Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel in the multiple best-selling series is only about 50 percent concerned with series main character Reacher. The rest of the story revolves around a hapless Canadian redneck couple in their twenties who have maybe been kidnapped (they aren’t quite sure) and are definitely detained, on a trip through New Hampshire to New York City.
Reacher, on a whim, is searching for the childhood home of his dead father, and having little luck. After a run-in with a local rich jerk and his bully son who abuses a waitress at one of Reacher’s beloved diners, he suspects something is rotten in Laconia, or at least in the surrounding countryside, and proceeds to get in people’s faces until he can beat the mystery’s solution out of somebody. As the astute reader will realize almost immediately, the explanation involves a play on that old standby, the plot of “The Most Dangerous Game.”
The couple, Patty Sundrum and Shorty Fleck, start out star-crossed, sullen, and on-the-rocks in their relationship, but develop into a winning and endearing couple by the book’s climactic action tableau. It seems all they really needed was a spate of life-threatening adversity and a crossbow wound or two to bring out the best in each other and in their love life.
As usual in a Reacher book, what the bad guys are up to is total codswallop. As characters, they are reminiscent of those pointillist images people make with Styrofoam cups in the chainlink fences of highway overpasses and high school baseball fields. You can sort of see what the cup artist was getting at if you squint the right way.
But the fights in Past Tense are well set up and quite good. Reacher really beats the snot out of some bullies and kills the crap out of some psycho. Past Tense turns out to be a solid Reacher novel. It’s also a good example of a basic tendency of the series: Child started out a terrible writer, but he’s gotten better.
Child (the pseudonym of British ex-pat and longtime New Yorker James Grant) has developed from a wordy British crank, albeit with a fortunate touch for everyman existentialism, into a decent novelist with more American sensibilities than British. He’s still a crank, but he’s much more an American-style crank these days—with a far greater command of story creation, and a droll, spare prose style that reflects, in lesser form, the example of his hero, the mystery author John D. MacDonald.
A Million Words
I used to tell my fiction writing classes, as a way of gently lowering their often-misplaced expectations, that it takes about a million words for a novelist to get good. This necessary word count is sometimes mitigated by a writer who has experienced hard circumstances early in life, or has gone to war, but it can pretty much be counted on as a rule.
Child perhaps got lucky. He started out a clunky, mostly bad writer who nonetheless had created an intriguing main character that struck a chord with a readership. He understood hard work and had the tenacity to stick with it. Lo and behold, by book ten in the Jack Reacher series, Child had made himself into a really decent writer. A couple of later missteps aside, he’s gotten even better.
What he hasn’t gotten is less politically crazy. Child’s Reacher debut novel, The Killing Floor, is a paint-by-numbers Laborite view of America, down to the oppressive Georgia company town complete with a Boss Hogg and a couple of treacly, deep-souled African-American barbers. The first six books in the series don’t get much better. They are clunky, overwritten, and filled with absolute nonsense about America. Reacher may as well be wandering the landscape of Jon Carter’s Mars.
And the less said about Child’s explanations of how the American military operates, which at times feels derived from half-remembered episodes of Combat!, the better. Where other thriller writers obsess over Clancy-esque technical details and verisimilitude, Child is not afraid to latch onto whatever absurdity will move his propulsive plots forward. There’s a lot of thought-free made-up stuff.
But something odd happens after Book 6, and in the decade it takes to arrive at Book 12, 2008’s Nothing to Lose. Child’s conspiracy-laden plots begin to feel like distinctly American claptrap. By Nothing to Lose, the story might even be said to emerge from authorial familiarity with America, if not real experience. It isn’t a surprise to find that Child has been living in New York for years. Child’s development as a writer tracks with the growth of his fictional main character from a sort of empty vessel into a far richer coastal brig of a protagonist.
Mind you, Jack Reacher is never not a stereotype, a sort of watercolor version of the rich oils of MacDonald’s Travis McGee. But now he’s got the illusion of depth because there are just so many books. It’s like a rock guitar riff that’s got 23 tracks of the exact same notes overdubbed on top of each other.
