Life after 24 -- the addictive action thriller which first aired less than two months after 9/11 and bade its audience farewell Monday night -- will be challenging.
But take heart.
There's another fictional Jack every bit as stoic and heroic as 24's Jack Bauer. And perhaps in a valedictory nod to the Fox TV series, Lee Child's new Jack Reacher novel 61 Hours counts down each hour while disaster looms for the bitter-cold South Dakota town he's passing through.
The two Jacks have much in common. Both are loners. Both are master strategists. Both can perform comic-book-level feats of strength and endurance without the benefit of superpowers. Both can function brilliantly under great physical and emotional pain. Both are honorable men who do terrible things, but mostly to bad people who deserve it. Neither smiles much, let alone laughs. And both are babe magnets, though neither can make a love connection last beyond the crisis at hand.
But Reacher fascinates more because his isolation isn't metaphorical. He has no home, no family, no ongoing relationships, no cell phone and no possessions. He buys a new set of generic clothes every few days, and earns pocket money via odd jobs as he randomly drifts from place to place, encountering more troubles than Job and more liaisons than Ricky Nelson's Travelin' Man.
A key character in 61 is a South Dakota snowstorm so pervasive and beautiful it makes the landscape of Fargo seem like a vacation at the Equator. It's so bitter-cold the characters risk frostbite every time they step outside. The 6'5" Reacher -- a stranger to these climes who has to borrow a coat -- must save the small town of Bolton from the clutches of the 4'11"drug-dealing, murderous Plato, as sadistic a villain as anyone 24 has served up.
The book departs from the 13 earlier tomes in the series in that there's little violence and no sex. Instead, we get writerly detail about the wintry landscape, the minutiae of various weapons and the chessboard strategies of the players, including an unnamed Russian gangster every bit as diabolical as Plato.
We also learn that Reacher -- who has always seemed virtually impervious to fear -- was born as scared as the rest of us. But by a self-described "act of will" at age four, he managed to turn fear and guilt into aggression. Now he says things like, "I'm not afraid of death, death's afraid of me." A true rogue before Sarah Palin ruined that word, Reacher doesn't go through channels. He made a veg out of an unethical General, but Amanda, his brilliant, beautiful romantic interest says, "That guy deserved to be in a coma. Maybe forever."
Without giving anything away, it's safe to say that the ending is less formulaic than in earlier Reacher tales, and it leaves us craving the next chapter. Which, fortunately for Reacher and Bauer junkies alike, will arrive in the Fall.
Some say 24 has charted the course of Americans' fears since 2001. Its early seasons made Islamic terrorists the bad guys and condoned torture via the "ticking clock" theory. More recently, there's been a wider variety of villains, more negotiating and some Middle Eastern good guys. And while torture is still very much on the table, there's at least an argument about it.
Of course, The Right is still trying to use 24 to its political advantage. Chuck DeVore, a candidate for the Republican nomination for Barbara Boxer's U.S. Senate seat, has a new Web video stating that Jack Bauer would support him for Senate. Attempts to reach Reacher for his nod were reportedly unsuccessful.
For those who argue that shows like 24 and books like 61 Hours foster real-life violence, consider this: also on Monday the FBI reported that crime in America -- including violent crime -- has declined in each of the past three years, despite the worst economy in generations.
Rumor has it there'll be a 24 movie, but maybe a better idea would be to put Bauer and Reacher in the same flick and call it The Two Jacks. Jack Nicholson, are you listening?