About Me

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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Roger Hobbs puts Spirit in the Material in His First Novel, Ghostman

By Roger Hobbs
Knopf; First Edition Feb. 12, 2013
(Kindle edition by Random House Digital, Inc.)
English, 336 pages
ISBN-10: 0307959961
ISBN-13: 978-0307959966

The opening chapter of Ghostman, a first novel by Oregonian Roger Hobbs, describes a bloody casino armored car robbery in Atlantic City in which everything that could possibly go wrong does:  one robber  is killed by a sniper from a concealed vantage point. The other is mortally wounded. Despite this, the second man escapes with the loot and effectively disappears – so completely that even the mastermind in Seattle who orchestrated the job can’t find him.

The language used by Hobbs is taut, the action clear and the violence non-stop. Background about the evolution of casino stickups is skillfully woven into the breathless description of the Atlantic City heist.  The robbers are sketched with the minimum possible strokes, yet their portrayal is memorable enough that both remain in the reader’s mind long after the chapter concludes.

Best of all, the dialog, if not in the actual argot used by professional heist artists, is a facsimile so close that all crooks should be required to study it in order to obtain full membership in the underworld.

In other words, Ghostman begins by promising to be a barn burner, a classic caper yarn that is ready for conversion into as good a noir thriller as Rififi, Heist, The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing.

And all this happens even before the protagonist, Jack, the “Ghostman” who gives the book its title, even makes his first appearance!

Jack is called out of semi-retirement by a criminal associate who has every reason to kill him: the Ghostman was a member of an armed robbery team that robbed an ultramodern bank in Kuala Lumpur of millions of dollars, but Jack’s critical error resulted in most members of the crew being arrested and the stolen money ending up tantalizingly out of reach.

He is told he can make up for botching the Malaysian heist by recovering the loot stolen in Atlanta.  However, to do so, he will not only have to track down the robber who remains alive, but also avoid the casino city’s crime boss, a sadistic fellow called The Wolf who also is looking for the stolen cash.

As a further complication, Jack will also have to avoid being arrested by a pesky female FBI agent who spots him as a bad guy the minute he lands in New Jersey and keeps erecting roadblocks that block his search for missing swag.

Ghostman author Roger Hobbs can't keep up the breakneck pace he sets in the beginning of his first novel.

The set-up is tantalizing and the main character has series written all over him. Unfortunately, Hobbs can’t keep up the breakneck pace and narrative quality he sets in the opening. Halfway through the book the novel sludges into a rather routine series of catch-and-release confrontations between Ghostman Jack and minions of the Wolf.  

This is not to say that Ghostman fails to deliver the goods; it does, although not as stylishly as it seems it will at the beginning. Overall, the book is a superior suspense story with plenty of excitement, a fascinating main character and a clever narrative structure that alternates the Ghostman’s search in Atlanta with the history of his botched heist in Kuala Lumpur. The novel keeps the reader genuinely interested in Jack’s fate, and makes for a satisfying two-day read.

But Hobbs makes his key villain a rather stupid fellow who is easily duped into doing precisely what Jack wants. Moreover, the chief bad guy is surrounded by henchmen who are all brain-dead neo-Nazi ex-convicts all too easily dispatched by Ghostman Jack – even though he is more of a robbery technician than an assassin trained in expert use of firearms or close, hand-to-hand combat.

Finally, there is a major flaw in his portrayal of Jack as a fellow who disappears for years to avoid retribution for his Kuala Lumpur screw-up, but who is so easy to trace that the lone FBI agent on his trail locates him repeatedly without even breathing hard. If she is so good at finding a man who specializes in vanishing completely, why doesn’t she just arrest him early on  instead of tracking him all over Atlantic City?

I read the Kindle edition of this book, which has an “extra” missing from the hard cover and paperback versions: a sort of postscript that tells the reader how Jack, who is brilliant enough to translate the classics into English from Greek, Latin and French, came to be a professional criminal. 

It turns out that tucking this background information into an  afterward was a smart move: the Ghostman’s biography is interesting, but unnecessary given the way Hobbs has framed his novel. Had he worked this 39-page biography into the body of the text, it would have weighed the novel down and slowed the action.

In any event, If Ghostman turns out to be the first in a series of stories about our friend, Jack, I fully expect some of these details to find their way into upcoming sequels.

