As good as an Army Reacher story can be (which is a pretty reliable “good”, but rarely a “great”, because most of Reacher’s greatest charms stem from the way he handles himself when he’s out there on his own, hunting guns, money and breakfast via the dusty highways of a dumbfuck America), Night School is Lee Child’s extended riff on The Day of the Jackal, with enough of the pieces rearranged that what’s left feels more inspired than most traditional homages. There’s still a fat local cop who knows his shit, but unlike Forsythe’s tale, our beefy friend lives as all men do: in the service of The Reach.
A worthy comparison to Night School might also be the 90’s era Jackal film starring Richard Gere as a guy who uses a bad accent to hunt down Bruce “Sexual Predator” Willis in hopes of saving Jack Black’s life. (He fails, but what ensues is the finest performance of Mr. Black’s storied career.) In that rightfully maligned—but still oddly delightful—film, the well regarded classic is mined for remnants that can be grafted onto a story where a character in need of redemption chased down a merciless super killing robot. Here, Child’s choice is more ingenious, with the primary characters of the original Jackal story rearranged to complement the outsized Reacher, and what gets ignored becomes unnecessary more than it is missed. The original story’s villain’s mastery over planning and preparation becomes Night’ School’s backstory, slowly unpacked over the course of the book. A secret cabal of evil fuckers, once cast as a secretive military junta unwilling to accept their obsolesce becomes a group of German nationalists (yes, but without their famous name or clothing). It’s an excellent choice, and if some of it the characters come across as a bit leaden (get ready to meet the dullest of Reacher’s sexual partners yet), their loss in character development is made up for in page time for Frances Neagley, who continues to be one of the most entertaining of Jack’s old running crew of beastkilllers. Come for the pastiche, stay for Lee Child’s version of “should we have killed Hitler as a baby”: I read this one twice, motherfucker.
This was my first Vince Flynn book as well as my first time blindly trusting a recommendation created by the Goodreads algorithm (I had to join the site so that I use it for work purposes, I got curious), and it will probably be the last time I do either of those things. Flynn’s style could roughly be described as “non-existent”, unless blanket racism or total tone-deafness are now considered a kind of style. The book features a character creatively named “Mitch Rapp” who is the star, I later discovered, of every single one of Flynn’s published works, barring the first one, which was called Term Limits and is assumedly about the sort of political corruption that ensues when politicians aren’t tough enough to Get The Job Done or Stand Up For What Is Right. One guesses that after immersing himself in the sludge of his fictional DC for his first book spurned Flynn to create Rapp, a character who never met a generic 80’s right wing cliche he didn’t fully embody. (It is neither a surprise nor a condemnation that Flynn went on to work on later seasons of 24, a show which was consistently able to get away with its toxic political stances by contradicting it immediately or by stopping for a minute to show the horrific, unrepairable damage that had been done to its lead character and all those who surrounded him. Also because the action was pretty good.)
Flynn’s Rapp isn’t bothered by such issues, or at least he isn’t here, in a prequel book that introduces the characters initial training and first mission as a sort of Jason Bourne-via prehistoric caveman snob. The book’s basic plot is this: Mitch is a guy who is the greatest dude ever, one of the best lacrosse players of all amateur college time, he’s got a dad who died when he was young, and a girlfriend—youthful sweetheart, natch—who dies in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which, if you are my age, is the flight that the GZA is talking about on that one song from Liquid Swords. In this book, we see Mitch turn his sorrow at the loss of the girl (who has a name, but I have my doubts if even the characters in the book remember it) into rage, rage which leads him to take six months of brazilian jujutsu classes and then join the training program for some black ops CIA kill squad that, up until that point, had only taken on Navy Seal and Green Beret types. And while the characters in the book do acknowledge how absurd it is that there is a college lacrosse player who studied brazilian jujutsu in a suburban training center for six months who is easily 100% better than the American military’s cream of the crop, that particular plot dynamic never becomes any less ridiculous. (Although it is helped a bit by the even more ridiculous part where Rapp learns how to shoot at the level of a Navy Seal in the same amount of time it took to get tired of people talking about Stranger Things.)
