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It’s a Mystery: “Nobody escaped the desire for vengeance. Nobody.”

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A Wanted Man

By Lee Child
Delacorte Press, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery

By Louise Penny
Minotaur, 2012

If you’re a fan, a new Jack Reacher novel is cause for celebration and, if you’re not, high time you discovered him. Of course, it is impossible to talk about Jack Reacher without going back in time to the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald. McGee, introduced in 1964 in The Deep Blue Good-by, is a self-described beach bum who rushes to the defense of the defenseless (especially if they are beautiful women). He has a quixotic sense of knight errantry, and is wary of credit cards, retirement benefits, political parties, and mortgages. He owns a fifty-two foot houseboat moored in Ft. Lauderdale, the Busted Flush, which he won in a card game. He also owns the only Rolls Royce in America, which has been converted into a pickup truck and called Miss Agnes. As one client, who also happens to be a world famous movie star, says in The Quick Red Fox:

…he told me you were big and rough looking and dangerous, but he did not tell me you are so terribly attractive.

I think of him as a larger than life saver of spiraling souls, with scarred knuckles and untendered mercies. There are twenty-one McGee novels that I revisit periodically.

Unlike Travis McGee, Jack Reacher doesn’t own anything except a toothbrush. They resemble each other physically, however: Reacher is six-feet-five, heavily built, and has lived-in good looks. He’s an honorably discharged, highly decorated ex Military Policeman with thirteen years of service. He travels without ID and is wary of credit cards. And like McGee, his personal moral code is as chivalrous if not as glamorous. Since he was introduced in Killing Floor (1997), he’s been traveling around the country, a somewhat aimless, enigmatic man with no home. But bet on it, wherever he is, when all hell breaks loose he’ll be in the middle of it, subduing bad guys one bullet, or one bruised body, at a time.

As this seventeenth series installment, A Wanted Man, begins, Reacher is hitchhiking in the middle of Nebraska. He’s on his way to Virginia following an intriguing female voice; it’s very like Reacher that this is all we ever learn about her. Meanwhile, he’s in a car with two guys who turn out to be murderers and a lady who is their hostage. Of course, they tell him otherwise. But:

Jack Reacher was no kind of legal scholar, but like all working cops he had learned something about the law, mostly its practical, real-world applications, and its tricks and dodges.

And he had learned the areas where the law was silent.

As in: there was no law that said people who pick up hitchhikers have to tell the truth.

In fact Reacher had learned that harmless fantasy seemed to be irresistible.

But the guys in the car with him are anything but harmless, as he discerns from their stories. Meanwhile, back where he started a body is discovered in a concrete bunker on Sheriff Goodman’s watch. The nature of the crime scene tells Goodman that this was “serious shit…. This was professional stuff, straight from the major leagues. Which was rare in rural Nebraska. Practically unknown, more accurately.”

Goodman calls the FBI in Omaha. He also sets up roadblocks and orders a helicopter. This alerts Reacher to the reason he was picked up. He’s screwing up any original description of two guys in a getaway car. The FBI arrives in the person of Julia Sorenson. She is one smart, attractive lady, and a Reacher novel wouldn’t be a Reacher novel without the presence of a woman like that.

Once things really get going, the FBI, CIA, and the State Department all have teams on the ground. Their actions have us thinking terrorists, Homeland Security incompetents, and all manner of clandestine official acts. All the assumptions turn out to be false. By the time Reacher gets out of that car and meets up with Sorenson, he’s on a familiar path to save the endangered and destroy those who do the endangering. Along the way, he and Sorenson, among others, are imprisoned in a huge, top-secret high-security compound that can only be described as a fortress. As Reacher explores the place, he concludes, “he could have been on the dark side of the moon.”

The nonstop action and revelations that make up the climax of A Wanted Man are absolutely stunning. As always with a Reacher novel, the tension is palpable even though we know he has got to prevail. And, as his wont, Lee Child dissects the moral complexities behind such a high security, government run compound. Makes one think that if any of us mere civilians knew what the government was up to behind our backs, we’d flee the country or contemplate mutiny. Fortunately, we’ve almost always got Reacher on the case.