I loved the beginning of this book and felt slightly disappointed when it deteriorated as the story unfolded.  All the same, I will be looking forward to Hobbs’ next novel. I give Ghostman four nooses.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Serial Murderer Who Is Realized as Completely as His Victim or Pursuer

By James L. Thane
478 KB, 338 pages
ISBN: 0843964227
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (July 27, 2010)
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc

Phoenix Police Detective Sean Richardson has a problem: his short-staffed police force is investigating an apparently random series of murders that are somehow connected to the abduction of a prominent attorney.

And Beverly Thompson has a problem of her own: she is the victim of the kidnapping – the target of a vicious stranger who guns down her husband, holds her captive and brutalizes and rapes her repeatedly to satisfy a long-held grudge she doesn’t begin to understand.

To rescue Thompson and solve the slayings, Richardson is forced to dig back seventeen years in the past.  And to stay alive long enough to be rescued, Thompson has to outsmart her kidnapper and win his sympathy.

This is the situation Richardson and Thompson are confronted with in James L. Thane’s 2010 classic police procedural, No Place to Die.  The book unfolds in an unusual but effective manner, with chapters in the first person told from the perspective of Detective Richardson, alternating with chapters in an omniscient third-person from the point of view of Thompson or her kidnapper, ex-convict Carl McClain.

To explain the plot more completely would require a series of spoilers, form Thane has crafted a nice Chinese puzzle box of mysteries that carries the reader neatly through the first half of the book. After the crucial fact of McClain’s identity and his connection to the people he has killed or abducted is made clear, the novel’s suspense is nicely maintained by Richardson’s feverish attempt to track down the missing Thompson before she ends up joining McClain’s body count.

I had never heard of the novel or Thane before he added me to his Twitter feed last month. Finding out about him and his book may have been the first real advantage I've gained from Twitter!  No Place to Die is a first-rate thriller that passes the real acid test of crime fiction: I read it straight through in two sittings, and hated having to break off in the middle.

Author James L. Thane
(photo by Deborah Michael)
Thane’s page-turner doesn’t succeed solely on the basis of pacing and plot: he also has created three compelling characters – Thompson, Richardson and McClain – with enough personality and complexity to keep readers thoroughly involved in his story.

Richardson’s detective work, for example, occurs while he mourns for his barely living wife, an accident victim who is wasting away, comatose, in a convalescent facility.  As the story progresses, Richardson clashes with his Midwestern mother-in-law, who has filed a lawsuit to block living will provisions that would allow the detective to pull the plug on his much-loved but brain-dead spouse.  

The conflict between Richardson and his wealthy and willful in-law allows Thane to open up the back story of the detective’s happy marriage, and adds a dimension to the lawman that makes him more than a methodical man-hunter.

The novelist also does an excellent job of elevating Thompson from passive victim status by giving the reader an opportunity to enter into her thoughts  and experience her kidnapping and brutalization against the backdrop of her love for the husband who has been taken away from her in a moment of mindless brutality. 

Her own fears and anxieties help sustain the suspense of the novel, and Thane allows us to see how she draws on her inner  strength to plan and execute revenge, in the process turning herself into a huntress instead of her attacker’s helpless prey.

Even McClain, who, as the novel’s villain, could have been a cardboard cutout of evil with just enough personality to spur the plot, is presented as a  believable individual capable of recognizing his own faults – though remaining their slave. Although McClain is a calculating killer with a sadistic streak, Thane manages to invest him with enough humanity to make the reader feel a modicum of sympathy for the character.

Not that everybody in Thane’s book is a fully realized individual who leaps off the page, however.

Richardson’s partner, Maggie McClinton, for example, is presented as a collection of tics – a model minority group member who is phobic about avoiding personal relationships and obsessive about eating healthy foods and working out.  As her partner washes down burgers with Coca Cola, she casts a jaundiced eye.  Didn’t we see this pairing for the first time in The Odd Couple back in 1965?

Maggie’s first partner, on the other hand, an older detective named Chris Doyle, is portrayed as a lazy and inept stock company racist and sexist who goes out of his way to avoid doing any real police work. Doyle has managed to remain on the force long enough to near retirement age despite the fact that he is openly hostile and offensive to women and blacks and a clear candidate for dismissal for creating a hostile work environment. His continued tenure as a cop is barely credible, given his obnoxious personality and lack of productivity, and the character serves little real purpose except as a target for Richardson's wrath late in the story.

Thane also occasionally loses track of his characters’ primary personality traits.  Maggie is supposed to swear like a longshoreman, and drops the F-bomb fairly consistently in her initial appearances, but she later develops more chaste speech patterns. Richardson, on the other hand, adopts a more sailor-like vocabulary that seems uncharacteristic, given that no reason is offered for the coarsening of his language. 

