This blogger just finished the 21st Jack Reacher novel and he has read and enjoyed all of them. Thanks to this review essay, this blogger will add Andy Martin's explication of Lee Child's ouvre to his Kindle queue. If this is (fair & balanced) admiration of a fictional present-day Spartan, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By John Lanchester
TagCrowd cloud of the following piece of writing
All fiction depends on what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” the reader’s decision to put the argumentative, quibbling part of his mind into neutral and go along for the narrative ride. The suspension is voluntary, though not necessarily conscious; it’s not as if you reach up and toggle a setting in your brain. Rather, as readers, we usually fight the story a little bit at the beginning, while we’re getting our ear in; then we submit, and are carried along by the flow, unless something happens to jolt us out of it. If something makes our disbelief become unsuspended—one implausibility too many, a series of narratorial bum notes—then the whole fiction comes crashing down.
This isn’t the same thing as aesthetic judgment—deciding whether a book is good as a work of art. The question is not “Is it good?” but “Is this for me?” Most readers have their own standards for how much implausibility they can handle. Mine is something that I call the Superman test: Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?
The test doesn’t apply only to genre fiction, and it’s also the case that the point of maximum unlikeliness can be one of the best things about a fictional world. In Hilary Mantel’s wonderful novels about Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist’s consciousness, perceptions, and psychology are entirely those of a modern man. This is wildly ahistorical, but for me and millions of other readers it both passes the Superman test and is a big part of what makes the books so enjoyable, and the main character so easy to like (as the real-life Cromwell, apparatchik and bureaucrat and religious ideologue, definitely wasn’t). Gone Girl? Amazing Amy, perfect daughter and wife turned evil psycho and would-be murder-suicide, is only slightly less unlikely than the flying Kryptonian in tights, but the portrait has such glee and brio that, again, millions of us go along for the ride. On the other hand, I found the cascading sequence of horrors inflicted on Jude in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life not too much to bear but too much to swallow—though a huge audience found a lot to like in the story of a baby abandoned beside the trash who grew up to be raped in a monastery before being variously kidnapped, raped again, pimped out, tortured in a basement, and crippled by being deliberately run over, en route to a lifetime of self-harm and eventual suicide. Fun!
One of the great pleasures of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels is the immensely accomplished manner in which he balances wish-fulfilling fantasy and earthbound detail. The element of wish fulfillment is embodied in the figure of Reacher himself. He is a six-foot-five-inch former military policeman, whose weight fluctuates between two hundred and twenty and two hundred and fifty pounds, none of it flab. (This is one reason that hard-core Reacher fans didn’t fall in love with the character’s cinematic portrayal by Tom Cruise, who has many virtues as an actor, none of which include being the same size as an N.F.L. linebacker.) Why a military policeman? The explanation comes early in the first Reacher novel, Killing Floor, from 1997:
A military policeman deals with military lawbreakers. Those lawbreakers are service guys. Highly trained in weapons, sabotage, unarmed combat. Rangers, Green Berets, marines. Not just killers. Trained killers. Extremely well trained, at huge public expense. So the military policeman is trained even better. Better with weapons. Better unarmed.
The implication is that if members of Navy seal Team 6 get a little frisky Reacher is the guy who’s sent to make them simmer down. Reacher isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon, often via the forensic question “How would you do it if you were the bad guy?” He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents, confident in his maxim that “two against one is never a problem.” All the Reacher novels feature a climactic combat, sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength or inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above. The bad guy seems impossible to defeat, but Reacher always defeats him. In Child’s new novel, Night School (2016), Reacher gets into a fight with a large group of neo-Nazis, and dispatches the first seven of them with no difficulty, needing a little help only with the eighth and final one. [See all Lee Child novels here.]