As it is, this is one of those classic kinds of shit—a book that spends all its time telling you how smart and awesome a guy is, spices it up with some odd bit of tradecraft that the writer picked up somewhere (in this, it’s Rapp’s trusty rubber doorstop), and strings you along while you wait for violence to happen, or for the character to become smart, or awesome. The thinking seems to be that the violence will be shocking and/or exciting enough to propel you through the mechanics of the story, all of which are boring. And while spy books are often boring in parts—that’s sort of the point of a lot of Le Carre, is that it’s a boring job 98% of the time, and sometimes it’s not, but the only people who are really good at it are the people who can handle being bored—the problem here is that Rapp is a boring idiot, and spending time with him as he pompously judges people because they aren’t patriotic, or sexy, or tough…it isn’t fun the first time. Even the book’s boneheaded racism and right-wing agitprop is so tired and cliched as to be quite nearly inoffensive. (Nearly, said the white guy, about the white guy.) But hey: it is a prequel, after all. It’s always a surprise when those are bad.
An unusual entry in King’s catalog in that it is a crime thriller devoid of supernatural elements, Mr. Mercedes is the first of a trilogy starring a retired detective named Bill Hodges. In this one, Bill is haunted by the one that got away: the titular Mr. Mercedes, who drove a car into a group of people while wearing a mask and was never caught. The book hits a lot of familiar beats, both in the genre (Hodges is a divorcee who spends his retirement fantasizing about killing himself, his closest relationship is with a super-smart black kid who he can rely on both so that the book has some contemporary relevance and also so an old white character can say “bro” a lot) as well as familiar beats in King’s career (the murderer has a fucked up sexual relationship with his drunk mom, none of the slang has ever been said in real life, by actual people). King’s saving grace in this one (if there is one, as the book is very much Not Good) is probably to be found in his belligerent commitment to getting this shit done—this book reads at times like an outline of expository action, which keeps it moving along. Beyond that, there’s no real pacing or structure to the book beyond a heavy reliance on coincidence—characters just endlessly move through scenes like they’ve been waiting in the wings for their cue. With the exception of the victims in the prologue, every character is seen multiple times, each time with more exposition to deliver to the two leads, and all of these side characters exhibit whatever skills are necessary to the scene. (in the book’s most glaring offense to its own credibility, a woman with crippling social anxiety magically transforms into a Lisbeth Salendar rip-off with one-punch fighting skills in the span of 36 hours. Mr. Mercedes is neither thrilling nor a mystery—it’s a book about a guy who wants to taunt an ex-cop and kill some people, and it’s a book about an ex-cop who wants to catch a guy who is taunting him before that guy kills some people. That these two people are in the same book occasionally results in the two stories coming together, but never in a way that anyone would describe as particularly graceful.
That being said, there is a preview at the end for the second book in the trilogy, and in this preview, a group of guys invade the home of a writer who is clearly supposed to be John Updike, and after some pretty routine intimidation and slap-him-around stuff, one of the guys kills the writer, who is, again, clearly supposed to be John Updike. Your mileage may vary, but that shit sounds funny AF.
The promise of The Passage trilogy (of which this is the conclusion) was always a bit absurd—the implication that the literary world’s answer to the cultural takeover performed by genre and geek culture had arrived; here, finally, was the post-apocalyptic vampire series that Alan HOLLINGHURST fans would enjoy. On the face of it, it was unnecessary—Ridley Scott’s ambitious purchase of the series prior to its actual written existence had immediately assured the interest of curiosity seekers, and Cronin’s generally acknowledged skill level and his aw-shucks, I made this one with my little girl marketing hook brought the rest. It also ignored one of the core tenets of geek and genre culture obsessives, one of the basic reasons that all forms of culture (they’re even shaving time off opera, son) have given way to nerrrrrrds: they’re insatiable, and they’ll read anything. Capitalism is the word of the day, and while you do have to “market” a vampire trilogy, you certainly don’t need it to be any good at all. The audience for these things—the primary, foundational financial base—will buy and read a good one and a bad one interchangeably, you just have to make sure you’ve advertised well enough to be next in the pile. If you’ve covered enough of your Barnes & Noble co-op to ensure whatever overly serious cover design your failed artist cum designer created is prominently featured on endcaps, you’re golden. Get it out there, make some noise, the hyper consumers will do the rest. Plugging yourselves to the people who are still reading Harold Bloom—well, how many people is that, anyway? How many of them are “influencers”? Blogs are dead, baby boy! Middle aged critics don’t have interesting Instagram pages!
