Lee Child’s 15th Jack Reacher book is a milestone of sorts. A nominal sequel to 61 HOURS, which was published in May, it picks up shortly after the earlier novel. Reacher is a bit banged up as the result of his escape from what seemed to be a certain demise at the conclusion of 61 HOURS (in WORTH DYING FOR, he explains how he managed to remain intact), but his residual stiffness and limitations serve as a reminder that he is neither invincible nor invulnerable. He certainly possesses a skill set that makes it difficult to remember that he might have a few weaknesses. Nonetheless, Reacher retains enough to triumph against overwhelming odds here, utilizing his considerable mental and physical abilities to right some extremely horrific wrongs.
WORTH DYING FOR finds Reacher dropped off in the middle of a nowhere called Nebraska, with little around him but a deserted motel. A series of events puts him crossways with the Duncan family, who for a couple of generations have run the local farming community as their own little fiefdom, utilizing a combination of terror and economics. They handle all the trucking of the surrounding farmers’ goods to market, and no one dares to use an alternative transport system. As far as they’re concerned, it’s either their way or the highway. The Duncans also traffic in other goods, and Reacher’s arrival is both the fly in the ointment of their latest shipment and a convenient excuse when the delivery to their customers in the south is unexpectedly delayed.
Reacher soon finds himself to be the target of some very big and dangerous people, including the Duncans’ de facto security force, which consists of some alumni of the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team, and enforcers representing different links in the sales chain, of which the Duncans are merely the first step. Reacher has few places to hide; his area has a whole lot of nothing, and the Duncans have most of the folks around there too terrified to help him. There are a couple of exceptions, however, including a woman victimized in the worst way by the Duncans several years before. Reacher would be just as happy to move on to where he was heading to begin with --- Virginia, for a rendezvous that may or may not happen --- but winds up staying, in part because of a mysterious tragedy that screams for resolution.
And thus we come to the strongest parts of the book. Reacher’s combat skills consistently offer triumphs against his adversaries, but it’s the mystery --- and Reacher’s resolution of it --- at the core of these novels that makes the series worth reading. Here this process proceeds along two tracks --- one in which Reacher slowly unravels a horrific series of events in the Nebraskan cornfields, the other in which he takes the forces rallied against him and points them at each other. The result may or may not be the best Reacher book to date, but it certainly is his most satisfying.
I’m not sure what Lee Child has against the Nebraska Cornhuskers --- that his choice for a group of strong-backed and weak-minded associates would be best served by, say, alumni of the University of Michigan --- but regardless of your football loyalties, you’ll find WORTH DYING FOR worth reading far into the night.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011