I think there’s a publisher’s pipe dream that someone is going to bring them the next Jack Reacher, since at any given time only one publisher can possibly be making money from Lee Child, and to a certain kind of mind it doesn’t seem fair that only one corporate behemoth is hoovering all the spare change out of the sofa cushions. We’re living in a weird golden era for teenage fantasy fiction for much the same reason; in the mad hope that they might find the next JK Rowling, publishers are green-lighting all kinds of things. Whatever else you might think about Harry Potter, he’s been the catalyst for all kinds of objectively better books getting the light of day. And, of course, even more objectively terrible ones. An infinite number of monkeys might get you Shakespeare, but it’s definitely going to get you a lot of not-Shakespeare.
So publishers are looking for a new sequence of novels about a mysterious loner who shows up and rights wrongs before heading off into the sunset, and Simon Toyne’s getting the benefit of the doubt as the publicity machine swings in behind Solomon Creed. So, which boxes get ticked?
Mysterious back-story? What could be more mysterious than NO backstory?
Small town in the middle of nowhere menaced by something complicated? Yup.
Ass-kickings and beat-downs a go-go? Not so much.
Toyne’s one of yer actual writer writers, and so there’s characters, and prose which if not purple is definitely kind of mauve round the edges. It’s not exactly overwritten, but there are flourishes and figures of speech where Child would have used a couple of verbs and a grudging adjective. In fact Toyne’s a better stylist than Child, and he’s genuinely making an effort to put characters on the page and give them plenty to do. He’s doing so much of that that Solomon Creed his own magical amnesiac albino self hardly gets a look in; most of the heavy lifting is done by the locals, while Creed stands around watching and looking mysterious. Which is kind of inefficient, given that the locals are not in this for the long haul; they’re mostly not going to be around for the climax, let alone the sequel. Toyne isn’t really investing his talent in the future of the sequence.
It’s a weird read. On the one hand, Toyne throws a couple of good anti-heroes onto the page, and at least one of them has a solid story, with plausible motivation and a very believable reaction to what’s going on around him. I’d have been happy enough to read a whole book just about Mulcahy; he’s broken and compromised, but resourceful and wishing he could be decent. His villains; not so good. One-dimensional Mexican psychos who don’t make any sense as anything other than Hollywood meanies.
Which leads me into the big problem. This is a mystical albino Jack Reacher, so there has to be a big corrupt problem for him to overcome (and a damsel in some kind of distress). And the big corrupt problem is just stupid. It’s stupid in the round, and it’s stupid in the details. And it’s stupid in a very Hollywood way. Evil Mexican drug kingpin swears revenge on banally wicked Arizona township because he’s the kind of loon who feeds his reputation by horribly killing anyone even in the neighborhood of something which inconveniences him. The front half of the book is full of a creepy squirrelly low-rent menace. What makes it work is not that the kingpin is doing anything horrible yet, but that the corrupt leaders of the town are getting their panic in early, casting around for a sacrifice to throw him when he comes looking for tribute. That’s nasty and believable. Then we get to the wrap up, and it’s an overly complicated sting that makes The Usual Suspects look straightforward. Which just sweeps away all the grubby credibility of the set-up. And the detail of it is annoying, full of last minute Scooby-Doo switches, as the bad guys change sides for no other reason than because it’s a twist on what seemed to be happening a moment ago. Jeffrey Deaver used to be able to do this kind of thing and make it work; Toyne just can’t. Every single twist is the kind of thing which leaves the reader thinking “Well, if you were out to get him all along, why not just shoot him last week? What was the point of waiting til now and sweeping your mask off?"
The book ends with everything tied up in a bow, a little bit of backstory for Solomon Creed and the set up for the inevitable sequel, but it’s hard to think that Jack Reacher’s got anything to be scared of.