I mean, Reacher has kicked an opponent in the head with enough energy to send a punted ball out of a stadium in at least ten of the 23 Reacher novels. And in every book there is the tell-tale locution, as clear a maker’s mark as a twist of red detonating wire in a master bombmaker’s production, of Reacher denying he possesses a quality by saying he is “no kind of a—” No kind of a what? Well, take your pick. Driver, Sailor. Tea drinker. He’s no kind of any of those.
The Reacher backstory is as follows: Reacher was a military policeman, a major in the U.S. Army. He went to West Point. He mustered out of the Army in the late 1990s. He’s been traveling since, almost always in the United States.
Reacher arrives in a new setting. He has no baggage, no phone, just the clothes on his back. As he will soon explain, he carries only a comb, an old passport, an ATM card, and a roll of bills in his pockets. He throws his clothes away and buys new ones rather than wash them. Ditto with the toiletries.
He stays in seedy American hotels (strangely owned by local eccentrics instead of Indian-Americans). He eats in nonexistent diners that might as well all be called the Nighthawk Café. He is enormous at over six foot five, unstoppable in a brawl, and possessed of a Holmes-like intelligence which he does his best to keep under wraps, since it is his actual secret weapon. In one book, his former boss at an intelligence agency tags him “Sherlock Homeless.”
Then, somewhere in every Reacher ever, Reacher considers why he is the way he is—an implacable force of nature who happens to be good at wisecracking and puzzling out simple mysteries while pounding his opponents to smithereens—and figures he doesn’t really want to know why. He’s happy living in a Walden-like paradise of simplicity.
He sees everybody else as Thoreau’s farmer, who is huffing and puffing his way down the road pushing a fully stocked barn in front of him and wondering why life is so difficult. It is usually just after Reacher decides he has no intention of changing his ways that the story starts. This is the true struggle in a Reacher novel: The world tries to keep Reacher in one place for a while, and he does everything he can to escape its clutches.
Bad guys are drawn to Reacher like filings to a magnet. They try to hold him back, make him conform, and the main story begins. There’s a confrontation. Reacher displays prowess in brawling. Often he intentionally goes easy on an opponent and doesn’t leave him permanently disabled because he doesn’t know quite yet if the opponent is evil or just plain stupid.
Then the real bad guys show up, and Reacher proceeds to dismantle them and their operation. There are no setbacks. Reacher doesn’t have debilitating flaws or, really, any flaws at all. He is humble, but also realistic. He doesn’t lose fights. Ever.
This would seem to bely the good old Scott Meredith Plot Skeleton, a.k.a. Hollywood’s Three Act Structure, a.k.a. Aristotle’s Poetics, but it really doesn’t. Like Sherlock Holmes, what Reacher is truly up against—the real antagonist—is stasis, the hunter’s boredom while waiting for the prey to arrive. Empathy with suffering victims usually isn’t enough to shift Reacher off course. He needs a mental and physical challenge as well.
One imagines that, were Reacher a real person, there would be loads of Reacher tales where our hero just walks away from an unjust situation that, sadly for the victim, doesn’t sufficiently interest him. The true struggle for Reacher is to find an honorable way to get out of entangling obligations as quickly as possible.
Are there any Reacher novels that are genuinely, well, good, beyond the mystery-thriller genre? Absolutely. Nothing to Lose for instance, is an accomplished and complete novel. Reacher is trying time and again to get into an Eastern Colorado town named Despair and figure out what nefarious stuff is going on there. He keeps getting kicked out and sent to neighboring town Hope.
The allegory is so amusingly heavy-handed even to the main character that the odd situation he’s in becomes far more interesting to Reacher than the bad guys he must face. It’s almost as if he’s stepped onto a salvage yard of metaphors where his own character archetype is for sale. He gets to walk around his literary soul, examine what makes it tick, and kick the tires a bit before comfortably sliding back behind the wheel and annihilating with prejudice the pack of East Colorado yahoos arrayed against him. It’s as if Child has scraped away all the obscuring meat and bones and presented us the white-boned skeleton of the Reacher Story itself.