Which brings me to a pet peeve: as a big fan of George V. Higgins, I think I understand what Thane has tried to do here by inserting some obscenity in his characters’ dialog: if there is one thing that nearly 40 years of reporting on crime, cops and crooks has taught me, it is that profanity is the lingua franca of underworld denizens and those who deal with them, including prosecutors, police officers, parole agents, probation officers and jailers. Few of these people speak as if they were conducting Sunday services in front of a well-scrubbed audience of parishioners.

Still, there is dialog with a smattering of obscenity that builds verisimilitude and then there is dialog with a smattering of obscenity that just . . . well, includes a smattering of obscenity.  I have to say here that the occasional four-letter word that Thane puts in the mouth of his characters lacks the ring of authenticity. I think that may in part be due to the fact that everybody expresses themselves pretty much the same in No Place to Die: in complete, grammatically correct sentences.

I hardly avoid obscenity in my own fiction, so I'm not opposed  to its inclusion, but if it doesn’t work to establish the race, background and socio-economic class of the speaker, it seems to me it is probably better to leave it out.

Another minor quibble is the occasional repetitive note one finds in the book.  On page six, for example, we find the following rumination by Richardson on why his personality as an investigator has taken a somewhat different turn from the jaded “been there, done that” cynicism one usually finds in fictional cops.

“But rather than becoming inured to and hardened by the violence that human beings so casually inflicted on each other, I found myself growing increasingly distressed by the cataclysm of the lives so cruelly and abruptly interrupted,” the detective thinks to himself.

Fair enough to point this out – once. But on page 97, we get a second dose of explanation in a similar passage: “From my days as a rookie cop I’d been dismayed by the violence that people so casually inflict on each other, and the responsibilities of the job had always weighed heavily on me.  But they’d felt especially burdensome during the last few months.”

Fortunately, these minor faults do not detract from the story, or cause the reader to stumble unduly on the way to its denouement. 

In fact, if I have any real complaint at all, it is that in the final chapter of the novel Thane ties up all the remaining loose ends a little too tightly, a little too quickly.  As good as the rest of No Place to Die was, the ending, while satisfying, seemed a little bit rushed.

According to his blog, the second in Thane’s series of Richardson/McClintock thrillers, Until Death, was supposed to be published in December but has been delayed.

That’s a real shame. Considering how good No Place to Die is, I am looking forward to reading it.

I rate this book four nooses.  It's well worth checking out.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Jason Statham Plays Don Westlake’s Parker as a Kinder, Gentler Sociopath

Jason Statham and J-Lo in Parker, FilmDistrict's new movie from the Donald Westlake crime series (photo courtesy of FilmDistrict.)

Starring:  Jason Statham and Jennifer Lopez
Director: Taylor Hackford
Screenplay: John J. McLaughlin, based on the novel Flashfire by Donald Westlake (under his "Richard Stark" pseudonym)
Film District, released Jan. 25, 2013
One hour, 54 minutes

It’s hard to imagine Donald Westlake’s professional robber, the mononymous Parker, as a softie,  someone with empathy, a bleeding heart who can identify with others.  Far from it: Parker is so hardboiled he makes dinosaur eggs look runny and undercooked. 

It isn’t that Parker, who made his first appearance in Westlake’s 1962 novel, The Hunter, isn’t capable of warmth, or normal human emotions.

After all, he’s crazy about Claire, his New Jersey girlfriend who became a recurring character in the Parker novels in the late 1960s, to the point where he flatly tells one woman who is trying to strike up a relationship with him, “Claire is the only house I ever want to be in . . . All her doors and windows are open, but only for me.”

It’s just that Parker is a professional whose specialty happens to be violating the law, and he pursues it with such an obsessive passion that he hasn’t got any time for small talk, poker get-togethers, Superbowl parties or hanging out with the rest of the boys.

So I am a little surprised to find that I actually like the kinder, gentler version of the character portrayed by Jason Statham in the film, Parker, based on Westlake’s 2000 novel, Flashfire.

Statham -- who, ironically, is best known for playing deadpan characters more inclined toward rapid-fire action than touchy-feely moments where they share their emotions -- rounds off some of Parker’s rougher edges, but he manages to do so credibly by only hinting that there is actually a human being inside the skin of the professional thief and killer.