We’re verging on Superman territory here. Yet a number of things conspire to ground the novels in reality. One of them is that the unlikeliness is enjoyable: Child has a great time with Reacher’s invulnerability, and is a good enough writer to make us enjoy it, too. The prose is crisp and clean, and the fighting is realistic within its implausibility. Reacher’s strength might be hard to believe, but when bone hits bone, when arms and faces are broken, when villains are choked to death, it feels real. Here’s a moment from the big fight in Night School, with Reacher wielding a baseball bat:
The guy brought his arm up to protect his head, and the bat caught his elbow, and his triceps, which impact smashed the heavy bone of his upper arm backward into the point of his jaw, where his neck met his skull. Which dropped him to his knees, but the lights stayed on. So Reacher swung again, this time properly right-handed, probably good enough for nothing more than a fly ball at a July Fourth picnic, but more than adequate against human biology. The guy rocked sideways and then flopped forward on his face.
Not pretty—but it’s not trying to be. The “more than adequate” is a clue to Reacher’s psychology: he is aiming to do maximum damage. He’s a good guy who is, with his penchant for violence, very close to being a bad guy. His code is chivalric, in the sense that he fights on behalf of the good; sometimes this means the weak and the wronged, sometimes this means the US government or its proxies. His actions, though, are as unchivalric as they come. He executes opponents, kicks people when they’re down. If he gets a chance to shoot someone in the back rather than the front, he takes it. He may be a hero, but he’s a realist, too.
Any new Reacher novel fits within a grid well known to Child’s readers. There are first-person stories, narrated by Reacher himself (Killing Floor, Persuader, Gone Tomorrow, and three others), and third-person stories (the bulk of them). There are novels set during his Army career (The Enemy, The Affair) and novels set in the present, after Major Reacher’s honorable discharge, in 1997 (the bulk of them). There are recurring tropes and themes. The novels roam across America, with a notable affection for places in the middle, for big, blank landscapes, for small towns where no one apart from Reacher ever wants to stop. He visits rural Nebraska, rural South Dakota in winter, back-country Texas in summer. He likes communities that, to outsiders, seem nowhere in particular. Child is a poet of diners and motels, venues that capture an itinerant’s view of America. He dramatizes the lives you glimpse through a bus window, the glance into warm buildings from the cold outdoors. According to Graham Greene, Henry James once said that “a young woman with sufficient talent need only pass the mess-room windows of a Guards’ barracks and look inside in order to write a novel about the Brigade.” The Reacher novels often have that feeling, of being constructed around half-longing insights into the lives of others.
The writer whom Child most recalls, in this respect, is Georges Simenon, whose Maigret novels are the work of a man who travelled around France observing strangers and their mysterious routines. Simenon spent a lot of time in the kinds of places where travellers spend time. As a result, he set entire novels in cafés and bars, in fuggy interiors populated by secretive regulars, where the detective is an intruder. Readers find it easy to identify with this perspective: we ourselves are outsiders peeking into another world, like Reacher or Maigret.
Reacher’s character is defined by one startling device: he has no home and no belongings. He is a permanent wanderer, hopping from town to town with no aim in mind, and the novels are the story of the trouble he finds. Not only does he own nothing; he carries nothing. He doesn’t even have a bag. Clothes? He buys a new set every few days. (On the issue of Reacher’s underwear, it’s best if we just don’t go there. A 2011 survey by Clorox found that one in eight American men fails to change his underpants daily.) He is an existential hero, the apotheosis of the lone stranger, travelling the Lower Forty-eight with nothing but his folding toothbrush and his code.
Here again is the shift from implausibility to something that feels real. The alienated, possessionless freedom of Reacher has a core of emotional truth. It’s clear from the books that Reacher pays a high price for his freedom; he is lonelier and more isolated than he realizes. There is almost always a romantic interlude—“love interest” wouldn’t be the right way of putting it, but Reacher’s affairs do involve liking and lust and the not quite acknowledged appeal of a softer life. His version of freedom challenges the Superman test, but the yearning it expresses feels real. If you learn a little about the life of his creator, you’ll find a hint as to why.
