Last month I experienced a first since starting this site: in the craziness of launching City of Darkness, I accidentally missed my monthly blog post. It’s time to make that up, so in the spirit of breaking rules (in this case my self-imposed rule of one blog a month), let’s talk about a man who sets his own rules. Let’s talk about Jack Reacher. I read my first Jack Reacher novel while en route to the Republic of Palau, courtesy of Delta Airlines. It’s a trip that can take up to thirty hours, once you factor in all of the connections, and like Reacher I found myself drinking a lot of coffee during that time.
I read a lot of books in a lot of genres. My bookshelf includes Douglas Adams, Richard Adams, Isaac Asimov, Terry Brooks, Jim Butcher, Miguel Cervantes, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, David Eddings, Steven Erikson, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, Brian Jacques, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, C.S. Lewis, Cormac McCarthy, Brandon Sanderson, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, and Tad Williams, at a quick glance. Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher novels, is really, really good at what he does. Yes, it is modern detective pulp, the successor to early twentieth-century dime novels—few to none of which are destined for lasting greatness—but Lee Child does it so damn well. While genre fiction is often derided by literary critics, the truth is that every genre has both its highest and its lowest common denominators (for every Bleak House or Don Quixote, there are a dozen literary novels that fell fall short of their author’s aspirations). Fantasy fiction, my favorite genre, often takes the brunt of this criticism, some of which is fair, but then along comes a writer like Steven Erikson who can write the equivalent of a Shakespearean epic with wizards.
Similarly, though Lee Child writes in a field featuring many works of unquestionable success but questionable quality, he has managed to succeed on both fronts of success and quality. He writes write hard-boiled action thrillers that are told with a captivating, authentic voice and with clarity of prose. On a technical level, Child’s writing works because it follows Rule 17 of Strunk and White’s Principles of Composition: Omit needless words. The road to hell is paved with adjectives and adverbs, yet we see them in fiction all the time:
- “Hide from the T-Rex!” he shouted, running away quickly. (Sorry, I thought he was going to run slowly from the tyrannosaur)
- “My luxury yacht cost five million dollars,” she said, smiling happily. (Good clarification, because when I smile, I am usually pissed off)
And don’t get me started on descriptors of dialogue:
- “That hurt!” he yelped. (Is the speaker a person or a Labrador retriever?)
- “Don’t make an enemy of me,” she grated. (Like with a cheese grater?)
- “Damned tootin’ robbers!” he ejaculated. (Please, just please, consider what you just wrote)
Minimalism is a guideline, not a rule, for writing—there are cases where it helps to flesh out a scene, to give it substance—but as a general rule less is often more. One of the first things I noticed about Child’s writing is how efficient it is beneath the hood. It is functional. It is direct. Like Reacher himself. In a genre that mandates keeping the reader in a perpetual state of suspense, Child’s prose acts like a slick machine, cutting out the bells and whistles in order to propel the story forward. Writing good prose is like driving a vehicle with a manual transmission: it requires a subtle mastery of the underpinnings to be done effectively. When operating a vehicle’s stick shift, you need to consider the clutch, RPMs, gearshift, accelerator, and brake; when writing, you need to consider syntax, punctuation, paragraph structure, and line breaks. In the aggregate, these minor details make the difference between ‘passably written’ and ‘well-written’. Many successful genre writers such as James Patterson and David Baldacci fall in the former category, but Child is firmly in the latter.
The other ingredient that makes the Reacher books tick is the character himself. Reacher, like the famous YouTube honey badger, does what he wants. He represents the archetype of the old western gunslinger, the roving loaner who rides into a town with a problem, fixes said problem, and rides away at the end. He is the Shane of the twenty-first century. Whereas most of us lead lives with far too many commitments, Reacher has no commitments: no mortgage, no rent, no spouse, no children, no job. While all of these attributes could be portrayed as undesirable traits—the dude has no house and no paycheck?—Child inverts those stereotypes and makes them the key ingredients to Reacher’s success. Yes, at the end of the day Jack Reacher is a drifter, but so was Rambo. He is free to do as he wishes, which is namely help people in need and deliver an old-fashioned kind of justice to those who deserve it.
In that last regard—delivering justice—the Jack Reacher novels tap into a fundamental notion that resonates with many readers. As I’ve mentioned before in previous blogs, the reason action and adventure fiction works is that it allows us to experience a form of “safe stress”. When we watch Vin Diesel drive a muscle car out of an airplane in mid-flight, we experience an enjoyable adrenaline rush while safely ensconced on our couches. Horror films work the same way: we experience the thrill associated in running away from a masked, knife-wielding murderer while our own selves remain free from harm (check under the bed, though). In a similar vein, the Jack Reacher novels allow us to experience a form of “safe vigilantism”. There are some terrible people in this world who do terrible things, and yet because society follows the completely appropriate and civil practice of due process, real-life villains are read their rights, granted a lawyer, and given a trial by jury in which they may walk free. Now, to be clear, I am wholly in favor of due process. The Bill of Rights is a magnificent thing. We are incredibly fortunate to live by a standard of innocent until proven guilty. However, in Jack Reacher’s fictional world, we get to indulge in the fantasy of a more primal form of justice. The bad guy is not going to get read his rights—instead, Jack Reacher will hunt him down and place a lead round in his head (and he will deserve it, and it will be satisfying). In a world of TV shows where we see villains and antiheroes getting away with horrible things (Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, The Handmaid’s Tale), Jack Reacher permits us a more purist form of escape. Some manipulative, conniving bastard named Littlefinger is going to pull strings behind the scenes and betray the hero? No problem. Reacher will break his jaw.
One of my favorite excerpts from Child’s work is from the novel 61 Hours, because I think it perfectly encapsulates Reacher’s character and the flavor of the work. In the segment, Reacher, a 6’5” individual, is trapped in an underground bunker with a 4’11” man named Plato. Plato has done some fairly nasty stuff, including orchestrating the murder of an elderly woman whom Reacher was attempting to protect. Because the ceiling in the bunker is very low, Reacher’s height, which usually works to his advantage, is instead placing him at a distinct disadvantage. Still, when presented with a situation in which Reacher might have the lower hand, the dialogue between the characters reads as follows:
“Who are you?” [Plato asked.]
“I was a friend of Janet Salter’s.” [Reacher replied.]
“Do you think you can beat me?”
Reacher called back, “Do you think bears shit in the woods?”
“You think you can beat me down here?”
“I can beat you anywhere.”
The Reacher novels, like the character himself, waste no time on fluff. They are direct and to the point:
- You have a town (or person) with a problem.
- You have a bad guy (or gal) causing that problem.
- And then you have Reacher.
Guess who will win? The answer is always Reacher.