We always knew that Parker keeps his word: the rigid – if limited – ethical code at the core of this otherwise sociopathic character is one of the things that makes him so fascinating; but in Statham’s incarnation, Parker doesn’t just have a code; he has a conscience, and it manifests itself from the very first heist, during which he calms a security guard who begins hyperventilating from stress.

As he puts it himself, only minutes into the story, “I don’t steal from anyone who can’t afford it and I don’t hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it.”

Part of the credit for tweaking the character so effectively has to go to screenwriter John J. McLaughlin, who also wrote the scripts for Hitchcock and The Black Swan. McLaughlin picks up cues to Parker’s human side from Westlake’s original book, gooses them slightly and lets Statham, who is surprisingly effective in the part, do the rest.

Flashfire, like a number of Westlake’s Parker novels, involves the thief’s revenge on a trio of crime partners who have held back his part of the take from a large heist as “seed money” for an even bigger job: a massive jewel robbery in Palm Beach, Florida. Parker’s erstwhile partners want him in on the robbery and when he refuses, they take his cut anyway, saying they consider it a loan and his share will be returned to him after the gems are fenced.

Parker, needless to say, sees it as a simple hijacking.  The rest of the novel details his complex scheme to recover the “stolen” loot and kill the three men that double-crossed him.

The film starts with the same premise, but ups the ante.
When Parker declines to participate in the Florida jewel robbery, McLaughlin has his former partners shoot him and leave him for dead. This raises the ante considerably in the film, and makes the risks Parker undertakes in order to obtain revenge considerably easier to understand than they are in the book, where all he loses is his share of the initial robbery loot. 

This switch at the beginning is one of a number of canny changes that McLaughlin has made in Westlake’s original story; He also adds a subplot close to the beginning that involves The Outfit, a Chicago crime syndicate that Parker has dueled with repeatedly in his misadventures. This eliminates a later plot point that is one of the weakest elements in Westlake’s original story, one involving additional characters that would unnecessarily complicate the conclusion of the film.

The action picks up when Parker reaches Palm Beach to track down his former partners and figure out how they intend to steal the jewels.  There he joins forces with Leslie Rodgers (Jennifer Lopez), a divorced real estate agent who is living unhappily in her mother’s condo and trying to escape from her dead-end existence. Once Rodgers makes her appearance, the film marches on to a satisfying – although massively violent – conclusion.

Director Taylor Hackford (Dolores Claiborne, La Bamba, The Devil’s Advocate) keeps the picture moving along at a clip that covers the minor plot holes left by McLaughlin’s script surgery.  He also draws fine performances from a cast that, besides Statham and Lopez, includes Nick Nolte, Patti LuPone and Michael Chiklis (The Wire) as the vicious leader of the Palm Beach jewel robbery crew.

By eliminating plot elements and telescoping the detail of how Parker raises the cash he needs to take on his former partners, McLaughlin and Hackford actually streamline Westlake's story, making it tighter and easier to follow. And by beefing up the initial robbery sequence, their more empathetic version of Parker is in play from the very beginning, which actually helps “sell” some of his actions at the end of the film.

Unlike Killing Them Softly, based on Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, Parker doesn’t put uncharacteristic words into the mouth of its essentially amoral protagonist: Parker remains Parker: cold-blooded, focused on revenge and obsessed with the business of being a criminal. 

His attitude is summed up in this exchange with Rodgers (Lopez):

She: How do you sleep at night?

He: I don't drink coffee after seven.

Statham's Parker simply has a slightly more accessible personality than the one in Westlake’s books. To me, Parker goes down as one film in which a classic crime story is modified in a way that is not only true to the original but actually improves on it.  I rate it a full five nooses.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Reacher As a Hero is Something of a Stretch

The Jack Reacher Novels
By Lee Child 

Paperbound, 432 pages
Berkley; Reprint edition, Nov. 6, 2012

Paperbound,567 pages
Berkley Premium Edition edition, Nov. 28, 2006)

Bear with me, okay?  I am having some real trouble wrapping my brain around the popularity of the Jack Reacher novels. 

If you aren’t familiar with Lee Child’s gargantuan action hero, Child (a pseudonym used by Jim Grant, a former copy writer for Great Britain's Grenada TV corporation) has sold more than 37 million copies of his Reacher potboilers since his first, Killing Floor, appeared sixteen years ago; there appears to be no end in sight, since his seventeenth book, A Wanted Man, appeared last September, and his novel One Shot was released as the Tom Cruise programmer, Jack Reacher, in December. 
Child’s catalog even contains Reacher’s Rules, a sort of how-to guidebook for wannabe tough guys; And I’ve no doubt there soon will be a collection of Jack Reacher recipes on the food shelves of your local bookstore; maybe even a Reacher car maintenance manual.

