Well, I hadn’t planned to read a Lee Child novel (the last one I read was in 2017, when I wasn’t reading much) but, after reading a fairly slow-paced novel recently, I wanted something relaxing, gripping and refreshingly fast-paced.
Out of instinct, I’d bought a copy of Child’s 2017 novel “The Midnight Line” in a charity shop in Petersfield last year when I realised that it was a Lee Child novel I hadn’t even heard of before. So, this seemed like a good time to read it.
So, let’s take a look at “The Midnight Line”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.
The novel starts with an ex-military policeman Jack Reacher in Milwaukee. His lover has just left him after three days together and Reacher decides to deal with this by continuing his travels. So, he gets on a bus that is heading for a small town near Lake Superior.
But, on the way, the bus stops off for a rest stop at a small town. Reacher wanders around the town and ends up in the local pawn shop. He spots a ring. It is a graduation ring from the prestigious West Point US military academy that is inscribed with the initials “S. R. S” . Soldiers don’t usually sell things like that. So, after buying the ring, Reacher stays in town and decides to track down the owner….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I’d forgotten how good Lee Child novels are. Yes, even though this one doesn’t quite live up to the standards of some of Child’s older novels (eg: “Gone Tomorrow”, “The Hard Way”, “Persuader”, “Tripwire” etc..) – it’s still the kind of gripping, incredibly readable, precisely-written thriller novel that is as compellingly relaxing as a good DVD boxset. Or, to put it another way, even a “low-budget” Lee Child novel is still considerably better than most books by many other thriller authors.
For the most part, this novel is actually more of a detective thriller novel than an action-thriller novel. Seriously, there are only about four or five short fight scenes in the entire book – with at least a few other moments where Reacher actually solves problems in a non-violent way. Surprisingly, this actually adds some extra realism (and unpredictability) to the novel, in addition to placing emphasis on the detective elements of the story too.
And, for the most part, these work fairly well – with Reacher and several other detectives (eg: a cop, a P.I. and a federal agent) investigating the mysterious case in different ways and for different reasons. However, a lot of the story’s gripping suspense is lost when Reacher meets the ring’s owner about two-thirds of the way through the novel. After that, the novel turns into slightly more of a conventional crime thriller/action-thriller novel – which is good, although it isn’t quite as good as the compelling mystery of the scenes where Reacher is trying to find out about who owns the ring.
Even so, these crime thriller/action-thriller scenes later in the book still remain reasonably compelling, thanks to a well-placed set piece and a rather clever, if unconventional, plot device involving a character with a dwindling supply of narcotics. However, Reacher’s final showdown with the novel’s main villain is surprisingly brief, anti-climactic and understated (with the most dramatic part of the scene also being little more than an implied background detail too).
Likewise, given that the crime thriller elements of the novel revolve around the drug trade, this allows Lee Child to explore how the opioid epidemic has affected rural America. This element of the book is handled surprisingly well, with Child’s ire about the situation quite rightly directed towards pharmaceutical companies and organised crime gangs, instead of their victims (who are presented in a fairly compassionate way).
In terms of the settings, most of this novel takes place in a small town and in various remote areas of Wyoming. Although this rural remoteness adds some mystery and menace to a few scenes in the novel, it does tend to get a little bit dull after a while. Even so, the plot still helps to keep everything interesting – especially during the parts where Reacher is trying to track down the ring’s owner.
As for the characters, they’re reasonably good. Jack Reacher is, well, Jack Reacher – he’s the same intelligent, tall and courageous wandering ex-military policeman as usual (although he’s a little bit more of a pacifist, relatively speaking, in this novel). The other characters are also pretty interesting, with most of them having distinctive quirks, motivations and flaws. However, the novel’s main villain doesn’t quite get enough characterisation though. Although the characterisation in this novel is very slightly on the minimalist side of things, it still works reasonably well and you’ll find yourself caring about what happens to the characters.
One interesting element of this novel is how all of the various detectives etc… interact with each other. Unlike in some of Lee Child’s other novels, Reacher seems to be on incredibly good terms with the police in this novel – with his old military credentials (and the business that the villains are in) basically meaning that the police everywhere he goes end up siding with him, helping him out and/or looking the other way when he breaks the rules. I’m not sure if this is realistic or not, but it works reasonably well – although it slightly lessens the suspense in some parts of the novel.
As for the writing, Lee Child’s third-person narration is the kind of precise, fast-paced, “matter of fact” narration that you would expect. As thriller novels go, Lee Child’s are some of the most well-written ones that I’ve read and this novel is no exception. The writing never patronises the reader, yet this is the kind of novel which can still be read easily when you’re really tired and/or the weather is annoyingly hot, which is quite an achievement on Lee Child’s part.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. Although it’s about 450 pages long, this is the kind of novel which will take you less time to read than some 300 page books will. In other words, the story is reasonably fast-paced throughout. Seriously, even in the scenes where nothing much happens, the novel still remains pretty gripping.
All in all, whilst this certainly isn’t the best Lee Child novel I’ve read, it’s still an incredibly gripping and compelling novel. Yes, it’s more of a detective thriller novel than an action-thriller novel, but this works surprisingly well. But, if the Jack Reacher novels were a TV show, this one would probably be a low-budget bottle episode. Even so, it’s still one of the better non-sci fi/non-urban fantasy/ non-horror thriller novels I’ve read since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.