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It’s a Mystery: “Sometimes the word friend is drained of meaning, but enemy, never.”

By (December 1, 2016) No Comment

Night Schoolnightschool
By Lee Child
Delacorte, 2016

The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories
By P.D. James
Knopf, 2016

In Night School, the 21st Jack Reacher novel (after 2015’s Make Me), it is 1996, which is the year before Killing Floor, the first installment in the series, appeared. Child is flashing back to a time when Reacher was on the grid and still in the Military Police. The book opens:

In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school. The medal was another Legion of Merit. His second…. It was a transaction, A contractual token. Take the bauble and keep your mouth shut about what we asked you to do for it. Which Reacher would have anyway. It was nothing to boast about.

At least not in the circles Reacher moves in. He’s freshly returned from assassinating a couple of really bad guys in the Balkans: “…shot in the head. All part of the peace process….Two weeks of his life. Four rounds expended. No big deal.”

Now he’s been sent to a training course with the riveting title “Impact of Recent Forensic Innovation on Interagency Cooperation.” Also in the course are two agents, a Chinese menu of operatives, one each from the FBI and the CIA. Notes are compared. They’ve all recently pulled off a major case. So what are three good agents fresh off a big win doing in a classroom cramped into desks meant for children? (At six foot five and two hundred and fifty pounds Reacher was wearing his desk more than sitting in it.)

“I don’t know,” Reacher said, “But it ain’t a school. That’s for damn sure.”

Enter the National Security Adviser, Alfred Ratcliffe, accompanied by an extremely attractive woman. (Portent of things to come—this is Jack Reacher.) Ratclifffe is the president’s top boy when it comes to things that might not end well. “This is not a school,” he says.

Using the 1993 bombing under the World Trade Center as his centerpiece, he proceeds:

At that moment the world went mad…. We had enemies everywhere, apparently, but we didn’t know for sure who they were…what they wanted, and we certainly had no idea what they would do next…. A little more than three years from now is the new millennium, with every capital city celebrating around the clock, which makes that the one single day the greatest propaganda target in the history of the planet Earth. We need to know who these guys are well ahead of time…. We make no assumptions and we leave no stone unturned.

No one asked anything. Not even: do you have a particular stone in mind for us?

Finally he introduces the woman. She is Dr. Marian Sinclair, his senior deputy. She will continue the briefing and every word she says is backed by him and the President. She tells them there is an apartment in Hamburg occupied by four men. Three are Saudis and one is Iranian. It’s actually a Jihadist sleeper cell.

Waterman [of the FBI] stirred and said, “How do we know all this?”

“The Iranian is ours,” Sinclair said. “He’s a double agent. CIA runs him out of the Hamburg consulate.”

Then she drops a bombshell. The Iranian has discovered by way of an indiscreet Saudi courier that an American has something to sell to Islamic terrorists. The key phrase is: “The American wants a hundred million dollars.” Who is the American and what could he possibly be selling for that kind of money? It’s the hundred million dollar question:

Sinclair said, “That kind of price worries us a lot…. It’s more than we ever heard of before. Therefore we’re working every channel we can…. But we need more. Your job is to find that American.

Game on. Reacher is off to Hamburg accompanied by that infinitely capable lady sergeant, Frances Neagley, a terrific recurring character. As the nonstop action escalates, we get an in-depth portrait of the American who is unlike any villain you’ve encountered. The monstrous scope of his master plan stretches back to the Cold War and concerns missing nukes.

The premise of the pre-9/11 plot is both compelling and unnerving. There may be a formula but in Child’s capable hands it’s fresh, pulls a lot of unexpected punches, and keeps you on edge to the very end.

The worlds of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and P.D. James poet-policeman, Scotland Yard Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh have absolutely nothing in common. James, who died in 2014, was the author of twenty-one books, many of which feature Dalgliesh. She created a special brand of intrigue, adroitly confronting the mystery at hand and linking it to our moral landscape. Actual blood and guts are rarely on view in a James’ novels, but tragedy is always there with all its resounding consequences. In The Private Patient (2008), her final Dalgliesh novel, she gave us longed for insights into his inner turmoil:

Dalgliesh reflected that murder, a unique crime for which no reparation is ever possible, imposes its own compulsions as well as its conventions…. As a young mistletoeofficer, he, too, had been touched, if unwillingly and temporarily, by the power of murder to attract even while it appalled and repelled.

That young officer is very much in evidence in two of the four previously uncollected short mysteries in The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories. These gems are so deft, so elegant, so finely tuned with characters and atmosphere they show James was as skillful in the short form as she was at novel length. And it’s great fun to discover what one of Scotland Yard’s stars was like at an early stage in his career.

In the title story, a bestselling crime novelist describes a murder she was involved in fifty years earlier. Ever so subtly, she gives us the solution. In “A Very Commonplace Murder” we are falsely led to believe that a “pedantic, respectable, censorious” clerk’s secret taste for pornography is the reason he is reluctant to clear an innocent man. In “The Boxdale Inheritance” Dalgliesh’s godfather implores him to reinvestigate a notorious murder that might ease the godfather’s mind about an inheritance. Here, James is at the top of her sleight-of-hand form. Dalgliesh himself aptly describes the plot of the final story “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” as being “pure Agatha Christie.”

In her wonderful foreword, Val McDermid impeccably sums up this quartet: “These stories are a delicious gift to us at a time when we thought we would read no more of P.D. James.”

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.