When Lee Child began writing the books, he wasn’t Lee Child; he was an English television exec named Jim Grant, about to be laid off from his work at a provincial TV company in the northwest of England. Grant knew that he was going to be sacked, so on September 1, 1995, he went out and bought three notepads and a pencil, and used them to work on the book that was to become Killing Floor—and he has begun work on a new novel on the anniversary of that day every year since. In the course of those twenty-one years, the Midlander Jim Grant has become the US thriller writer Lee Child, whose creation, Jack Reacher, has topped the New York Times best-seller list eleven times. It is an extraordinary story of reinvention, and it is, perhaps, a clue to the emotional armature of Reacher—a character who, to his creator, is very real. “When he writes,” the scholar Andy Martin has observed, “he goes into a ‘zone’ in which he really believes that the nonexistent Jack Reacher is temporarily existent.” As Child puts it, “The novels are really reportage.” If this were a proposition in logic, you would say that Lee Child is to Jim Grant as Jack Reacher is to Lee Child: the incarnated idea of freedom.
Within that freedom, the Reacher novels are variations on a set of themes: “the same but different,” as Child says. One of the books’ great pleasures is following Reacher’s turns of thought. Set-piece fight scenes are one of the fixed points of Child’s work; the other is its opposite, Reacher’s thought processes as he figures out who the bad guys are and what’s going on. That’s the usual setup: we know that something is happening, but we don’t know exactly what, and we don’t know who’s behind it.
It’s hard to convey just how seductive following Reacher’s thought can be. This is the appeal of most good detective fiction, from Sherlock Holmes on, but there aren’t many writers who have made the process seem as real, as close to actual thinking, as Child has. A hint of how he does it came last fall, in the form of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me (2015), by the aforementioned Andy Martin, an academic from the University of Cambridge with an unusual portfolio of interests (he has published books on surfing, existentialism, Jules Verne), which includes being a Lee Child superfan. Martin persuaded Child to let him sit in on the writing of his previous novel, Make Me, and the upshot was that he literally sat there, in the room, while Child was writing the book. He was there on September 1st, when Child index-finger-typed its very first lines:
Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy. It was like trying to wrestle a king-size mattress off a waterbed. So they buried him close to the house. Which made sense anyway. The harvest was still a month away, and a disturbance in a field would show up from the air. And they would use the air, for a guy like Keever.
Reading the opening as it was being written, Martin asked Child a question: Who is Keever? Child’s answer: “I’ve no idea at this point.” Here we get the stupefying, almost impossible-to-credit explanation of how Child captures the texture of Reacher’s thinking: because it’s his thinking, too. He isn’t giving the impression that he’s figuring out a mystery; he’s actually figuring out a mystery. In Martin’s account, Child was about two-thirds through the writing of Make Me before he realized what the bad guys were doing.
Zadie Smith has written about the distinction, among novelists, between Macro Planners, who lay out the structure of a story in advance, and Micro Managers, who make it up as they go along, and whose novels “exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line.” Child is the epitome of the second type of novelist. Speaking as the other sort, I have to say that, to me, Martin’s revelations were dumbfounding. I can just about see how a literary novelist, writing in an open-ended form, might invent his book from day to day. But a thriller writer, obliged to deliver a tight plot, the requisite number of twists and showdowns and set pieces, along with a sufficiently difficult but satisfyingly resolved mystery? It just doesn’t seem possible. If I hadn’t seen the evidence that Child has done it twenty-one times, I wouldn’t have believed it.
A Reacher enthusiast who has read Reacher Said Nothing will have one expectation in particular for the new novel. Martin notes that Child was thinking about an “enjambment,” the lit-crit term for a phrase in a poem that runs over into a second line. (The twentieth century’s best-known example is probably T. S. Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land. . . .”) He meant that the story of the new novel might pick up where the old one left off. The Reacher novels tend not to flow from one to the next but to be self-contained and discrete, with a new predicament and a new location every time. This can be frustrating; 61 Hours, for instance, left Reacher battered and sprinting to escape from a storage facility twenty stories underground, where five thousand gallons of jet fuel are about to explode. As the book ends, we don’t even know for sure if he’s alive. The next time we meet him, at the start of Worth Dying For, he’s in Nebraska, and heads straight into righting another set of local wrongs, apparently without a backward glance—which is disconcerting, if you read the books one after another, as addicted readers might well do. It’s as if we readers were paying more attention to what happened to Reacher than he was.
