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Friday, November 5, 2010

Snowbound: The Frostbitten Fingers of Fear... and Murder

He’s like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, popping up at the perfect moment to do his thing (which typically entails saving the proverbial day). He’s the Timex of heroes, taking a licking (and another, and another), but continuing to keep right on ticking. And, in true Weeble-like fashion, no matter how many times he’s knocked down, he (eventually, anyway) bounces back up. He is, in a word (okay, two words), Mr. Reliable. 
Who is he? Why, he’s Jack Reacher, of course--the no-BS, ex-Army MP who regularly fixes problems and makes things hunky-dory again, all while pursuing a vagabond existence of roaming wherever the wind blows him, carrying all his worldly possessions on his back.
There’s never a scrape or a tight spot that Jack can’t--sooner or later--wriggle out of, never a trap from which he can’t spring himself. (Not that he’s invincible or anything; he bears plenty of scars for his troubles.) Years of experience combined with an ability to think and act rationally and to harness his powers of keen observation, have allowed Jack to hone his survival skills into something quite extraordinary.
Even Superman had his Kryptonite, though, and in Lee Child’s fourteenth entry in the Reacher series, 61 Hours, it appears that Jack may have finally met his match, as well.
While traveling as he often does--by hitching a ride, or, in this case, arranging a cheap, cash-under-the-table seat on a half-empty charter bus en route to Mount Rushmore--Jack has the grave misfortune to find himself stranded in a small, isolated South Dakota town... in the middle of winter... in the middle of a series of major snowstorms. 
Now, unless you’ve ever spent a winter in South Dakota (I have, btw), or another place with comparable weather patterns (which, again, I have), then you only think you know cold. And snow. There are few things as isolating--or as claustrophobic--as being surrounded by nothing but a frozen white tableau, or as frightening as being outside in that double-digit-sub-zero weather, when it feels as though every part of you is literally freezing. And the thought of something, anything, bad happening in such conditions? A whole new level of terrifying. 
Jack has, of course, experienced snow and cold before... but nothing like this, and not while being co-opted by the local police department for help with a huge problem. Battening down the hatches and waiting out the awful weather by hibernating indoors isn’t an option; the town of Bolton needs his help.
A gang of bikers has moved into an abandoned military facility nearby, and their sole source of income apparently comes from a massive crystal meth operation. They’ve been very careful, though, and the police haven’t been able to pin anything on them... until now, that is, when one brave, elderly woman who witnessed a big sale has stepped forward and agreed to testify.
Provided she survives until the trial starts in about a month’s time, there’s an excellent chance the gang member in custody will be convicted. Far more important, though, is the possibility of getting him to roll on his bosses; someone, somewhere--with considerably more smarts than anyone in the gang possesses--is obviously pulling the strings, and it’s that layer which the police hope to penetrate. Conservative estimates are that this operation is taking in millions of dollars... and a bust of that magnitude would put tiny Bolton, SD on the map. 
The key to successfully bringing everything down is clearly the old woman--but she’s stubbornly refused to leave town and go into protective custody, insisting on remaining in town in her ancestral family home, instead. The Bolton police are watching her and staying with her round the clock; they know that someone will be coming, sent by the real boss of the operation, to take her out. It’s not a question of “if”, but “when”. 
Due to a bizarre arrangement between the local cops and the new, nearby prison, one potentially-deadly problem looms: any sort of outbreak at the prison will, legally, pull every single officer from the police department (on- or off-duty), to the prison grounds to maintain a perimeter... a situation which would conveniently (for the bad guys) leave one old lady alone and defenseless.
But, even as Jack works with the police on figuring out how to penetrate the bikers‘ compound (in order to assess the magnitude of the threat), who the leaders of the huge drug operation are (trying to pinpoint from what direction and when the hired hitman will be coming), and making plans to adequately protect the witness from the certain danger headed her way, he’s aware that other forces are completely out of his hands. The killer will arrive, with little or no warning. One bad storm after another is rolling through the state, making almost any sort of travel (or escape or rescue) next-to-impossible. And, someone, somewhere in town, has been in contact with the bad guys... a fact which Jack and the police become aware of when the bodies start stacking up around them. 
Jack can feel the clock winding down and knows that things will come to a head soon... but he doesn’t know just how soon. In fact, though, less than sixty-one hours from the moment Jack’s bus swerved, veered off the road, and wound up in a snowdrift, it will all be over. 
61 Hours is typical fare from author Child; it’s the quintessential high-octane thrill ride with plenty of dizzying twists and turns, led once again by the ever-capable, battle-scarred Jack. As always, Jack’s military knowledge comes in handy, as does his ability to read people and situations with great perspicacity. His detachment gives him an edge; he doesn’t respond to things as so many people do, on a purely-emotional level, but rather, on a more rational one. 
At the same time, this is a very different Reacher tale. The ever-present countdown, for one thing, gives a heightened sense of urgency to all the goings-on... and the fact that we readers are privy to this information--while Jack isn’t--leaves us more-than-normally anxious about the outcome. We see a “softer” Jack here, as well, as he bonds with the old woman he’s guarding, and--via a series of phone calls--with a younger woman who now holds the job he used to hold in the Army (whom he calls when he needs some help answering questions he’s unable to answer). Watching this man who rarely (okay, pretty much never) opens up do just that, is interesting. We gain some rare insight into this outwardly-simple, inwardly-complex man. And, finally, there’s the ending, which is--without giving anything away--unexpected.
61 Hours adds up to a fantastic adventure, delivering everything you’d expect and hope for, and then some. I recommend grabbing a comfy pillow, a warm throw, and a mug of hot chocolate (or a pot of the bitter black coffee which Jack drinks copious amounts of), then settling in for an awesomely chilly--and chilling--read.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie rating: 4.75 out of 5 Mousies