Bad Luck And Trouble

Title:                      Bad Luck And Trouble

Author:                Lee Child

Child, Lee (2007). Bad Luck And Trouble. New York: Delacorte Press

LCCN:    2006031931

PS3553.H4838 B34 2007


Date Posted:      January 8, 2017

Review by Janet Maslin[1]

When Lee Child toured Britain early this spring [2007] for the release of his latest monster hit, Bad Luck and Trouble, certain fans were awarded reproductions of the folding toothbrush featured in the novel. It would take a hard-core fan to appreciate the humor in this. But there are many of those fans, for good reason.

Mr. Child’s daunting Jack Reacher, the Paul Bunyan of the thriller world, is a drifter who’s known to travel so lightly that[2] his toothbrush, passport and meager funds are his only baggage. When thugs in Bad Luck and Trouble trash his motel room, the only harm they can do him is to throw his toothbrush to the floor and crush it. “Bastards,” Reacher says about this little outrage.

If Mr. Child, in his 11th Reacher book, has learned to make such minimalism sound effortless, he’s had to work at it. Bad Luck and Trouble is primarily set in the vicinity of Los Angeles and features a tough, no-nonsense ex-military (i.e. Reacher-like) woman named Frances Neagley. Five years ago both she and Southern California figured in Without Fail, and the language was nowhere near as taut as it has become.

“The air was warm down there, and the ocean breezes were soft balmy caresses,” Mr. Child wrote in that book. Now he avoids commas, italics, long sentences, balmy caresses and any other talk about the weather. The effect of this streamlining is electrifying. Not for nothing has the cover art of his recent books depicted a bull’s-eye.

Bad Luck and Trouble unfolds with the simple, immaculate logic that makes this series utterly addictive. Reacher visits an A.T.M. in Portland, Ore., and finds that someone has made a deposit to his bank account. He thinks about the numbers. (He loves thinking about numbers.) He decodes a hidden message. He realizes that Neagley is looking for him and calls her Chicago office. “She said if you can’t find her, she doesn’t want you,” Neagley’s assistant explains. People in Reacher’s universe think that way.

Well, he can find her. And she tells him that one of their former comrades from an elite team of army investigators has been thrown out of a helicopter. (The reader has already learned about this in the book’s brief but effective opening chapter.) Now it’s time to reassemble the old unit, find out what happened and inflict the appropriate vengeance. Mr. Child’s one liability is sadism, but he keeps it under control here with eye-for-an-eye reasoning.

The chain of carefully plotted events in Bad Luck and Trouble lead Reacher and company to the dead man’s widow and son. Small details, like the little boy’s willingness to open the door to strangers, have a way of slipping past the reader but becoming important once Reacher mulls them over. The trail also leads to the sinister company that employed the victim, where he was said to have worked in a completely computerized, paperless environment. He is also said to have used a piece of the Berlin Wall as a paperweight—the kind of thing that keeps the investigation interesting.

Throughout the book, Reacher remains fanatically interested in codes, fractions, cube roots and probabilities. The Mr. Child who devises all this must also be acutely aware of formulas, because he is smart enough to avoid them. The Reacher books trade on their main character’s inimitable personal style, as in his way of making threats. (“Buy yourself a bottle of wine, rent a DVD. But not a box set. You’ve got about two days, max.”) And in his laconic way of mating. (“We could shower and get dressed.” “After.” “After what?”) But they also deliver changes in scenery (Las Vegas is especially well used here) and intriguing ways to depict Reacher in different lights. This book plunks him into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, which is about as far out of his element as the man can go.

Bum or billionaire? As Neagley, who picks the hotel and pays for it, is quick to tell him, the two can look virtually indistinguishable. And Reacher certainly has confidence and swagger. But the reappearance of his prosperous-looking old friends gives him a brief flash of self-doubt. Not to worry: soon enough they will all wind up in improvised versions of military gear and dealing with the kinds of problems that Reacher solves best. Whether this guy is deciphering a spreadsheet of 183 noncanceled proper fractions or wild suspense in a helicopter high above the desert, he has a natural authority that trumps other sorts of success.

Bad Luck and Trouble, a top-tier Reacher book that matches the caliber of One Shot[3], from 2005, makes the most of its characters’ camaraderie. When they get to Las Vegas, they begin spouting statistics about the city to one another; it turns out that each of these people is the type to memorize the information that hotels provide for tourists. And each of them has the ability to react coolly and rationally to peril. Even the book’s villain, who turns out to be a foreign terrorist seeking American weaponry, has acutely heightened perceptions. When he finds himself in the vicinity of a dog food factory, he worries about inhaling tiny particles that violate the strictures of his religion.

At one point in this book, Reacher buys a case of mineral water and a gallon of gasoline and demonstrates, rather spectacularly, what a few well-placed, homemade Molotov cocktails can do. His intent is to inflict serious damage. At another point, he places a gun inside an Évian water bottle and threatens to use this as a silencer, but this time he wants only to scare someone and extract important information. Would the bottle actually have worked? Neagley asks him later.

“I doubt it,” explains Reacher, who really does have his scruples. “I read it in a book once. It worked on the page.” In the real world it might have exploded and blinded him with shards of flying plastic. But in the world of Mr. Child’s novels, what matters, and dazzles, is what works on the page.

[1] Janet Maslin in “Books of the Times: He’s Taut of Style and Light of Foot,” The New York Times (May 14, 2007), downloaded January 8, 2017. A version of this review appears in print on , on Page E1 of the New York edition with the headline: “He’s Taut Of Style And Light Of Foot”.

[2] Child, Lee (2002). Without Fail. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

[3] Child, Lee (2005). One Shot. New York: Delacorte Press