The first book, The Passage, remains the strongest of the series, tied as it is to the most interesting part of these sorts of stories: when the collapse of society begins and we see the immediacy of what comes after. Mixing bits of what made The Stand and World War Z memorable along with Cronin’s smartly written realist middle-aged frustrations and delivering one of the most satisfying (infuriating, book-throwing kind of satisfying) cliffhanger endings these sorts of books ever see—a cliffhanger so good that there’s no possible way the eventual movie will have the balls to replicate it—the Passage was a prime example of effective, smart genre work. You never really got to know anybody that well, but you cared about them nonetheless, and as the book tore its way through a century, one found themselves respecting Cronin in spite of the manipulation he was so blatantly trafficking in. You were being played, but in the same way that you forgive a truly great con, you couldn’t stay mad at that guy. (I can’t tell you how many times I found myself looking at that author photo, that half-lidded placidity, those still waters, judging me, finding me wanting. Can’t I be smart enough for you, Justin?)
The second book couldn’t have been more disappointing, of course. A bewildering misfire of lazy superhero pastiches fighting a confused battle against a foe that was never more than a list of names, it’s no surprise that the first thing that City of Mirrors does is recap that terrible book’s conclusion: it has no choice. Even if you had remembered what happened, what you remembered doesn’t make sense at all—a bunch of people ran out into a field? There was a dumpster and a basketball hoop? The immortal girl saw her dad again because the gardener loves flowers, and then all the bad guys screamed and laid down and died? (That’s the actual ending!) In honor of America’s other new religion—the cultural forgiveness of a financially demanded retcon—The City of Mirrors effectively turns The Passage from trilogy to a two parter, and while you’ll never be able to convince people to just skip the second book entirely, they certainly should.
Of course, recapping Book Two brings one right up to the issue that these books were never supposed to have, due to their specific “a girl who saves the world” origin: man, that’s a lot of rape. Is it supposed to be progress when rape isn’t used to make men tougher? When the “revenge” part of a rape/revenge story is just a woman becoming stronger and better at using a bow and arrow, or it makes her a really good mom? That doesn’t seem like progress. That seems like the same kind of laziness, in a form that’s just being dumb in a different neighborhood. What would be really smart would be to have a lot less characters, so that rape becomes all but narratively impossible, since there’s no working penises attached to non-heroic male characters. After all, you can’t have a bunch of rape happen if there aren’t any bad guys to do it!
Which is, of course, what Book Three happens to do.
Book Three has to be the conclusion, and it’s with no small amount of trepidation that one approaches the conclusion of these kind of stories: because it’s always terrible. In the short form—like Dawn of the Dead, for instance—you can get away with not concluding, with closing out on people fleeing immediate danger for the promise of more, imagined danger.. But in the long form, the form that Stephen King and Robert Kirkman traffic in, you’re fucked: nobody gets it right. The ending of the Stand is dumb as shit, the ending of It is dumb as shit, the ending of The Walking Dead is gonna be dumb as shit—none of it works, because having an answer in a serialized narrative is never as satisfying as the promise of postponement. And for what it’s worth, Cronin gets as close to good as he can, even if it means he has to resort to an epilogue featuring a goofy, Judge Dredd without any cool shit future, where new characters you couldn’t possibly care about tell you what happened after the Final Battle. As with the first book, there’s stuff here to play with—the origin of evil may be a cliched nerd who didn’t get his best friend’s girl, but Cronin acquits himself well with how he depicts that particular story, and as with any good post-apocalyptic story, it’s always fun to go to New York—and all the climactic battle power chords get played. As page turners go, this one has its charms.
Go ahead and take a second and pretend that still makes a difference.
-Tucker Stone, 2016