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Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" series - and an appology to Duffbert

By Andrew Pollack on 02/22/2011 at 07:06 PM EST

In a chat some time back, we were talking about the kind of over-macho crime-drama books that make for good brain candy and travel reading. I'd brought up characters like Lucas Davenport (John Sandford) and and John Corey (Nelson DeMille) who I enjoy for their thick sarcasm and thought patterns unadulterated by modern human resources department filtering. Both authors allow their characters to think all the things we're generally better off filtering out of polite conversation.

Tom recommended I take a look at Jack Reacher (Lee Child). I was looking for a new series and Child is nothing if not prolific so I figured I'd give it a shot via Audible. The series is fully stocked there in unabridged format and read by Dick Hill, one of the best dramatic readers in the business. Here's where I owe Tom the apology -- after reading "Killing Floor" the first, I ripped it apart pretty quickly. I thought the Jack Reacher character was so over the top, the plot so thin and implausible, and the rest of the characters so archetypal that I couldn't begin to compare it with even the solid literally middle ground of John Sandford (who I find almost as lazy as he is fun to read -- "Dell Capslock" indeed). I may have even given it the ultimate slap down and compared with the truly terrible Dan Brown (shudder). For reasons that really aren't very good, I stuck with the series. I'll do that with a mediocre series on audio books because I listen while I'm doing other things; driving, housework, traveling, etc. I'm glad I stuck with it, because over the years he's been writing the Reacher series, Lee Child has become a much better writer. The Reacher stuff isn't going to win any great literary awards, of course, but the writing has gotten fairly good and if nothing else Child has worked hard to avoid the most common mistakes.

Luke warm endorsements aside, let me describe Jack Reacher. The first thing to know is that Reacher is Superman. He's bigger, stronger, smarter, and morally superior to pretty much anyone else in the history of humankind. He pretty much always gets the girl -- and usually fairly early in the book. He's the ultimate B.S.D. on the block, no matter where the block is. He has a strong military police background, but when he walked away from the army he also walked away from virtually all rules and structured society. For absolutely no reason he prefers to spend no more than one or two nights in the same place, registered under a false name, and carrying no baggage other than his folding toothbrush. He wears the same cheap clothes for a few days then buys new ones from a thrift store, discount hardware store rack, or other such place and tosses the old ones away. He claims that all the years in the army left him with no idea how something like "laundering" works and no desire to learn. This is consistent, in its way, with the sort of idiot savant character that Reacher is. He can drive because he drove in the army - but not very well and he's never had a license. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of weapons and tactics but has no idea how a lawn mower works or why anyone would spend time using one. He's been classically educated in schools all over the world thanks to a father who served and subsequent West Point collegiate career. He views owning "stuff" the way a 22 year old frat boy views getting married and the idea of committing to a single city for more than a week seems to give him hives. Early in the series he ends up with a nice house and all the makings of a successful suburban life and can't get away from them fast enough. Reacher prefers to live an entirely itinerant life with as few concessions to modernity as he must - provided they fit in his pockets. He tends to have enough cash to live on, drawing down savings very slowly and occasionally refilling them with the results of unskilled labor or the captured funds from people dumb enough to cross him with their evildoing. In a pinch, he'll simply find some local drug dealing hoodlums and take whatever cash or weapons he needs from them.

While the series itself starts out...weak..it gets better. What's best about it is that it's different from other books in this predictable genre. As long as you're willing to just accept Reacher as Superman and ignore any implausibilities built into that, Lee Child works hard to keep it fresh. The books are essentially dark mysteries and the readers are kept somewhat in the dark as in traditional mysteries while Reacher unravels the threads that local police, FBI, and the Scooby Doo gang have already failed to disentangle. Child tricks you, however, by giving away the next plot twist just soon enough that you feel smart for guessing while at the same time turning nearly every new revelation into a kind of mini cliffhanger. Instead of being frustrated by the sometimes obvious next twist, he keeps you turning pages to see what the oncoming train wreck. The other neat trick Child has in store is that aside from Reacher himself, most of the characters in his books are actually interesting people. Particularly later on in the series, even the bad guys aren't all bad and miracle of miracles the women can think. Child actually seems to have learned to work hard to break stereotypes (except of course with Reacher who is his own stereotype). He's got politicians that are what they seem, he's got honest cops (among dishonest ones) and nearly every book has a strong and intelligent woman (who still manages to need saving, but only because Reacher is there to do it).

So, while not a complete ringing endorsement I take back any comparisons to D.B. (who's name should never be again mentioned in any writing context on this blog) and suggest that if you want to pick up a good series of mindless violent fiction and uber macho super hero mysteries, give this one a try.



There are  - loading -  comments....

re: Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" series - and an oppology to DuffbertBy Chris Miller on 02/23/2011 at 10:45 AM EST
I have kept up with the series using it for flights. It has gotten better and
I appreciate the smartass thinking Reacher has and how he actually tells you he
is about to get into a fight and what the result will be. Including how own
injuries.

Glad Tom got you hooked.
re: Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" series - and an appology to DuffbertBy Gary Wood on 02/25/2011 at 03:12 PM EST
Good review of the series! Like Chris, this is my in-flight entertainment.
Fortunately, I picked it up in the middle of the series so I was able to get
past the minor stumbles of the first book or two when I went back to them.

Reacher's minimalism is something I'm starting to envy...
re: Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" series - and an appology to DuffbertBy don fittipaldi on 12/30/2012 at 07:34 PM EST
I think Lee Child is an excellent writer and while Reacher is a "Superman" he
is so in a personable way. How anyone could cast Tom Cruise for this character
is beyond me.


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