I cannot review this novel without expressing my reaction to the news that the first Jack Reacher movie is coming in December. It’s based on book No. 9, One Shot, a terrific addition to the series. The movie is called Jack Reacher and it stars Tom Cruise. Physically and as an actor, Cruise couldn’t be more unlike Reacher. Hollywood in its infinite wisdom has come up with a recipe for disaster. Stick with the books or I warn you your view of Reacher will be tainted. And we can’t have that.

A very different view of the world comes from Louise Penny. Her eighth novel featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, The Beautiful Mystery, finds him far afield. He and his second in command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are in the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Québec.

The closed world of the monastery, by its very nature, is endlessly fascinating. The best mysteries to inhabit such a setting (with apologies to Umberto Eco and his weighty tome set in a Franciscan Abbey, The Name of the Rose) are Ellis Peter’s The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael. Like McGee and Reacher, Cadfael’s personal code is one of chivalry. His activities are set within the chivalric high period of the twelfth century, and the fact that he is a monk rather than a knight does not make a great deal of difference. Throughout the series of detective novels in which he appears, Cadfael encounters beautiful young women in jeopardy and invariably brings about their rescue. He was introduced in 1977 in A Morbid Taste for Bones and has appeared in twenty marvelous novels.

Until now, no outsiders have ever been admitted to the Québec monastery where Gamache and Beauvoir find themselves. Two dozen cloistered monks live there in peace and prayer, grow vegetables, tend chickens, and make chocolate. And they sing Gregorian chants whose curiously hypnotic allure is called a “beautiful mystery.” It is not insignificant that a few years earlier, a homemade recording of their chants was released to the public and created a sensation, helped along by the inaccessibility of the artists. The monks’ lives are further complicated when their choir director, Frère Mathieu, is found murdered, his skull bashed in with a rock: thus the presence of Gamache and Beauvoir behind the forbidden portals. After a few hours among the silent, secretive brothers and Gamache observes:

Here was a community divided, a fissure running through them. And this tragedy, rather than bridging it, was simply widening the gap. Something lived in that dark crevice, Gamache knew. And when he and Jean-Guy found it, it would almost certainly have nothing to do with faith. Or God.

Just as unsettling is that the monks are apparently engaged in a civil war over their music and the question of whether to succumb to the worldwide adulation it has caused. At the center of the dispute is their abbot, Dom Philippe. To Gamache, he is a fascinating and conflicted man:

“I didn’t call you in for vengeance or to punish whoever did this. The deed is done. Mathieu is safe. We, on the other hand, are not.”

It was, Gamache knew, the simple truth. It was also the reaction of a father. To protect. Or a shepherd, to keep the flock safe from a predator.

Sainte-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups. Saint Gilbert among the wolves. It was a curious name for a monastery.

The abbot knew there was a wolf in the fold. In a black robe, and shaved head, and whispering soft prayers. Dom Philippe had called in hunters to find him.

As Gamache and Dom Philippe face off, as it were, the abbot leads him into the church where the community stands not in prayer but in song:

…the singing swelled to fill the corridor, and join with the light. It would have been beautiful, if not for the certainty that one of the men singing the words of God, in the voice of God, was a killer.

As Gamache and Beauvoir well know, the beginning of a murder investigation conjures up more questions than answers. When that investigation takes place in such an enigmatic and taciturn community, the odds are high that the solution will take a long time—quite possibly it may never be solved. Does the abbot know who the murderer is? Do the brothers, and are they protecting him out of some misguided sense of loyalty and as a reaction against the outside world? Penny builds the suspense superbly, letting each of the monk’s characters unfold so that we can decide for ourselves—well, almost.

Gamache and Beauvoir get their man, but at a price. Their probing lays bare the very recent cracks in their relationship. (See 2010’s Bury Your Dead and A Trick of Light from 2011.) There is an entire contrapuntal plot concerning Gamache, Beauvoir, and the demons each are fighting. Both men have recently survived a case gone horribly awry and are nursing both physical and psychological wounds. Each conceals secrets that could affect their relationship and, by the end of this case, each reaches a crisis point. Gamache must make a decision about his colleague that is painful and has far reaching consequences. When he does so, more in sorrow than anger, we feel his pain and Bauvoir’s.

With consummate skill, Penny layers her plots intricately, elegantly building to a complex climax. Gamache’s world is not easily penetrated. He is, in the end, in for a rough patch. Of course, Penny leaves that for the next novel.

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.