Admittedly, I have only seen the Cruise flick and read the first two Reacher stories so far (with three more waiting on my bookshelf, including A Wanted Man), so there is a chance I am missing something important that explains why Child’s character is so popular.  But after sitting through two hours and ten minutes of Cruise in the role and poring over more than a thousand pages of Child’s novels, I think I have some idea how they work.

My only question is: why do they seem to be so effective?
For those who don’t know Jack, Reacher is a former major in the U.S. Army Military Police.  He is hard to miss in a crowd, since he stands six feet, five inches tall and weighs between 210 and 250 pounds. 

Reacher is not only an adept at all martial arts, including a few he seems to have invented himself, but he also is such an expert marksman that he can put a half dozen .50-caliber rounds in the trunk of a six-inch-wide sapling from a thousand yards out.  

Did I mention that he has a photographic memory or is a more skilled observer than Sherlock Holmes? Or that women seem to fall all over themselves jumping into his bed? Or that he can disable electronic communications equipment in a way that defies detection? Or that he maintains less than one percent body fat and superhuman muscle tone with an exercise regimen that only involves hitchhiking around the country and riding in Greyhound buses?

Maybe I neglected to say that before dropping out of the Army to become an aimless drifter, he won just about every military decoration except the Congressional Medal of Honor. And I’m not sure he won’t pick one of those up sometime before Child wraps the series.

Now that’s not a bad skill set for an MP officer. The last time I looked, those guys specialized in sitting in offices on military installations around the world drinking coffee and shuffling papers while the enlisted men they supervise are mostly out rounding up drunks and AWOLs, writing parking tickets and checking IDs at the front gates of military posts.

The Reacher novels are fairly formulaic: in each one I have read so far, Reacher finds himself thrown directly into the middle of some sort of mammoth criminal conspiracy that’s been put together by an evil genius.  He gets captured, escapes, walks around killing bad guys, drives around killing bad guys and sometimes kills bad guys while sitting down or even chained to the wall of an abandoned barn (see, for example, Die Trying, Reacher Number Two, 1999).

His enemies attack him with fists, knives, clubs and guns, but he is essentially indestructible and impervious to pain. 

Usually, the conspirators are a tightly knit group consisting of few enough people that Reacher is capable of eliminating most of them in a few fire fights toward the end of each book. As he wanders here and there, saving innocent people and wiping out the villain’s minions, he slowly pieces together the nature of the plot, following up on clues that (1) have been ignored by law enforcement officials who are either corrupt, incompetent or both, or (2) withheld by Child until the last moment because exposing them too early would make the entire plot collapse.

The novel ends in a climactic display of violence that results in the death of the evil mastermind – who actually turns out to be a rather stupid criminal rather than a twisted genius. And while the mastermind’s lieutenants are portrayed as vicious and sadistic psychopaths who deserve lingering and thoroughly unpleasant deaths, they are usually snuffed out like annoying vermin in an anticlimactic fashion that fails to offer the reader any catharsis at all. 

For example, in one novel, Reacher eliminates the leader of a right-wing militia group by blowing off his head with a sniper rifle from hiding. He kills the neo-Nazi’s top lieutenant by strangling him unceremoniously with a broken chair leg.

In another, Reacher simply drowns the bad guy in a swimming pool. All three of these villains are completely overmatched and die without saying a word. Having a master of mayhem like Reacher kill them in such prosaic ways is like beating rats to death with a hand grenade instead of pulling the pin and throwing it into their den. 

You can tell his opponents aren’t terribly bright because they continue to keep him alive long after they discover he is the most dangerous man on the planet.  In one book, he is scheduled to be executed in front of an entire camp full of militia screwballs when the head man changes his mind – for reasons that don’t begin to make sense and are later abandoned without any explanation whatsoever.

And just about everything that occurs in a Reacher novel is the product of wild coincidences that Child makes no serious effort to explain:  Reacher just always happens to be in the right place at the right time to mess up some megalomaniac’s carefully laid plans – which usually turn out to be so half-baked their consumption would cause food poisoning, anyway.   

In addition to idiot plots, a dependence on absurd coincidence and the apparent invincibility and sexual irresistibility of Jack Reacher, Child’s ouvre has a number of other features I find annoying. For one thing, he tends to fall into the Tom Clancy “Popular Mechanics” school of thriller writer, larding his stories with lengthy passages of technical data about weaponry and equipment that pump up the word count, but get in the way of the narrative. 