Make Me seemed to promise some real continuity. Reacher, recovering from a head injury and a brutal shoot-out, climbed into the car with Agent Chang, his co-investigator and sorta love interest, and headed west, “with the road running straight on ahead of them through the wheat, forever, until it disappeared in the golden haze on the far horizon, at that point as narrow as a needle.” It looked as if we might meet Chang again, and would finally have that enjambment we’ve been waiting for.
Nope. Night School is set in the past, in 1996, not long before Reacher leaves the Army (as we know but the characters don’t). Luckily, the setup is so effective that we don’t have time to grieve over the romance with Agent Chang. Opening sentence: “In the morning they gave Reacher a medal, and in the afternoon they sent him back to school.” Reacher, freshly returned from assassinating a couple of bad guys in the Balkans, is sent on a training course with the deliberately snooze-inducing title “Impact of Recent Forensic Innovation on Inter-Agency Cooperation.” Also in the course are two agents, one each from the FBI and the CIA. They have all recently succeeded in a major case. The three men quickly realize that this isn’t a training course but a secret mission. Then the national-security adviser walks into the room, and tells them that an American has just approached a terrorist organization with a cell based in Hamburg and offered something for a hundred million dollars. It must be a very big thing to be worth that amount of money, but nobody knows what. And with that donnée, as Henry James would have called it, the excitement begins.
The Reacher novels set in the past involve a trade-off. Since the reader knows that our hero is still solving mysteries and executing malefactors two decades into the future, the Reacher of the prequels is, for this reader anyway, in less jeopardy. He isn’t as lonely. To make up for this, there’s a richness of background, a context, to the military novels. In the prequels, Reacher has colleagues, he has bosses and subordinates; he has missions that are given to him, rather than ones he chooses for himself. He is in a world where he thoroughly belongs, not peering through a window at somebody else’s.
Given the riskiness of Child’s creative processes, the novels can’t be equally good. It’s not that they aren’t all supremely, unstoppably readable; it’s that some of them have an extra quality of freshness and surprise. The very best is the one with the twistiest plot, Persuader. (Surely—surely?—Child must have worked at least some of that one out in advance.) On the next level down, but still very good, are—for this reader, at least—Killing Floor, 61 Hours, One Shot, Without Fail, Bad Luck and Trouble, Make Me, and now Night School. This latest installment has all the classic ingredients: a great setting (Hamburg), a good villain, and a mystery that draws you in efficiently, escalates unpredictably, and has a satisfying resolution. There are two good female characters, including the recurring Sergeant Neagley, who is more than slightly in love with Reacher but will never do anything about it because she has a phobia about being touched—they’ve never even shaken hands. (Frances L. Neagley is named for a reader who won a charity auction at the mystery conference Bouchercon. She’s had good value for her bid, since this is her fourth appearance in the novels and one of them, Bad Luck and Trouble, is dedicated to her.) There is a big fight scene, and interesting details about Cold War history and missing nukes. All good stuff. It would be surprising if the book didn’t become the twelfth Reacher novel to make it to the top of the best-seller list. As a bonus, Night School also touches on that counterfactual dilemma posed in science fiction: What would you do if you got the chance to travel back in time and kill Hitler before he did anything wrong? No spoilers, but this is Jack Reacher we’re talking about. Let’s just say he doesn’t overthink it. ###
[John Lanchester, the author of How to Speak Money (2014); Lanchester's other books are listed here. He also is a contributing editor at The London Review of Books, and has written for The New Yorker since 1995. Lanchester received an AB (modern language and literature) from St. John's College of Oxford University.]
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