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It’s a Mystery: “Reality is the product of the most august Imagination”

By (November 1, 2017) No Comment

The Midnight Line
By Lee Child
Delacorte, 2017

The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy
By H.B. Lyle
Quercus, 2017

The Midnight Line is the 22nd Jack Reacher novel (after 2016’s Night School). As it opens, Reacher, ex-MP and peripatetic knight-errant, is in a bus, his preferred mode of transportation, on his way to his chosen destination, nowhere. He gets off to stretch his legs at the second comfort stop “on the sad side of a small town” in the middle of Wisconsin. In a pawn-shop window he spots a West Point class ring. He’s a graduate and he knows that it’s highly unusual for a West Pointer to pawn a class ring. It’s small, a woman’s ring, engraved inside: S.R.S. 2005. He buys it along with some sketchy info about who sold it to the shop owner. And therein we have a splendid MacGuffin, the term, courtesy of Hitchcock, the narrative propeller, the object around which the plot revolves. It’s classic Lee Child.

The fence behind the ring is one Jimmy Rat, who is the head honcho of a group of bikers. They’re not difficult to find: Harley-Davidsons parked outside the one bar. There are eight bikers including the Rat, and pumping him, ever so low key, about where he got the ring earns Reacher a biker brawl in lieu of information. But they’re all rage and bluster. Reacher gets two down, Rat fades backward, four to go:

Reacher had graduated most of the specialist combat schools the army had to offer, most of them on posts inside the old Confederacy, all of them staffed by grizzled old veterans who had done things no normal person could imagine. Such schools concluded with secret notes in secret files and a lot of bruises and maybe even broken bones. The rule of thumb in such establishments, when faced with four opponents, was to make it three opponents pretty damn quickly. And then to make it two opponents just as fast, which was the win right there, the whole ball game, because obviously any graduate of any such school could not possibly have the slightest problem going one-on-two, because if he did, it would mean the inspectors had done a poor job of instructing, which was of course logically impossible in the army.

No surprise, it’s almost no contest—this is Jack Reacher. And to the victor goes the place and name in South Dakota where the Rat got the ring. He’s Arthur Scorpio and he operates out of a laundromat In Rapid City. The victor also gets the attention of the local cop, who, in the interest of “saving paperwork,” escorts Reacher out of town, dropping him in the middle of nowhere with the assurance:

I’m guessing they answered your question. So now you’re headed west. The county line out there is a straight shot to the I-90 on-ramp. Plenty of friendly folks. You’ll get a ride.

He gets several rides to make his way to South Dakota where he gets into trouble with a capital T in the form of a ring of opioid dealers. Evading the dealers while tracking the ring’s owner earns him the company of the twin sister of the owner and a former FBI agent turned private detective who is helping her. The trail leads them eventually to Wyoming where they find the lady. She’s a major, like Reacher, with a backstory from hell that’s turned her into a drug addict.

What Reacher does about it takes the reader from the wars in Afghanistan to the opioid crisis in America. There is a stark and scary thumbnail history of how corporate America has profited from selling heroin in one form or another and a devastating portrait of the ravages of opioid addiction. The dealers are not the only bad guys here.

As Reacher comes to realize, “No one should ever underestimate the appeal of an opiate high.” And the government’s attempt to crack down on drugs ignores the often necessary pain relief they bring to users, especially vets.

The Midnight Line is a compulsively readable novel. Reacher’s interaction with the irreparably damaged major is profoundly painful and powerfully moving. It takes the series to a whole new level.

A world famous cocaine addict from an earlier time, Sherlock Holmes, plays a key role in The Irregular by H.B. Lyle. 1909: in Russia there is revolution in the wind; in Germany, an arms race; and London is becoming a magnet for spies. Vernon Kell, head of counterintelligence at the War Office, wants to set up a Secret Service but he needs proof of a threat. He knows that the stability of Britain depends on uncovering and disposing of the growing number of foreign spy networks. Unfortunately, Kell’s agents are being eliminated at an alarming rate. He needs a new undercover agent he can trust who is smart and ruthless.

Enter Wiggins, fresh from fighting the Boer in South Africa and currently spending his days as a debt-collector. A street urchin trained by Holmes, he was the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars introduced in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. According to the Great Detective, Wiggins has a talent for deduction perhaps second only to his own. “The best” says Holmes. That’s good enough for Holmes’ old friend Kell, who wants to hire him for his new agency.

Wiggins turns to Holmes for advice about the job. Over a drink, an exotic cordial imported from New York called Coca-Cola, Holmes tells him:

There’s a conflagration coming, Wiggins and we must do all we can to stop it, or at the very least prepare. There are large and growing forces ranged against us, on the streets of London even now—hostile foreign powers. Kell is doing what he can and I urge you to help him, not only for your sake, but for the sake of this great country of ours. Forget about the political playacting of immigrants, you must fight the countries that are against us. You must work for Kell, work for the Empire.

Wiggins becomes Kell’s star operative, ferrets out the source that is leaking Britain’s technical secrets to Germany and unravels a deadly international conspiracy, He even manages to foil some Russian anarchists that are active in London. Small wonder, he is awarded the title “Agent
OO,” an Edwardian James Bond!

The Irregular is a fast-moving, hugely entertaining thriller that evokes Victorian London with great panache. There are a host of appealing characters. Lyle is especially adept at mixing actual persons and events with imagined ones. I’m delighted to report it’s the first of a series.

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.