Skeletons in the Reacher Family Closet

lee child past tense


Lee Child learned style from Hemingway. Or maybe from Elmore Leonard or Dashiell Hammett. He writes short, clean, sometimes incomplete but straight-to-the-point sentences. Brief paragraphs, plus almost as short episodic sections consisting of alternating points of view. Except when he writes long action sequences with lots of ands and Reacher did this and that and then his opponents fall down like flies after being sprayed with insecticide. Reacher gets knocked down, too, and instantly he’s back on his feet again. To stay down long means to die.

Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Although the writing is often sparse and minimalist, it’s also detail-rich. Child pays close attention to tiny details, and so does protagonist Jack Reacher.

Past Tense (Delacorte Press/Random House, November 15, 2018) is Child’s 22nd Reacher thriller.

Patty Sundstrom and Shorty Fleck are a Canadian potato farmer and a timber sawmill worker on their way to NYC to sell something valuable enough to raise sufficient capital to start a new life in Florida. When their old car breaks down in the woods near Laconia, NH, not far from where Reacher’s father Stan was born and raised, they plan to spend only one night. Little do they know they might be trapped there for the rest of their lives.

Jack Reacher, walking and thumbing his way across America, sees a sign for Laconia and decides to visit the town where his father allegedly  grew up. Of course, nothing is ever simple in a Jack Reacher novel. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

It’s been said that Reacher walks where angels fear to tread. Whenever he encounters a wrong, he feels duty-bound by his own internal code of honor to set it right. Whenever he finds a bully picking on an underdog, he has to step in. He’s a giant of a man, both literally and figuratively.

And when he gets mad, all hell can break loose.

Those are traits he inherited from his father.

Faithful readers will find many of the elements they expect in a great Reacher novel in the 400 pages of Past Tense: an intriguing  mystery to solve (several, actually); plenty of broken noses and broken bones; bodies piled up like cordwood (some dead, others merely knocked unconscious); a beautiful female cop who proves not only extremely competent but an excellent foil for Reacher to toy with; plenty of bad guys and a few good guys Reacher needs to protect; a realistic threat to life and limb; and a get-out-of-town deadline. What makes Past Tense different, however, is the number of previously-unknown Reachers that may or may not be closely related to Jack.

Like all the other Lee Child novels, I couldn’t put this book down. The dramatic tension and anticipation of violence kept me devouring words. Learning more about the Reacher family was icing on the cake. Highly recommended.


Lee and me at Thrillerfest. I’m the guy wearing glasses.







The Anderson and Crosby family Sagas Revealed:

Or have I told you lately why I still smoke tobacco?

It’s true I descend from a long line of a smokers. My father was a smoker. Dad smoked unfiltered Camels or unfiltered Pall Malls. Both my grandfathers were life-long smokers. My grandpa Charlie was a pipe smoker and Grandpa Bert smoked cigars. Grandpa Charlie and Grandma Stina lived in the same house with me and my parents (they lived downstairs and we lived upstairs) until I was twelve. Stina died at age 76 of a stroke and Charlie died at 86, a few months after Grandma died, of a broken heart. I discovered my grandfather’s unresponsive body when I tried to wake him for breakfast in June of 1956.

I inherited my grandfather’s hand-carved Swedish pipes. My father presented them to me after Charlie’s funeral and told me they belonged to me now. I cherished those pipes and the memories of my grandfather smoking tobacco in each of them. I still own those pipes.

1956 was also the year my father made me give away or burn all of my comic books (including my ECs) because I was too grown-up to be reading comics. I switched to buying sf paperbacks instead of comics. I checked out hardbound novels from the public library. I moved into my grandparents’ room in the basement and built bookcases to house my own library. Almost every penny I earned from my paper routes went into buying paperback books (the rest went into buying Playboy magazines and trashy Men’s Adventure magazines). Eventually, I secretly began buying comic books again, hiding them inside Playboys and Argosys and Equires to smuggle them past my parents. Today I own hardbound collector’s editions of all of the EC horror comics and I am in the process of acquiring hardbounds of the Harvey Horror and ACG reprints.

My father smoked. My mother didn’t. My mother died in her early fifties after botched gall bladder surgery. My father died, of a broken heart, in his mid-sixties. We’ll talk a little more about that later.

My Uncle Bill smoked. My Aunt Hazel didn’t. Hazel died first. She died, as her mother died, of a stroke. Uncle Bill died of a broken heart three years later. Bill continued to smoke, despite severe emphysema or COPD that developed after Aunt Hazel died, until his dying day.

