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It’s a Mystery: “It is always easier to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission”

By (October 1, 2013) No Comment

Never Go BackNeverGoBack

By Lee Child
Delacorte Press, 2013

Mortal Bonds

By Michael Sears
Putnam, 2013

In Never Go Back Jack Reacher, the redoubtable knight-errant, has finally made it all the way from the snows of South Dakota to his old command post, the 110th MP Special Unit. It’s in the part of Virginia that is more or less inside the D.C. bubble, not much farther west of Arlington Cemetery than the White House was east. He’s there to meet the lady behind an intriguing voice that he first made phone contact with in 61 Hours (2010). She’s Major Susan Turner and she’s got Reacher’s old job. That phone conversation was four books ago and in last year’s A Wanted Man he was still on his way to meet the lady. Of course, let us not forget that detours, usually dangerous ones, are Reacher’s way of life.

The Department of Defense’s 110th was the closest thing to a home base Reacher had ever had. Now it was Turner’s turf and Reacher is at her door. Except that the person sitting behind her desk is a man who is not a major but a lieutenant colonel. It’s the first surprise in a slew of them that ambush him before he can catch his breath. He’s up to his rugged neck in trouble with a capital T. For starters, he’s charged with the 16-year-old murder of a man he can’t remember. Next, he’s slapped with a paternity suit by a woman whose child he supposedly fathered. Plus he didn’t read the fine print when he left the military in 1997. His status became that of a reservist: “You’re back in the Army now!” And hard on the heels of this colossal mess, he gets arrested for what are definitely trumped up charges. The upside, if it can be called that, is that his neighbor in the brig is Major Turner. She’s been arrested for corruption in connection with $100,000 dollars in a Cayman Islands bank account. And you just know, as Reacher does, that it’s also a bogus charge. Since Hope for the best, plan for the worst is one of his mantras, he orchestrates a stunning series of maneuvers that can only be classified as Reacher-worthy and breaks them out of jail.

What follows is a breathtaking cross country chase to set both their records straight. This includes facing the 14-year-old girl who may be his daughter. Turner, who is every bit as sexy and smart as Reacher imagined, is also a kindred spirit. In fact, the two majors turn out to be muy simpatico in every way. After all, this is a classic Reacher novel. As such, the forces they are up against are formidable and test all of their considerable combined acumen. It’s not just the army and the FBI and the cops from DC who are on their tail but two creepy jokers who call themselves Romeo and Juliet. Thanks to an infinitely capable lady sergeant—“like sergeants the world over”—who is loyal to Turner, they have intel that says this duo has access to every conceivable database, and command four military goons who are also hell bent on stopping them. In other words, they are operating from deep within a major military base.

They begin their road trip in Turner’s red Corvette. But dodging pursuit in all directions, they soon have to ditch it for a less conspicuous conveyance. And, of course, they need cash. So in West Virginia they use Reacher’s special version of the ATM to get both. (You have to read the book to get the lowdown on this). The new wheels and the cash lands them in a confrontation with a gaggle of hillbilly truckers who are dumb enough to take on Reacher just because he’s fighting with both hands behind his back.

They make it to California and Samantha Dayton, who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter. Child beautifully captures her straight arrow ingenuousness that is at once tough and innately vulnerable. If she isn’t his biologically, she bears an uncanny resemblance in the way she thinks and talks. She’s got his smarts and his soul. Their scenes mark some of Child’s most heartfelt, laid bare writing:

Fatherhood was up there as one of the most commonplace male experiences in all of human history. But to Reacher it had always seemed unlikely. Just purely theoretical. Like winning the Nobel Prize, or playing in the World Series, or being able to sing. Possible in principle, but always likely to pass him by. A destination for other people, but not for him….Being a father seemed both straightforward and infinitely complex. Easy enough on the surface. Underneath, simply too immense to worry about. So generally it seemed to come out as a day-to-day thing. Hope for the best, one foot in front of the other. His own father had always seemed in charge. But looking back, it was clear he was just making it up as he went along.

Samantha Dayton.
Fourteen years old.

Ultimately, the pieces of the conspiracy puzzle get sorted out with meticulous finesse. Their origins are as far afield as Afghanistan and as nearby as the Pentagon. Reacher and Turner wind up penetrating a house of secrets in D.C. that clarifies everything—well almost everything— and redefines the words “pipe dream.” Never Go Back is a stylish, high voltage thriller. It’s Lee Child at his peak, and there’s assuredly no end to the series in sight.

MortalBondsJack Reacher and Jason Stafford, the enormously charismatic protagonist in Mortal Bonds, have absolutely nothing in common. Stafford, once a hotshot Wall Street investment broker, has made and lost more money than Reacher will see in five lifetimes. He has done time in prison for his financial transgressions—he engaged in what Wall Street calls “creative accounting” to the tune of a half billion dollars. He didn’t do a couple of nights in the brig but two solid years in several Federal facilities, one of them hard core, the last one minimum security for the white collar felons. He has an autistic son, an ex-wife from hell, and a great apartment in a vintage building in Manhattan called the Ansonia.

