Here is the political context for Lee Child's 2017 thriller The Midnight Line:
....Opioid overdoses have reached crisis proportions nationwide, in urban centers and even more so in rural areas. Over 28,000 people died from these drugs in 2014, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than double the total from a decade earlier. Many who become addicted to doctor-prescribed pain killers such as Oxycontin or Demerol then turn to heroin or synthetic opioid drugs such as fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin. Heroin-related overdoses have nearly quadrupled over the past decade, and last year outnumbered gun deaths.
In 2015 more than 12,000 people died of overdoses in just 10 states — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio — according to the Wall Street Journal. Fentanyl-related deaths across those states soared 128 percent from the previous year to nearly 4,000. Nationwide it rose to 9,580 last year.
In Huntington, West Virginia, with a population of 49,000, local health officials say some 12,000 people are hooked on heroin or another opioid. In a state devastated by the layoff of tens of thousands of coal miners, drug overdose deaths are the highest in the nation.
Pharmaceutical companies promoting opioid pain killer drugs as well as small-scale illicit drug labs producing fentanyl and other synthetic narcotics are reaping big profits while addicted workers pay, in growing numbers with their lives.
The spread of these drugs is tied to the fact that eight years into an official economic "recovery," millions of workers face declining median family income and lack of decent-paying full-time jobs. Today more than 11 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 are not part of the workforce, compared to less than 4 percent in the 1950s....
"Capitalism's toll on workers: Life expectancy falls, opiate use grows"
The Midnight Line by Lee Child (2017).
The Midnight Line finds Jack Reacher wandering around the Great Plains. Lee Child seems to find his best stories here among the banal and modest criminal elements, as well as the banal and modest good people. His 2015 thriller Make Me is probably the best example.
The Midnight Line is about illegal trade in opioids along the I-90 corridor in South Dakota and rural Wyoming. The dramatic spine of the story is Reacher's hunt for the owner of the West Point class ring (Class of 2005.) He buys in it a pawnshop and starts his detective work.
Along the way he meets Rapid City, SD police detective Gloria Nakamura. She is one of Child's proficient, Hawksian women, and she and her department are hunting a local crook with the grandiose name of Arthur Scorpio.
Reacher also meets private investigator and retired FBI agent Terry Brammal. Brammal is snooping briefly on Scorpio, but then heads West, as does Reacher after an "interview" with the crook at his lair of evil, a local laundromat.
….Reacher sat down in the lawn chair next to Scorpio's. He stretched out and got comfortable and stared straight ahead at an inert Maytag. Scorpio was silent beside him. They looked like two old men at a ball game. The sentries stayed on the floor, breathing, but not easily.
Reacher took the West Point ring from his pocket. He balanced it on his palm. He said, "I need to know who you got this from."
"I never saw that before," Scorpio said. "I run a laundromat."
"What have you got in your pockets?"
"You need to take it all out. I'm going to put you in the tumble dryer. Keys or coins might damage the mechanism."
Scorpio glanced at a tumble dryer.
Couldn't help himself.
He said, "I wouldn't fit."
"You would," Reacher said.
"I never saw that ring before."
"You sold it to Jimmy Rat."
"Never heard of him."
"Where I set the temperature dial is up to you. We'll start on delicates. Then we'll turn it up. Someone told me it goes all the way to where it can kill a bedbug."
Scorpio said nothing.
"I understand," Reacher said. "You're Mr. Rapid City. You're the man. You got a bunch of networks running. Which is your problem. Maybe they're all interconnected. In which case, one question might lead to another. The whole thing might unravel. You can't afford for that to happen. Hence the stone wall. I get it. Perfectly understandable. Except you need to remember two very important things. Firstly, I don't care. I'm not a cop. I don't have another question. And secondly, I'll put you in the tumble dryer. So you're between a rock and a hard place here. You need to get creative. You ever read a book?"
"About the moon landings."
"That's called non-fiction. There's another kind, called fiction. You make stuff up, perhaps to illuminate a greater central truth. In your case, maybe you could tell me a story about a poor homeless man, maybe from out of town, who came in to launder his clothes, except he had no money, nothing at all except a ring, which you reluctantly traded for a couple of hot-wash cycles and a couple of dryer loads, plus enough left over for a square meal and a bed for the night. All out of the kindness of your generous heart. Detective Nakamura couldn't argue with that. It would be a fine story."
"I would have to admit selling the ring to Jimmy Rat."
"Which was perfectly legal. You run a laundromat. You carry quarters to the bank. You don't know what to do with a ring. Fortunately a guy passing by on his motorcycle offered to buy it from you. Not your fault he turned out to be a bad guy. You're not your brother's keeper."
"You think that's a good enough story?"
"I think it's a fine story," Reacher said again. "Just as long as you happen to remember the out-of-towner's name."
"Out of state," Scorpio said. "That's exactly what happened. More or less. Some broke guy came in from Wyoming. I helped him out."
"Six weeks ago, maybe."
"From where in Wyoming?"
"I believe a small town called Mule Crossing."
"What was his name?"
"I believe it was Seymour Porterfield. I believe he told me people call him Sy."
The utter poignancy of what Reacher finds in Mule Crossing, WY, and the wrongs he sets out to understand and put right, make for an ambitious tale. Child never lets us lose our geographical and narrative bearings.
21 April 2018