. Still, the name and the character were instantly familiar to me.
As for the characters, they’re adequate and functional. Jack Reacher is mostly (more on this later) still the smart, stoic hero that we all know and love. Yet, the main characters sometimes seem slightly “flat”. Likewise, even the novel’s romantic sub-plot feels somewhat random and slightly passionless. Surprisingly, the most well-developed characters in this novel are the main antagonist and a German detective called Griezman (who helps Reacher out throughout the story).
However, and this might be because of the 1990s setting or the fact that Jack Reacher is younger in this book, but he’s a little bit more aggressive than usual in this novel. What I mean by this is he’s slightly more likely to kill or attack people for reasons other than self-defence. Like an “edgy” 90s action hero, a couple of these scenes are also accompanied by pithy dialogue too. Although this stuff seems very mildly out of character for Reacher, some elements of this change in his character are foreshadowed in a very early part of the novel.
As usual, Lee Child uses a fairly fast-paced and minimalist narrative style, peppered with occasional descriptions. And, as gripping as it is here, it didn’t quite seem to have the same substance as some of his other novels. The narrative style seems a little too minimalist in some parts. Even so, it keeps the plot travelling forwards at a suitably fast pace, which is never a bad thing.
The novel’s mid-1990s setting is also handled in a fairly interesting way too. For the most part, the novel reads like a fairly “timeless” thriller story, with relatively little 1990s nostalgia (eg: there are some references to the Millennium bug and the end of the cold war. Likewise, there isn’t a mobile phone in sight either. But, aside from this, it could almost be set in the present day).
Yet, the mid-1990s setting also has a noticeable effect on the plot, with the story drawing on both the more imaginative/silly traditions of the 90s thriller genre (between the end of the cold war and 9/11, thriller writers had to be a bit more imaginative since they couldn’t just rely on popular fears for source material) and more “serious” contemporary concerns about extremism and terrorism too. Seriously, Lee Child absolutely nails the “mid-late 90s thriller” elements of the story perfectly.
This slight hint of 1990s silliness, along with some witty descriptions/dialogue and a hilariously gross scene set in a nightclub also help to lighten the tone of the story slightly too, which is never a bad thing. Although “Night School” is a suspenseful thriller novel, with some slightly “gritty” crime-based segments, it never really becomes bleak or depressing.
The rest of the novel’s settings are handled in a fairly interesting way too. Most of the story takes place in Hamburg, and this city is described in a fairly minimalist way – which helps it to seem “modern” and “realistic”. Yet, the city also seems slightly drab and generic too – which is both a strength and a weakness.
By making the city blend into the background slightly, Lee Child is able to focus our attentions more on the events of the story. Yet, the fact that it takes place in a version of Germany shown from the perspective of an American character imagined by one of Britain’s bestselling authors kind of means that the setting often comes across as more “generic European” than anything else. Lee Child is an expert at writing American settings, but mainland Europe really doesn’t seem to be his forte.
All in all, this isn’t Lee Child’s best novel, but it’s hardly a bad novel either. I mean, it was still compelling enough to binge-read in one marathon session. Yes, the beginning is better than the ending. Yes, this story is much more about the journey than the destination. But, it’s still a fairly well-written thriller novel. Not to mention that it’s kind of cool to see a vaguely 1990s-style thriller from 2016.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.