Über-detective unravels a Texas family’s tangled legacy in ‘Echo Burning’

February 5, 2013

You can’t beat Jack Reacher one on one. You can only hope to outmaneuver him.

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of Jack Reacher, the super-competent über-detective who is the star of Lee Child’s series of thriller novels. Reacher is a retired Army MP, or military policeman, an efficient killer with a razor-sharp intellect and in-depth experience with forensics and human psychology. If he had to engage Superman or Batman in man-to-man combat, Reacher could win — given enough time, information and resources to prepare effectively.

Before this week, I was familiar with Child’s work only through the recent movie Jack Reacher, starring Tom Cruise. On a relative’s recommendation, I dove into Reacher’s 2001 novel, Echo Burning, in which the almost oppressively effective hero finds himself plunged into a messy situation in the hot, sparsely populated Echo County in rural Texas.

The book pits Reacher against at least two sets of antagonists. One is the Greer clan, a tight-knit family with extensive roots in Echo that doesn’t cotton to outsiders.

Unfortunately for them, while hitchhiking in Texas, Reacher is picked up by Carmen Greer. A Latina out of California who has married into the family, Carmen is still considered an outsider, despite having borne her husband a lovely daughter. Worse yet, her husband beats her savagely. Even worse he’s about to get out of prison. Worst of all, the improbably named Sloop Greer blames Carmen — correctly so! — for his having been sent to prison on tax evasion charges. 

The other set of antagonists are a nameless hit team: Three experienced assassins who have been hired to pick off a longtime friend of Sloop Greer’s. They’ve also been hired to conduct some other unsavory business in and around Echo County. How this group relates to the Greers, and what they’re doing, remains a closely guarded mystery for much of the story.

Child is a competent writer, and while his characters are hardly the most nuanced to be found in fiction, he characterizes them deftly. Reacher himself is an improbable creation — a comic book superhero with a thirst for justice, a strong moral compass and an aversion to most forms of human attachment. Child skirts around Reacher’s psychological underpinnings but still manages to make his protagonist seem more or less plausible.

The question in most superhero stories isn’t whether the protagonist will be able to overcome any single challenge or challenger. It’s whether he or she will be able to overcome a seemingly overwhelming set of them, especially when mysteries abound as to who the real good guys are and what the proper course of action is.

Reacher’s mission — never entirely clear to him, although he is absolutely convinced that Carmen Greer is being unfairly victimized — becomes even murkier when law enforcement get involved in a deadly situation chez Greer. Ensuing events lead Reacher to question what he thought knew about the damsel in distress.

Eventually, rain and mud and fire and rock play roles in the resolution of this tangled plot. Naturally, Reacher’s quick wits and fearsome capacity for violence also feature in the climax; this is a thriller, after all.

Child starts off well, building an intriguing situation, and subsequently ratchets up the tension and intrigue in outstanding fashion. This is middlebrow entertainment all the way, but this book is middlebrow stuff done right. Anyone looking for some action, some mystery and an entertaining read could do a lot worse than to plunge into Echo Burning.

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