Stafford was introduced in Michael Sears’s stunning debut novel Black Fridays (2012),which has just received the 2013 Shamus Award for Best First P.I. novel. In it the discredited hero, sprung from the slammer, gets hired to investigate irregularities at a securities firm. Of course, his nosing around leads to danger and bloodshed—in other words, there’s enough violence to please the most ardent action-driven thriller fan. By the time the tarnished dust settles, Jason has assets. He’s got five million in offshore funds, which he moves into a Swiss annuity, untraceable but untouchable for five years. He’s also got custody of his son. I concur with the many reviewers who called the plot “riveting” and the writing “superb” or glowing variations of those words of praise. Well deserved.

When Mortal Bonds opens, Jason Stafford is eight months out of prison, he’s coping with the stress of caring for his six-year-old autistic son known as the Kid (the only name he’ll answer to) and the fact that his consulting work is drying up. When the Von Becker family summons him to their Newport estate he is “hungry” and “curious”:

William Von Becker had run one of the largest privately held investment banks in North America, with branch offices on four continents…. He ran investment funds totaling in the hundreds of billions, universally recognized as safe, consistent earners…. Then the bottom fell out. It came at the end of a bad week. The stock market hiccupped for three days, and then hemorrhaged on Thursday. Friday morning, a South American finance minister announced he was pulling all of his dollar accounts. It was a bit of hysteria from one source—but it was enough. When the money from the Von Becker funds didn’t arrive on Monday, the world took notice On Tuesday, there was a run on both his funds and the banks he owned throughout Central and South America. And by the week’s end, the truth was out. The Von Becker empire was just another hollow shell—a multibillion-dollar hollow shell. Bigger than most, smaller than a few, it was just one more in an ever-lengthening list of failed Ponzi schemes.

William Von Becker saved the state and his family the bother and expense of a trial by hanging himself in his cell at the Manhattan Metropolitan Correctional Center. Suicide by hanging being the weapon of choice for disgraced moguls (see Woody Allen’s current film Blue Jasmine). The exception is Bernie Madoff, the poster boy for Ponzis, who is currently languishing or flourishing serving his hundred plus, depending on who you listen to.

Stafford gets set down by a helicopter in the midst of the Von Becker clan: Three boys, and only one of them, Virgil, functioning on all cylinders; a snooty daughter named Morgan; and the matriarch, Mrs. Olivia Von Becker, who is drinking vodka like it’s water:

“Charmed,” the older woman said, sounding anything but. I’d seen warmer eyes on blackjack dealers. “Stafford? There was a Stafford girl at Miss Porter’s when Morgan was there…. The father sold office supplies.”

The first of the big-box stationery stores. I remembered reading the Journal article after the founder sold out to Staples for a hundred and eighty-three million dollars.

“No relation, I’m afraid,” I said. “My family is in beverage distribution.” My father owned a bar in College Point, Queens and still worked the closing shift six nights a week. He would have laughed himself into a case of hiccups if he’d heard my description.

Olivia Von Becker looked at me over the top of her glass for a moment.… “The house is mine, as is the money to maintain it. My late husband had no claim to it, and neither do his creditors. It’s all in trust designed to survive our barbaric inheritance taxes. Were you ever a Tea Partier, Mr. Stafford?”

…I shook my head…. She was an arrogant blowhard, and I liked her.

The Von Becker dilemma as outlined by Virgil is that the Feds believe they have accounted for all of his father’s misappropriation of funds. But three billion, yes three billion, dollars are missing and if Stafford can find this money then Virgil can use it to clear the family name. Jason, in shock, can’t quite believe that Virgil is willing to hand over that kind of money no matter what’s at stake:

“What do I bring to the table?”

“…you have a unique perspective—one that cannot be easily learned.”

I was a crook. Had been. Past tense. I tried not to let the reference rankle. But Virgil surprised me.

”You have seen this kind of thing from both sides…people will talk to you. At your level in this business, there are not three degrees of separation between any two major players…. They may tell you things that they would never tell to an SEC lawyer…. Bits and pieces that will only have meaning to a ‘man with your background.”

So, with a compensation offer he can’t refuse (he and the kid would be set up for life) the hunt is on. Stafford soon learns that three billion dollars brings a lot of nefarious people out of the woodwork. Notably one Tulio Butero Castillo. He is a drug lord whose family has been at the top of food chain in Colombia for four hundred years. Plus, he’s got the New England mob backing him.

Stafford meets Castillo at one of those old clubs in Manhattan where the rooms are so large they have their own zip code. And if the walls could talk, more than a few scandals would be revealed. Castillo has a client who he believes is entitled to a share of that Von Becker money. And if Stafford finds it he’ll give him a generous cut. Everybody wants to give him a piece of the action. This is not good news. It puts him and the Kid in grave danger.

As the action heats up, Stafford goes into survival mode. He enlists his friend Vinnie, who can orchestrate protection from behind bars. Two scary Slavic guys show up at the Ansonia courtesy of Vinnie (“Call me Ivan, call him Tom”.) They won’t accept no money—well, finally a dollar each. Stafford feels as safe as he is ever going to until it is finally over.

The denouement is devastating. As a very elegant lady who knows where many of the bodies are buried says to Stafford, “Your justice system is not about discovering truth, or even catching bad guys. It is about winning.”

Mortal Bonds is indelible. Michael Sears’ beautifully wrought depiction of Stafford’s relationship with his needy, very special son will make you smile while breaking your heart. He’s an impressive new talent and I, for one, think the next Jason Stafford novel can’t come soon enough.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.