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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Without Fail

Lee Child

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To purchase Without Fail

Title: Without Fail
Author: Lee Child
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 549 pages
Availability: Without Fail - US
Without Fail - UK
Without Fail - Canada
Without Fail - India
Pas droit à l'erreur - France
Tödliche Absicht - Deutschland
A prova di killer - Italia
  • The sixth Jack Reacher novel

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Our Assessment:

B : ridiculous conspiracy-plot, but otherwise well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 13/4/2002 Chris Petit
The NY Times Book Rev. A 9/6/2002 Marilyn Stasio
The Telegraph . 19/5/2002 Susanna Yager

  From the Reviews:
  • "Child's virtues, like [Stephen] Hunter's, are those of tight plotting and research, with minimum introspection." - Chris Petit, The Guardian

  • "If Without Fail doesn't hook you on Lee Child, I give up. (...) (W)hat may be the best of Child's austere thrillers (.....) As the ultimate outsider, Reacher brings a fresh, if cynical, perspective to a world that he never made -- and can't wait to escape." - Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(H)as fewer thrills than usual, but Child still produces a surprising twist when it's least expected." - Susanna Yager, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Without Fail takes place shortly after the election (but before the inauguration) of a new American administration, with credible threats being made against Vice President-elect Brook Armstrong, the junior senator from North Dakota who has just vaulted into the national spotlight. M.E.Froehlich -- who is tight-lipped about what her initials stand for -- leads the secret service detail assigned to protect Armstrong, and in order to find out where their protection-coverage is vulnerable she wants to hire someone to look into that -- to test their defenses, as it were. The man she has in mind is Jack Reacher, whose reputation precedes him -- in this case largely because Froehlich used to be the girlfriend of Jack's brother, Joe (though they broke up before Joe got killed). The two brothers weren't in touch much -- they barely saw each other -- but despite that there was obviously a close bond of sorts between them, and what Joe told Froehlich about his brother is good enough for her.
       Of course, first Froehlich has to find Jack -- which isn't so easy, given that he doesn't have an address, driver's license, or ATM or credit cards, and hasn't even filed for taxes in the past five years. As readers of the series know, the well-trained former military (police) man has taken to the road, roving around the country with basically no baggage and no ties. Still, Froehlich has decent government resources at hand, and she cleverly does manage to track him down fairly quickly.
       Reacher takes the assignment -- just his kind of challenge -- and just a few days later reports back with the bad news: if he had been an assassin he could have taken Armstrong out six ways from Sunday (well, three or so ways, but still). With the threats still coming -- brief messages on completely clean pieces of paper, save a single thumbprint, left even in the innermost sanctum of the secret service (i.e. which no outsider should have access to -- and who would be caught on security cameras if they did make it in) -- Reacher and a colleague he brought in to help him with the assassination-testing, Frances Neagley, who now works as a security consultant, try to help Froehlich keep Armstrong safe and figure out who is making the threats.
       Just how seriously the threats should be taken isn't exactly clear, but when the message comes that: A demonstration of your vulnerability will be staged today the concerns do grow. At some point it becomes clear that whoever is behind this is very, very serious. Whoever is behind this has planned things carefully, and they remain comfortably a step or two ahead of Froehlich and Reacher -- and then the FBI, when they're called in to help.
       The supremely confident Reacher -- "Things don't happen to me. I don't get unlucky" -- is justified in some of that self-confidence because he thinks things through calmly and rationally (and it doesn't hurt that he can handle a weapon, and that he's huge and a very well-trained fighter). He tries to instill that confidence in Froehlich too -- she's a professional, but this situation has her questioning a lot. Matters are complicated by the fact that she never really got over Joe -- and that Jack looks a lot like him ..... More than just a bond forms between them.
       There are some good feints here -- the mystery as to how one of the threats wound up on Froehlich's boss's desk, for example -- though other clues are a bit more obvious (the origins of the mysterious thumbprints ...) and left dangling too long. The different interests at play -- secret service officers concerned about their careers; the FBI, certain that it's an inside job -- and the completely independent, almost lone wolf Reacher (though here with sidekick Neagley (who has a few issues of her own) helpfully close at hand almost the entire way), as well as the apparent target, Armstrong, make for interesting dynamics. The relationship between Froehlich and Reacher -- complicated by his resemblance to his brother, and the fact that she obviously hasn't gotten over Joe (or his death) -- adds a nicely (if weirdly) complex personal dimension to the story. And Child does the action -- of which, of course, there is a lot -- very well: he slows his scenes down to a crawl, letting things unfold step by small step, in short sentences and paragraphs, making for nicely sustained tension.
       The biggest problem with Without Fail is the criminal plot itself: yes, someone's out to get Armstrong, and a major problem the investigators and protectors face is that, for the longest time, they can't figure out the possible motive. Disappointingly, the motive (and the attendant circumstances) turn out to be pretty ridiculous -- not entirely implausible, but extraordinarily far-fetched. Worse, the scheme is ridiculously and unnecessarily over-elaborate. The toying with the authorities and the potential victim via these threats -- even though the secret service keeps Armstrong out of the loop -- feels way too much like a purely fictional device; even if they wanted to send a message, there's no need for this silly and exposing overkill; one or two well-placed nudges surely would have sufficed (and they would have been far more likely to get away with everything).
       Sure, it's fun when push comes to shove:

     "They won't come back," Neagley said. "They'd have to be insane to try anything here."
     "I think they are insane," Reacher said.
       Insane antagonists are, usefully (for fiction), willing to go to any lengths, but they're kind of boring too. And, of course, don't stand a chance against calm and collected Reacher.
       When he gets down to the basics, zooming in on the action in piece by piece and then minute by minute (and then second by second) detail Child is very good. And there's a lot of that here, the tension slowly rising, and nicely sustained. He doesn't even need that much actual action -- the life-and-death confrontations --; it's still a gripping read pretty much or the entire ride.
       If only the underlying why-(and-how-they-want-to-)get-the-vice-president plot weren't so silly .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 August 2018

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Without Fail: Reviews: Lee Child: Other books by Lee Child under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Lee Child was born in 1954.

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© 2018-2024 the complete review

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