There are essentially two ways in which gratuitous violence can be used effectively in writing. If it is overwrought, appearing in excess in scene after scene, even the most severe violence becomes commonplace and bland. It's the Mortal Kombat syndrome: You can only watch a guy get his spine ripped out so many times before it loses its luster. For violence to really be exciting, it must either be sudden, so that the shock of brutal imagery you can't help but envision catches you unprepared and makes you cringe, or be unleashed after a careful buildup, so that you anticipate its arrival long enough for its absence to become excruciating, to the point where you're lusting after it, needing it. Lee Child, the author of Die Trying, is a master of both techniques.
Die Trying is Child's second book featuring Jack Reacher, an ex-Army Military Police major who is everything you want in an action hero and more. He is intimidatingly enormous. He is shrewd to the point of deviousness. He is good, but only when pushed. This is a guy who you just know, from the moment you meet him on the page, is capable of the most horrendous mayhem. And you want to see it, as soon as possible. Child, who is pretty shrewd and devious himself, makes you wait.
In Die Trying, Reacher gets tangled up in a kidnapping he's not supposed to have anything to do with. Gallantly stepping in to help a beautiful woman on crutches who is struggling with her dry cleaning, he puts himself in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. The woman is FBI agent Holly Johnson,andoutside her dry cleaner's she, and Reacher along with her, is forced at gunpoint into the backseat of a car (which has been stolen in the opening scene in a breathtakingly sudden explosion of violence).
Their kidnappers are members of a highly organized neo-Nazi militia conglomerate who want Holly because she is very important to some very important people in the American government, and they have big plans to use her as a bargaining chip in a plot to mount a massive political insurrection. They really don't want any part of Reacher, but they don't quite understand that until they get him back to their Montana compound.
On the trip there, several days' journey in the back of a stolen delivery truck, Reacher's anger has time to fester and build. He has several chances to escape, but he is too calculating to take unnecessary risks. When these moments arrive, the pent-up violence waiting to be released swells off the page. But again and again, you have to wait until finally the driver of the truck steals into the barn where Reacher and Holly are chained to the wall in facing horse stalls for the night. He takes advantage of her injury and the fact that she has only one free hand to viciously beat her into submission, intent on having his way with her. Reacher is ten feet away and bound by a heavy iron chain looped through a ring in the wall. After desperately defending herself and almost defeating her assailant, Holly is conquered. The moment has arrived.
She undid the top button. Reacher counted: one. The driver leered down. Her hand slid to the next button. Reacher tightened his grip again. She undid the second button. Reacher counted: two. Her hand slid down to the third button. Reacher turned square-on to face the rear wall of his stall and took a deep breath. Turned his head and watched over his shoulder. Holly undid the third button. Dark peach brassiere. Skimpy and lacy. The driver shuffled from foot to foot. Reacher counted: three. He exhaled right from the bottom of his lungs. Holly's hand slid down to the fourth button. Reacher took a deep breath, the deepest breath of his life. He tightened his hold on the chain until his knuckles shone white. Holly undid the fourth button. Reacher counted: four. Her hand slid down. Paused a beat. Waited. Undid the fifth button. Her suit fell open. The driver leered down and made a small sound. Reacher jerked back and smashed his foot into the wall. Right under the iron ring. He smashed his weight backward against the chain, two hundred and twenty pounds of coiled fury exploding against the force of his kick. Splinters of damp wood burst out of the wall. The old planks shattered. The bolts tore right out of the timber. Reacher was hurled backward. He swarmed up to his feet, his chain whipping and flailing angrily behind him.
"Five!" he screamed.
What Reacher does to the hapless driver is pretty satisfying, all in all, but it's nothing compared with what happens when his captors get him back to Montana, where a ruthless psychopath named Beau Borken, a huge, hideous, brilliant monster of a man, lives like a god, ruling by fear over hundreds of militia men and women. The FBI, struggling to piece together the kidnapping from scant evidence, believes that Reacher has masterminded the entire thing and has tracked him back to Montana. Borken has some awful plans for both Reacher and Holly, as well as for the country as a whole, but when Reacher gets loose in the compound (it's only a matter of time, but you'll be fidgeting as you wait for it), the pure, unthinkably brutal mayhem he unleashes changes everybody's priorities.
Die Trying starts off brilliantly, gets wilder, and finishes up way over the top. Though the plot becomes a bit too implausible, it's of little consequence it involves you early on, and by the time the heavy artillery starts going off, you only want to see more and more. You're in it for Reacher, for the violence. You want the full theater of pain, and Child gives you everything. This one is definitely worth the price of admission.