Unfortunately, the big reveal in Nothing to Lose nearly ruins the book. It’s a preposterous anti-military conspiracy plot combined with a mean-spirited anti-Christian rant. But given that Child more-or-less ruins everything he writes by going didactic, it remains an entertaining and thought-tickling four-fifths of a book.
Make Me (Reacher 20, 2015) is another Reacher where the allegory manages to sing, or at least yodel a pleasant tune, rather than clank like Jacob Marley’s chain. This one is distinguished by amusing jumps up and down the chain of supply and demand in a criminal cartel. As is usual in a Reacher novel, whatever it is that the bad guys are ultimately up to is unqualified bilgewater. Here are some Reacher plot reveals, in no order and not connected to any books by name:
- A plot to conceal a heavily manned Al Qaeda base in an abandoned missile silo in rural Kansas.
- A plot in a George-W.-Bush-era Reacher novel to clandestinely transport disgruntled AWOL American soldiers (who are volunteers these days, Lee!) to Canada, where they can be free, free, free!
- A plot to save a photo of a Taliban leader taken with two friendly American special forces soldiers from hitting the internet and embarrassing him.
- A plot to operate a child trafficking scheme via trucking by a rural gang of organized child molesters. (“OK,” as Reacher would say, this one almost makes sense.)
- A plot to operate a Dark Web service for illegal assisted suicide catering to depressed millionaires and preying on depressed souls’ credit cards.
The list goes on and on. There are currently 23 Reacher novels, plus a slew of short stories and extras.
The Best of the Bunch
Don’t get me wrong; I like Child’s Reacher books a lot. Child’s prose in the later books is spare and effective. Reacher’s moral character is the walking fantasy of many a decent guy: humble, competent, and unbeatable in a fight, cool in crisis, a bit befuddled by the ladies, but having to fend them off nonetheless. He’s a good man who has partially disengaged from society’s hypocrisy.
Where Child’s genius shows is his minute description of Reacher’s day-to-day life. The carefully laying of the clothes under the hotel mattress to press them. The deep appreciation (and critique) of each cup of diner coffee. You want to be a modern-day Roman stoic? This is how you might do it.
But to take Reacher books seriously as novels invites madness. Case in point: there are some very one-track, rabid Reacher fans who have crossed that line. For some, a Reacher novel is the only fiction they have read in years. They have opinions. Like more opinions than Star Wars fans. Opinions founded on the lack of having read any other fiction in their adult lives. Generally, the more of a diehard Reacher fan you are, the more your taste in Reachers becomes benighted.
There are, I’m told (by them), people who actually reread Reacher novels. Multiple times. This is kind of like using the same disposable razor for a decade. I suppose it could be done, but even Child does not want you to suffer like that. That’s why he writes so many of the things. And varies them slightly.
Along with Past Tense, which would make a fine starter Reacher, here are the four best Reacher novels to get you going. As mentioned, the books generally get better the farther along Child is in the series, although there’s no guarantee that Child won’t get bored and take a stroll down memory lane and return to Reacher’s M.P. days in the next novel. In this milieu, Child never fails to deliver a messily befuddled conventional mystery plot (i.e., Night School, Reacher 21, 2016, where we get one of Child’s flashback stories with Reacher serving as an M.P.). Child is no kind of pure mystery writer.
Worse, he might get pressured into writing something socially relevant. The apotheosis of Child’s authorially incongruous politics might be where Reacher deduces that a character’s donation to PETA is proof of his stellar character, although this is a thankfully irrelevant aside that doesn’t otherwise mar the book Bad Luck and Trouble (Reacher 11, 2007).
Unfortunately, politics do wreck much of the painfully off-key Echo Burning (Reacher 5, 2001) where Reacher briefly becomes a cowboy who fights border racism in a Texas of the Euro-wanker imagination. Because if Child does go back to being an authorial British twit, we all know what that would be: no kind of fun.
