I've read all the previous 16 novels in the Jack Reacher thriller series, reviewed many of them for this newspaper, and interviewed the author twice. I am no longer (if I ever was) an unbiased critic. I am more of a Lee Child fan. I am pro-Reacher, his massive but benevolent brute of a drifter, vigilante hero. So, by way of keeping it as neutral and objective as possible, I am invoking Reacher Response Theory, and confining myself to recording the reactions of a couple of younger, more open-minded readers to A Wanted Man.
Reader 1 (aged 19, let us call him "J"), normally sociable, became withdrawn, and tended to give people a glare when interrupted with book in hand. "You have no idea!" he exclaimed once, to no one in particular. J had been, if anything, anti-Reacher at the beginning, on account of his being played improbably by Tom Cruise in a forthcoming movie adaptation. "I'm not going to get any sleep tonight," he prophesied, adding (in an echo of one of Reacher's catchphrases), "That is for damn sure". In a darker moment, he wondered if the book could be ruining more than just his sleep. "A couple of days [reading] – which make the rest of my life look terrible by comparison."
Reader 2 ("S", aged 21) said he was "hooked after three lines" and raced through therest of the book in about 24 hours. He quoted one line he liked a lot: "Reacher had no patience with those who claim that y is a vowel."
However, it has to be said (in the spirit of scientific inquiry) that both J and S expressed reservations. J compared the book unfavourably with the Danish TV series, The Killing. "I've got used to the kind of stories where they make mistakes and then backtrack. Whereas with Reacher you have a sense of where it's going – and then it goes that way." There was no "big twist". S felt that the plot was compelling up to around halfway through.
Reacher (his nose broken from a previous encounter) hitches a lift with two mystery men and a woman, but in the background there is a dead body and a police dragnet and a beautiful FBI tec. But when the parallel stories with different points-of-view converge, and the CIA and Syrians get involved, it becomes "more predictable". "I'm not sure I liked Reacher so much in this book. Whereas before I was more: 'I want to be Reacher.'" He also objected to the scenes involving heavy consumption of McDonalds burgers. "That is pure product placement!"
The following dialogue took place: J: "Reacher doesn't really beat anyone up in this one." S: "He uses a lot of words instead!" J: "And he got scared by phones. It's a sure sign he's getting middle-aged."
S: "I used to love those scenes in which he calculates how to head butt someone. There's none of that."
Final thoughts. J: "At least I can get on with my life now." S: "Don't get me wrong – I'll definitely barrel through the next one too."
Andy Martin's book about Sartre and Camus, 'The Boxer and the Goalkeeper', is published by Simon & Schuster