"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Past Tense by Lee Child (2018, Delacorte Press)

Passing through

Past Tense by Lee Child (2018) is a splendid thriller with diabolical New Hampshire villains interested in making money by offering wealthy men the opportunity to hunt humans. 

Sadly for them, they pick on a young working class Canadian couple passing through on their way to what they hope is a new life in Florida. Patty worked in a sawmill, and Shorty was a potato farmer. They have a heavy suitcase with them, the contents of which they hope will purchase a downpayment on their future.

All of which gives the start of Past Tense a Psycho vibe: are Patty and Shorty thieves like Marion Crane, waylaid by chance at the wrong rural motel?

Child handles the rising tension in the first half of the novel very well, as Patty and Shorty come to realize they are caught in the filaments of a very fine web. 

The payoff for the reader, of course, comes in the second half, when Patty and Shorty find a way to turn to tables. Turns out hosting human hunts is more complicated than the villains thought.

....Shorty ran for the woods first, as agreed. He made it. Patty waited. No sound. No shouted warning. She went after him, squeezing between the same two trees, aiming to head around the same quarter circle, back toward the track. She could hear him up ahead. She was close enough to help. She glanced behind her. She was far enough to get away. Would she? She thought, a mile in my shoes, baby. Who knew what anyone would do?

     She walked on.

     Then two things happened so fast and sudden her mind went blank. They came out of nowhere. Too fast to see. Two things happened. That was all she knew. And then nothing. Except Shorty was suddenly standing in front of her, and a guy was lying on the ground. Then came a painful slow motion replay, like a mental reaction. Maybe a therapeutic purpose. Post traumatic. In her mind she saw a guy looming up. Literally a nightmare vision. All in black, tight nylon, a bow, an arrow, a hideous mechanical one-eyed face. The bow jerking right, tilting down, at her legs, aiming low. They'll shoot to wound. Then the string drawing back, the arrowhead winking in the moonlight, then out of nowhere Shorty was behind the guy, swinging his long metal flashlight like the riot police, hitting the guy full on behind the ear, every ounce of his potato farmer bulk and muscle behind it, plus every ounce of his anger and fury and fear and humiliation. The guy went straight down. Dead, she was sure. The sound alone told her. The flashlight against his skull. She was a country girl. She had heard enough cows killed to know what it took.

     Close enough to help.

     It had worked.

     "Thank you," she said.

     "I busted my flashlight," he said. "It doesn't turn on anymore."

     "You can have mine," she said. "It's the least I can do."

     "Thank you."

     "You're welcome."

     "Keep mine for a weapon," he said.

     They traded flashlights. An absurd little ceremony.

     "Thank you," she said again.

     "You're welcome."

     She looked away.

     "But," she said.

     "But what?"

     "They know there are two of us. They must have known we would play it like that."

     "I guess."

     "Which is a risk for them."

     "I guess."

     "They must have known that upfront."


     "I think their obvious solution would be to hunt in pairs."

     A voice said, "Damn right about that, little girl."

     They turned around.

     Another nightmare vision. Glistening black nylon tight to the skin, a complicated bow lurid with composite layers, a steel arrowhead as big as a serving spoon, a Cyclops stare through an expressionless glass circle.

     The nightmare vision shot Shorty in the leg.

     The bowstring thumped, the arrow hissed, and Shorty screamed and went down like he had fallen through a trapdoor. The arrow was stuck in his thigh. He was hauling on it, and jerking his head side to side, and clamping his jaw up and down, which bit his scream into separate rapid-fire gasps of agony, much faster than breathing, ah ah ah, like a racing heartbeat.

     Patty was calm. Like Shorty had been before. When her mind was blank. Now his was. Suddenly she thought, this is how life is supposed to feel. She heard herself in her head, as if she was her own teammate, at her own shoulder, saying sure, Shorty's bad, but he won't get any worse in the next three seconds. Not medically possible. So feel free to take care of the other thing first.

     Which was the guy with the bow. Who was old, she saw. Suddenly a second teammate was at her other shoulder, saying sure, you're going to notice more now, much more detail, because now you're operating at a higher level, or maybe a more primitive level, where senses are more acute, so that although the guy is dressed head to toe in shiny black, and has a machine on his face, you can tell from his posture and his movements he's about our grandfather's age, and he's stooped, and he's sparrow-chested, and if we think back to all the older guys we've known, uncles and great-uncles and so on, and the lousy shape they were in, and we adjust for height and weight, then maybe we don't have too much to worry about with this guy.

     He was slow with his reload. His right elbow was slow to bend. Kind of awkward. Arthritis, maybe. He tried to compensate by scrabbling for the arrow early. He fumbled it. Patty breathed in. She felt she was at the head of a tight V-shaped formation, somehow now in motion, loud music playing, her loyal teammates marching at her shoulder, willing her on, bearing her forward, buoying her up, making her weightless.

     The first teammate whispered, I think the thing to remember, when all is said and done, apart from anything else, is that this guy shot Shorty with an arrow. Which by any standards is completely out of order.

     The second teammate said, the night vision device will protect his face. Better to aim for his throat.

     Keep mine for a weapon, Shorty had said.

     She did it beautifully. Despite very little prior experience. She felt it all happen, at a molecular level. She sensed every compound flooding her brain. Some were complex emotions. Mostly about Shorty. Primeval feelings. Much stronger than she expected. Some were simple software downloads. Dusty old how-to manuals, left behind from savage eras deep in prehistory. She absorbed them all, and they gave her animal grace, and strength, and speed, and cunning, and ferocity, plus some kind of serene human abandon over the top of it all, that made her surrender to instinct completely. She danced across the space, trailing the flashlight behind her, shuffling her stride to perfection, swinging the flashlight ahead of her, accelerating it hard, keeping it low, the Cyclops eye coming down to track it, then whipping it up in a savage U-shaped curve, into the narrowing angle between the dropping chin and the arching neck.

     It hit with a crunch she felt all the way to her elbow. The guy went down like he ran into a clothes rope. He landed on his back. She grabbed his bow and threw it away. His night vision was bound to his head with thick rubber straps. She tore it off. He was a thin, pale, sour man, about seventy years old.

     His mouth was opening and closing like a goldfish.

     Panic in his eyes.

     He couldn't breathe.

     He pointed to his throat, both hands, desperate urgent gestures.

     Can't breathe, he mouthed.

     Tough shit, she thought.

     Then she heard Shorty whimper.

     Later she knew she would have no defense, if a lawyer accused her of flying into a murderous rage. Damn right she did. Or if he asked her, sternly, did you in fact beat the victim to death with the flashlight? Damn right she did. With blows to the head, exclusively. A lot to his face. With every ounce of her strength. Until his skull looked like a bag of nails.

     Then she crawled back to Shorty.

     Who was quiet.

     He had seen.

Crossing the line of this rural drama is Jack Reacher. On a whim he has come to nearby Laconia, New Hampshire while hitchhiking south for the winter. Lacondia is supposedly his dad's birthplace. 

As you can imagine, Child has a field day getting Reacher, Patty and Shorty, and the human hunters, on intersecting courses.

Considering the plot and the level of carnage detailed, it's a mellow and comfortable novel, free of the high levels of Affect Horror foregrounded in the sublime Make Me.

Changes are neatly rung on the ever-reliable Reacher story-kit. Two rich Laconia bullies, eighty years apart, receive useful "life lessons." A female detective becomes an ally. A small town clerk and the town's counsel find true love. As ever, Reacher mends all the destinies he touches.


14 April 2020

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