In Die Trying, for example, Child spends nearly four pages discussing the various factors that go into making a successful shot with a sniper’s rifle.   The same point could have been made in a couple of paragraphs; instead, the reader is forced to read nearly two thousand words that sound like they were lifted from a military training manual.
And the same book contains a lengthy excursus on technical features of the M-16 rifle that is intended to explain why a slug from the gun would set off aging, deteriorated dynamite that lines the walls of a building. Again, the point could have been made by simply saying Reacher couldn’t shoot the man standing in front of the wall because if he did, the bullet would go through his body and turn the building into a bomb vaporizes everything within a quarter mile radius.

It’s clunky prose like this that makes the reader wonder if Child is being paid by the word -- or maybe by the manuscript pound.

At other times, Child falls into the Gray’s Anatomy school, in which physiological and anatomical jargon substitutes for the exhaustive description of gadgets and weapons. For example, Reacher can’t just shoot a man to death; Child has to tell us how the bullet pierces the bad guy’s sternum at 1,400 feet per second, glances off the sternal angle and penetrates the costal cartilage before passing through the pulmonary artery and lodging in the right lung, thereby causing an internal hemorrhage that essentially makes the villain drown in his own blood. 

(Incidentally, I haven't actually found a passage exactly like that in a Reacher novel so far, but I have only read two of the damned things; a couple of deaths in the ones I've finished bear more than a passing resemblance, and I am sure I will eventually find one almost exactly like the one I described above).

The Reacher books are supposed to be thrillers, but it is difficult to generate much suspense when the reader keeps getting bogged down in quicksand pits of unnecessary technical detail like these.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes Child’s prose is extraordinarily devoid of color – so much so that it seems tired and lazy. 

Now nobody should be expecting Thomas Wolfe quality literature in a series of action books that features a hero as hard-boiled as a pterodactyl egg, but Child, who clearly has an eye for detail that might actually lighten the story or enhance some of the action, often fails to use it. This is particularly true in the action sequences, when he seems to fear that if he inserts a telling bit of description, his readers’ minds will wander. 

So at one point in Die Trying when a character is frantically trying to reach a certain location, Child says “McGrath ran like crazy for the mouth of the stony track.” Like crazy? Come on. That’s not writing; that’s just mailing it in.

And in Killing Floor, Child writes, “The manager came by more or less straight away and opened the room up with his passkey.” 

Well? Was it straight away?  Was it more than straight away? Less? And why did he open “up” the room?  Why didn’t he just open it?

The one type of violent death that seems to consistently receive this sort of perfunctory treatment is the head shot. When a bad guy in a Reacher novel gets hit in the skull by a bullet, his gourd simply disappears into a pink mist. I know because it seems to happen to Reacher’s enemies repeatedly.  Particularly when Jack is pulling the trigger.

In my opinion, flabby writing like the stuff I've described above saps a narrative of strength while paradoxically making a 500-plus-page novel seem even longer.

Which brings me to the crux of my problem with Reacher. Theoretically, we live in an era of short attention spans (though films keep getting longer and longer and almost nobody knows how to make a tight 90-minute movie like The Maltese Falcon anymore). 

If people have so little time, why are they reading bloated novels like these Reacher yarns?

To me, Jack Reacher resembles the heroes of a whole series of page-turning actioners that were published between the late 1960s and the 1990s: Remo Williams from The Destroyer series; Mack Bolan, the hero of Don Pendleton’s Executioner books; Richard Camellion of the eponymous Death Merchant novels; and Nick Carter, the namesake of the dime novel detective of the turn of the century who was the focus of the Killmaster stories. 

The main difference is, those earlier potboilers about superhuman crime busters who either beat villains to death or blew them away with exotic, high-caliber weaponry were a hell of a lot shorter: they rarely exceeded 120 pages. That means you could read three Mack Bolan or Remo Williams books in the same amount of time it takes to wade through one Jack Reacher novel.

And to be honest, bad as most of them were, I liked those books better. They weren’t pretending to be literature. They were just pulp novels you could race through in a single night while sitting in bed. 

Let’s face it: pulp fiction is basically a time-waster, but most of us have a limited amount of time to waste. Which brings me back, in a way, to the question implied at the beginning of this post: why are so many people wasting their precious time on the clunky and overly long Reacher novels? 

If and when I figure this out, I will let you know . . .