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Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009

Afghan gang turns N.Y. into a battlefield

Lee Child's latest thriller brings al-Qaida terrorists back for an encore

GONE TOMORROW by Lee Child. New York: Delacorte Press, 2009, 422 pp., $27 (cloth)

John Rambo, Harry Bosch, Elvis Cole's partner Joe Pike and other veterans of the Vietnam War era — who have served hard-boiled fiction so well over the past three decades — are getting too old for the sort of mayhem their authors would have them perform.

Enter Lee Child's series character, Jack Reacher. A West Point graduate and former military cop, he served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Standing 195 cm tall, he's a seasoned brawler, and while adept at firearms, he typically overcomes multiple assailants through brute physical strength and sheer meanness.

Reacher's ongoing saga is somewhat reminiscent of the 1960s TV ronin Kogarashi Monjiro, a nihilistic anti-hero whose characteristic catchphrase was, "It's nothing to do with me." After becoming fed up with the army after 13 years service, Reacher became an aimless vagabond possessing little more than the clothes on his back and a folding toothbrush in his pocket.

In earlier adventures Reacher contended with gangsters of various ethnic persuasions, but "Gone Tomorrow" is the first time he squares off against Asian villains on U.S. soil.

In the opening chapter he coincidentally witnesses a woman shoot herself on the New York subway. The circumstances of her suicide are strange enough, but Reacher's suspicions are alerted when the New York cops allow him to be questioned by some very scary Pentagon types.

Taking an instant dislike to them, and being obstinate and ornery by nature, Reacher decides to investigate on his own. He gradually discovers links going back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a political secret that the United States is determined to cover up, and that al-Qaida is willing to kill for.

In the harrowing climax, Reacher engages in a gladiatorial fight to the death with two ferocious female assassins, with an ending brutally reminiscent of Mickey Spillane's 1947 blockbuster "I, The Jury," from which I quote below.

Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her naked belly where the bullet went in.

"How could you?" she gasped.

I had only a moment before talking to a corpse, but I got it in.

"It was easy," I said.

I'd rank Child right at the top of the best thriller writers. "Gone Tomorrow" earns extra points for originality by raising the possibility that al-Qaida operatives might not only engage in 9/11-type terrorist attacks, but could also be capable of intimidating U.S. citizens into spilling national secrets.

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