For the 21st Jack Reacher novel, Lee Child has gone back two decades for a pre­quel fea­tur­ing his hero as a serv­ing ma­jor in the US Mil­i­tary Police, not yet the mys­te­ri­ous drifter and guardian an­gel of the rest of the best­selling se­ries. All change? Not re­ally – it’s a younger ver­sion of the same blank slate char­ac­ter, a tough, tall mil­i­tary man with a tal­ent for street fight­ing (“he en­joyed it”), highly quotable di­a­logue and trav­el­ling light.

It might be a dif­fer­ent world in which an­a­lysts are still ad­just­ing to the post-cold War un­cer­tainty, but it’s busi­ness as usual for Lee Child. Night School is a knock­out thriller that’s as tense, smart and stylish as his best books. And Reacher is just as re­source­ful and lack­ing in any trace of self-pity.

Hav­ing been awarded a medal fol­low­ing the ex­e­cu­tion of a pair of Balkan war­lords, Reacher dis­cov­ers his next mis­sion: a train­ing course. In fact, be­ing sent back to school is cover for a top-se­cret Pres­i­den­tial plan that in­volves se­cu­rity agen­cies work­ing to­gether to tackle the in­choate threat from Mid­dle East­ern ter­ror­ists. Hind­sight hangs heavy as Reacher refers, in the late ’90s, to “new-style bad guys from Ye­men and Afghanistan”.

Of course, Reacher rel­ishes a chal­lenge – early on he neu­tralises a gang of Ger­man skin­heads. But he’s no ma­cho di­nosaur. Reacher’s happy to take or­ders from Dr Mar­ian Sin­clair, of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, and he re­cruits fe­male sergeant Frances Nea­gley, a fa­mil­iar char­ac­ter from the books. The pair head to Ham­burg on the hunt for an uniden­ti­fied Amer­i­can set­ting up a $100 mil­lion deal with a ter­ror­ist cell in the city. Reacher and the team don’t know what se­cret weapon he’s sell­ing, but it seems more of a press­ing threat than the Mil­len­nium Bug.

Writ­ing with a lean prose style, as well as a sense of his­tory, Child has made an art form of the adren­a­line-filled page-turner. Night School is an in­tri­cate study of un­easy co­op­er­a­tion be­tween US and Ger­man au­thor­i­ties fol­low­ing decades of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pres­ence, which draws a bunch of neo-nazi goons into the plot. The pro­ce­dural el­e­ment is just as skil­ful, and the tense pur­suit across the city in­volves sev­eral near misses.

While many thrillers can de­flate with a tidy res­o­lu­tion, Child con­cludes with a stark moral ques­tion. Re­as­sur­ingly, his hero re­mains some­thing of a mystery – this isn’t an ori­gins story that at­tempts to ex­plain him. It turns out the 21st novel in the se­ries is also the per­fect place for new read­ers to meet Jack Reacher

“A knock­out thriller as tense, smart and stylish as his best books”

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