When I met Gretta McCombs, she smoked True Menthol cigarettes and I smoked a pipe. Gretta quit smoking shortly after we were married. I continued to smoke a pipe until Gretta was diagnosed with a heart condition. I quit smoking for more than ten years as Gretta’s heart conditioned worsened. When Gretta died, I was a certified hypnotist who had helped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people stop smoking. I stopped doing hypnosis the year after Gretta died.

The first thing I did, however, after Gretta died of a massive heart attack on January 31, 2012 (after the paramedics and doctors and police officers and the coroner’s examiner left the house and I had helped the lone funeral home employee carry Gretta’s bagged body downstairs and out to the hearse), was walk to the nearest convenience store to buy a package of cigarettes and a lighter. I smoked two Camel cigarettes on the long walk home.

Now let’s go back to when my mother died. I was away at the University of Illinois where I majored in physics (Dr. Dale Compton, the laser researcher, was my faculty adviser) and minored in journalism. I worked nights on the Daily Illini newspaper with Roger Ebert. I had a daily 2-hour radio show on WPGU. I was on the U of I varsity rifle team and we traveled to other Big Ten universities every weekend where we fired in competition. I had no time nor desire to smoke at all in those days.

My father didn’t want to disrupt my education with worries of home, so he deliberately neglected to tell me that my mother was dying. I discovered the fact that my mother had only days to live when I telephoned home person-to-person collect and asked to speak with my mother. I heard my father tell the long-distance operator that my mother was in the hospital and could not accept the call. The operator inquired when my mother would be available, and my father said, “Never. She’s dying.” I told the operator I would pay the charges myself. I talked with my father who broke down in tears and told me everything.

I rushed to catch the next Greyhound bus home. I was able to briefly speak with my mother at the hospital before she lapsed into coma. She passed away two days later.

My father and I commiserated by smoking. I bought a Dr. Grabow briar pipe and a pouch of Cherry Blend smoking tobacco. Dad smoked his Pall Malls and I smoked my pipe. I learned that dad had upped his smoking to four packs a day instead of his usual one pack a day while mom was hospitalized. He did cut back to two packs a day after mom’s funeral. Dad and I rode in an Illinois Central smoking car back to the University so I could take my final exams which began the day after mom’s funeral.

A year later, doctors discovered a spot on my father’s left lung during routine x-rays for his place of employment (Dad worked in a factory and they required annual x-rays). Dad’s doctor advised the removal of the left lung as soon as possible. Of course, that would mean dad could never smoke again. Dad did not want to have the surgery but I talked him into it. I begged and pleaded. I told dad I had lost one parent and did not want to lose another. He had the surgery to please me.

The spot on Dad’s lung proved benign. He didn’t need the surgery after all. But he couldn’t smoke with only one lung. So he began drinking. He blamed me for taking the only joy he had left in his life away from him. I tried to get him interested in dating or reading or doing anything that would occupy his mind. All he wanted to do was drink himself into oblivion.

Dad died at age 64, two months before his sixty-fifth birthday and mandatory retirement from the factory where he had worked for more than forty years (working was the last pleasure dad had in life, and his work soon would be taken away from him, too). He suffered a massive heart attack while shoveling snow from his sidewalks in 1968. I helped the funeral director carry my father’s body out to the hearse.

My father died of a broken heart, and so did Gretta.

Gretta developed her heart condition after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Gretta’s father made Gretta feel guilty for not moving back home to care for her mother, and he continued to harass Gretta after Gretta’s mother died. Gretta internalized the anger her father cultivated. That anger ate her up inside and eventually killed her. I found Gretta dead on the bathroom floor when I awoke on the morning of January 31, 2012.

Internalized guilt and anger are killers. They kill more people than smoking and guns combined.

After Gretta died, I internalized my own guilt and anger. The only things that saved me from self-destruction were smoking and writing.

I was a degreed psychologist and therapist for 20 years. I know a rationalization when I hear it. My reasons for smoking are all just made-up justifications for my emotional attachment to tobacco.

So now you know why I still smoke tobacco and don’t intend to stop. Everyone I loved who didn’t smoke died. Those who smoked died of broken hearts, not from smoking.

The two things that keep my heart from breaking are writing and smoking. Please don’t ask me to quit doing either.

And please do not try to make me feel guilty for smoking. I feel guilty enough already. Guilt leads to anger, and anger kills.