A new suspense novels set in New England woods grab our attention before we’ve had a chance to blink. Lee Child gives us plenty of entertainment in time for long winter nights.


If “Past Tense” means “beyond intense” then Lee Child’s new thriller is aptly named. His 23rd Jack Reacher suspense novel is a doozy.


Reacher, Child’s ever-vigilant protagonist, is bigger, meaner, smarter, less well fed and more sleep deprived than ever. He doesn’t workout yet he still has, as one foe warily observes, “arms like bags of rocks.” He’s taller than 6-feet, 5-inches with shoes on, his hair sticks out every which way and there are teeth marks embedded in his knuckles. He’s politely sarcastic and he’s agile but ready with a plan, if necessary. He’s one of America’s best-loved protagonists, even when his romancing fails to convince.


“Past Tense” commences with Reacher heading south for the winter, hitching from Maine to San Diego. He makes it as far as Laconia, New Hampshire, when he gets sidetracked by a decision to spend an extra day looking for the family homestead where his father, Stan, was born. This layover is unplanned but like all layovers written by Lee Child, big trouble erupts in no time — with Reacher smack in the middle.


In less than a day he has two sets of brutes on his tail. It begins while he’s sleeping in a B&B. Something awakens him at 3 a.m. It happens again the next night so he investigates and discovers an assault in progress. Naturally he beats the guy up but the guy has a rich father who sends up a squad of battering rams from Boston. The chief of police insists that Reacher take care of business and get out of town. She doesn’t want trouble but quickly intuits what the rest of us know — where there’s Reacher there’s trouble. A second herd of thugs comes after him when they hear he’s trespassing on private land. Naturally he has to set them straight by bending some limbs.


Reacher spends hours researching 80- and 70-year-old census and town records looking for clues as to his family’s life and work in Laconia. By the time Reacher leaves town, he’s both more and less informed than when he began his investigations.


During his inquiries, Reacher meets some real New England characters, among them an old ex-preacher with a scrawny ponytail who lives in the woods and drives a broken-down old Subaru. He is not the usual sort that joins up with Reacher to conquer evil. He’s steadfast in his commitment to helping, too old to even keep up with Reacher when on foot and outwardly undisturbed — or is it unimpressed — with Reacher’s mighty prowess. In other words, he’s a well-drafted Yankee.


A second mystery in “Past Tense” is much more evil, dire and dreadful. A 25-year-old Canadian couple en route to New York City with some valuable cargo gets waylaid in a remote region of outer Laconia. They wind up at a creepy motel full of dubious young men with sadistic tendencies. They are without transportation, encircled by woods and trapped in their room. What starts out as weird and uncomfortable quickly turns very very bad. The young couple, Patty and Shorty, with dispositions like their Yankee counterparts, are not prone to panic. Similar in psychology to Reacher, they wrestle their adrenaline into a slow-drip that gives them time to think. They rely on their hard-won knowhow, their love for each other and teamwork.


This 23rd Reacher novel is lots of fun, especially for those who’ve spent time imagining what lurks in the dark, dense woods. As always, Reacher is totally “the man,” an unrepentant killing machine with a very intact moral compass. He only kills the bad guys. And then he moves on.


Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at rae@raefrancoeur.com.