- Nothing to Lose, (Reacher 12, published in 2008): This may be the purest Reacher. There are not many character details to get in the way. Just a menacing town called Despair, and Reacher steadily obliterating the wrongness and corruption therein by aggression both active and passive. There’s also a nice relationship with a female police officer from the neighboring town of Hope, Colorado.
As mentioned, the story devolves to leftwing bunkum about deserting soldiers. Reacher, an honorably discharged veteran, through convoluted logic only some Ivy League law school prof or a crystal-smoking Antifa street organizer in Portland (are they really that dissimilar?) could grasp, supports the deserters. But the sudden plunge into tommyrot at the end is also quintessential Reacher. At least Child delivers American wacky far-left crapola here, and not the cringe-inducing British Guardian variety that filled the first brace of Reacher books.
- Never Go Back, (Reacher 18, published in 2013): The second Tom Cruise Reacher movie is based on this book. Ignoring the misfire of the Jodie Garber-Reacher romance in the early Reacher novel Tripwire, this is the most intense Reacher romance of the series. Reacher falls for Susan Turner, commander of his old M.P. unit, just from talking to her over the phone. He also forms an attachment with a teenager who may be, but probably isn’t, his daughter.
On the run from the Army military police and the D.C. cops, he saves everyone and beats the crap out of some bad actors and their ex-special-ops minions engaged in a preposterous weapons smuggling ring in the Army. This book contains my favorite passage of Childean prose as Susan Turner describes her impression of Reacher.
“You’re like something feral.”
Reacher said nothing in reply to that. Feral, from the Latin adjective ferus, wild, via bestia fera, wild animal. Generally held to mean having escaped from domestication, and having devolved back to a natural state.
Turner said, “It’s like you’ve been sanded down to nothing but yes and no, and you and them, and black and white, and live or die. It makes me wonder, what does that to a person?”
“Life,” Reacher said. “Mine, anyway.”
“You’re like a predator. Cold, and hard. Like this whole thing. You have it all mapped out. The four guys in the car, and their bosses. You’re swimming toward them, right now, and there’s going to be blood in the water.”
- Make Me, (Reacher 20, published in 2015): Reacher wanders around a small town trying to figure out the origin of its name, Mother’s Rest, but really because something about it sets his Reacher-sense to tingling. He teams up with Michelle Chang, a lovely ex-F.B.I. agent, to root out the rot. The highlight of the book is Reacher’s ongoing psychological warfare with a motel clerk who tries to force him out of his room. It doesn’t end well for the clerk. It’s similar in tone to Nothing to Lose, so I wouldn’t recommend you read these two back-to-back.
- Gone Tomorrow, (Reacher 13, published in 2009): Reacher gets involved in a ludicrous spy plot in New York City, but there is a great deal of wonderfully choreographed mayhem (Child always lays out the schematics of every fight he describes. No deep penetration viewpoint impressionism to puzzle out in a Reacher novel!), a couple of nice relationships Reacher develops with two cops, and a slam bang finale where Reacher takes out a baker’s dozen of terrorists and then faces a nasty and smart female assassin in a knife fight (Reacher, by the way, famously hates knifes. He claims to be no kind of knife-fighter).
Honorable mentions to One Shot, (Reacher 9, 2005), which is almost there, and the basis for the first Reacher movie with its great performance from Robert Duvall playing shooting range owner Gunny Samuel Cash, to The Midnight Line (Reacher 22, 2017) where Reacher develops a very amusing buddy relationship with straight-laced, straight-shooting ex-FBI man Terrence Bramall, and to Worth Dying For (Reacher 15, 2010) where Reacher beats up and breaks the bones of an entire offensive side of Cornhusker alums of the University of Nebraska football team.
The climax is melodramatic hogwash, but more effective than most Reacher finales. This is another book where Reacher is very truculent when asked to vacate his hotel room—and makes those who would evict him pay. Big time.