Lee Child

Echo Burning

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Echo Burning Summary

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The fifth book in the Jack Reacher series, Lee Child’s thriller Echo Burning (2001) concerns the series’ eponymous protagonist, a policeman in the American West who formerly served most of his life in the military. Now free from the jarring experiences of combat, he travels the country he served to protect, acting as a vigilante. Without a real home, he is more of a drifter, never staying in one place for long. One day, a woman named Carmen picks him up during one of his hitchhiking journeys, and he finds himself involved in a complicated murder-kidnapping plot with a greedy villain. In solving the mystery, Reacher learns that he cannot trust anyone, including himself, as the ultimate arbiter of justice.

The novel begins in the middle of a brawl in a Texas saloon. After being repeatedly antagonized by a crude bully, Reacher smashes his nose and finger. The next day, Reacher returns to the saloon, continuing an alcohol binge. The bully, a cop working in the local area, arrives with three other policemen, intent on arresting him. Reacher escapes the saloon and makes it to the edge of a highway. There, he rushes to find a driver that will allow him to hitchhike his way to safety before the cops find him. A vehicle pulls over, and Carmen Greer, a Mexican-American woman emerges. She tells Reacher that she stopped, not because she wants to help him, but because she expects her husband to get out of prison soon after being hit with tax evasion charges. An incorrigible domestic abuser, she knows he will go right back to beating her up just like before.

Carmen reveals that she has been trawling the desert looking for someone to help her kill him; she considers Reacher a good candidate due to his military experience. Reacher refuses at first, jumping out of the car into the sweltering Texan heat. Realizing he is doomed without help, he gets back in, letting her take him back to her ranch. Carmen previously lived there with her husband, Sloop Greer, but it is now occupied by other members of Sloop’s family. Still refusing to work as Carmen’s personal assassin, Reacher promises to investigate the situation and help guard her and her family. He and Carmen drive to retrieve Ellie, Carmen’s daughter, who immediately gets along with him.

Two simultaneous narratives are suddenly introduced. In one, a party of onlookers, including two adult men and a boy, is keeping watch on Carmen’s ranch. In the other, a group of three hitmen, one woman and two men, ambush and kill the onlookers under orders from their mutual boss after murdering a lawyer named Al Eugene, who won Sloop’s exit from prison.

Arriving at the ranch,  Reacher and Carmen receive an unfriendly welcome from Sloop’s mother and the two ranchers employed there. Reacher convinces the family to employ him as a wrangler, and he shows Carmen how to use a gun. The Sloop’s family becomes more inhospitable, ordering the ranchers to kill Reacher. He knocks them both out and goes back to the house unscathed. Sloop suddenly arrives, back from prison. Accusing Reacher of trespassing, he gets the Texas Rangers to arrest him. On the way to the police station, the Rangers get a call that a shootout has occurred at the house and turn the car around. There, they find Sloop dead. The police find a gun and charge Carmen with his murder.

When Carmen is in jail, she is assigned a pro bono attorney Alice Amanda Aaron. Despite Alice’s attempts to help, Carmen strangely announces that she is guilty of the crime. Suspicious of this sudden self-defeating act taken without consulting Reacher or Alice, the latter two investigate further. They discover that the now-deceased Sloop and his accomplices, Hack Walker, the local DA, and Eugene, the lawyer who was killed, were trying to cover up the murder of a number of illegal immigrants. Hack, who planned the murders to boost his chances of winning the election, has told Carmen to confess, threatening to kill Ellie. Reacher ambushes two of Hack’s hitmen, killing them. He finds Hack at the ranch. In the ensuing fight, the house is lit on fire; as it burns, Sloop’s mother kills Hack. He manages to find Ellie and her captor at a motel, taking him out as well.

The novel ends as Reacher says goodbye to Carmen and Ellie, preparing to move on out of Texas. Having learned from the brutality of the Texas criminal underworld, Reacher learns also of his own flaws: his capacity to trust the wrong people and the limits of his power as a vigilante. Echo Burning is thus a meditation on the limits of the protagonist in understanding and navigating a chaotic and deceiving reality.