Clock's ticking for Jack Reacher

Things don't look good for Jack Reacher.

In the final chapter of "61 Hours," he is scrambling to escape from anunderground bunker that is about to explode. And then it does, inspectacular fashion. We wait for Reacher - all 6 feet 5 inches, 240pounds of him - to stride purposefully out of the flames. But hedoesn't.

The book ends with Susan Turner, a U.S. Army major who has becomesmitten with Reacher through a series of phone calls, waiting by a phonethat never rings.

Has Lee Child killed off his action hero?

This is the 14th book in the Reacher series, so it's plausible theauthor could finally have tired of him. But readers obviously haven't.The series is a publishing phenomenon. If Child killed off Reacher, hispublisher would be the next to go - from a heart attack.

We'll know for sure later in the year, when another Lee Child novel isscheduled to be released.

The popularity of the Reacher series is due largely to its quirky andappealing hero and to the author's talent for sustaining tension onevery page.

Reacher, for the uninitiated, is a former Army military policeman wholives as a nomad, roaming across the United States with nothing but theclothes on his back.

He's a lot like the Lone Ranger, except the latter always went lookingfor trouble. In Reacher's case, trouble always finds him. When he getsinvolved, it's almost always reluctantly.

In "61," Reacher has hitched a ride on a sightseeing bus full of oldfolks cruising across South Dakota. An accident on an icy highwaystrands them all in the little town of Bolton, where most of the folksmake a living working in the big federal prison at the edge of town.

On the other side of town, a biker gang is running a methamphetamineracket out of an abandoned Cold War-era military base. The local policearen't up to dealing with the gang. But the gang, Reacher discovers, isthe least of their problems.

Child uses a countdown, much like TV's "24," to build tension. He startsthe book this way: "Five minutes to three in the afternoon. Exactlysixty-three hours before it happened."

Throughout the book, he keeps the clock ticking. But Child handles thisdevice more effectively than the TV show does.

On the show, you always know what terrible thing could happen within 24hours unless the hero, Jack Bauer, can stop it. But in Child's novel,you don't know, until almost the very end, what's coming. All you knowis that it won't be good, and that time is running out.