Its been seven years since Reacher left the military. He's in New York a city he likes 'more than most places. He liked the casual indifference of it all and the frantic hustle and the total anonymity'. Over his morning coffee he witnesses a ransom handover. The ransom has been paid by one Edward Lane, Colonel (retd.), currently head of Operational Security Consultants. In Lane's service are former special forces soldiers - Marines, Delta Force, Seals, SAS; and in the general course of business OSC provides the government with plausible deniability overseas. However since none of the former soldiers witnessed what happened with the ransom money, Reacher is invited to elaborate on what he saw.
Lane's wife (Kate) and daughter (Jade) have been kidnapped. He pays the ransom but his family isn't returned, and this isn't the first time it happened. His first wife Anne was also kidnapped five years ago. That time he brought in the police yet Anne ended up murdered. He doesn't intend to make the same mistake twice and tries to recruit Reacher.
In the background Anne's sister Patti Joseph has her suspicions and keep Edward Lane under supervision through the watchful eyes of private detective Lauren Pauling (ex-FBI). From a distance Lauren watches Reacher move in and out of Lane's place. She too weighs involving him in her investigation. Reacher deals with his suspicions over two conflicting versions of events and simultaneously tries to recover the hostages. The Hard Way involves a lot of non-violent investigation for the most of the book; violence picks up in the last 100 pages or so with some disturbing crimes of war thrown in.
Reacher practices his ability to tell time accurately without using a watch, and he reacts to the wonders of text messaging. The book also has Reacher ruminating over his capacity for dealing with violence and conflict - 'He wasn't surprised. Surprise was strictly for amateurs, and Reacher was a professional. He wasn't upset, either. He had learned a long time ago that the only was to keep fear and panic at bay was to concentrate on the job at hand.' and 'He was calm. Just another night of business as usual in his long and spectacularly violent life. He was used to it, literally. And the remorse gene was missing from his DNA. Entirely. It just wasn't there. Where some men might have retrospectively agonized over justification, he spent his energy figuring out where best to hide the bodies.'