Lee Child keeps the Reacher ball in the air (again)

Don’t believe the advance reviews that have claimed the new Lee Child novel “61 Hours” (Delacorte Books) — in stores tomorrow — ends with a “cliffhanger” or, God forbid, with the end of the writer’s phenomenally successful series character Jack Reacher.

A careful reading of the last few pages of the novel will reveal (subtly) that Reacher has survived to fight another day, but Child keeps the jeopardy quotient high until the very end and rings some changes on the ex-military policeman at the center of the series.

The different buzz surrounding “61 Hours” is due to an unprecedented — for the series — announcement in the back of the novel, “Want to Know What Happens Next?,” noting that a second Reacher book will appear in 2010 (publication date Oct. 19).

Child has been on a book-a-year schedule since his debut novel, “Killing Floor,” set Reacher loose and won virtually every crime fiction prize.

What makes “61 Hours” slightly different from its predecessors is that we learn more about Reacher’s life in the military — before he became a nomad who keeps finding himself sucked into other people’s problems — and there are much higher emotional stakes in what happens to our hero after he finds himself stranded in South Dakota (in the middle of a blizzard).

Part of the fun of the Reacher novels has been in the way Child created a terrific character that we know so little about — and the way he keeps turning the odometer back to zero so that new readers don’t feel they are missing anything by starting in the middle of a “series.”

Every novel has started in virtually the same droll manner.

The prematurely retired Reacher — who has no home address and wanders the country with only a portable toothbrush and an ATM card — is minding his own business, trying to get from point A to point B, when his finely tuned antennae tell him something terrible is about to happen or he runs into some good people who need his help from very dark forces.

Through 14 stories, Child has been something of a literary master juggler who has kept the ball in the air book after book.

Readers and fellow writers marvel at the way the novelist has taken this seemingly simple premise and come up with one of the most entertaining thriller series characters since Ian Fleming created James Bond.

The Reacher books deliver can’t-put-it-down suspense that is almost magical in its simplicity — Reacher finds himself in an unexpected jam (always much bigger than it appears to be in chapter one) and then works his way out of it.

The new one begins with one of Child’s most amusing set-ups — Reacher joins a senior citizen bus tour traveling across the frigid plains — but it evolves into a story with real emotional consequences for the man. The author appears to be tweaking the series slightly, but without taking anything away from the books’ tremendous entertainment value.

Joe Meyers