Burly, yet brilliant. Violent, yet sensitive to the needs of women. Loyal to friends, yet indifferent to relationships.
Meet Jack Reacher, U.S. hero of British writer Lee Child’s thriller series about an ex military policeman who drifts around, usually finding himself in small town America with a woman to save, an injustice to right, a mystery to solve or, often, all three.
I much enjoyed “The Affair”
I have been a Jack Reacher fan since reading my first Lee Child novel, “Tripwire”, over a decade ago. That book features a cunning plot; extreme violence, some directed against wholly innocent people; and a powerful, satisfying resolution.
Child has published 22 Jack Reacher novels in total, exactly one a year since 1997. They are hugely successful: “Make Me” (no.20 in the series, published in 2015), for example, has over 2,800 reviews on Amazon.co.uk and over 7,800 on Amazon.com.
But super-successful novelists have a problem. From Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent to J K Rowling’s Harry Potter, publishers’ deadlines and the fact that readers who enjoy one book will be keen to buy the next in the series make it hard for writers to maintain a consistently high standard. Even my favourite thriller-writer, Michael Connelly, has one or two books which are weaker than the rest.
How about Lee Child? I see good news, bad news and good news. The first good news is that most of the early novels are consistently good. In addition to “Tripwire” I enjoyed, for example, “Killing Floor” (crisp, authoritative writing and richly textured, eg Reacher’s quest to find legendary guitar player Blind Blake), “Die Trying”; “The Visitor” (an original and tricky mystery which Reacher struggles to solve); “Echo Burning” (strong, complex plot); “Without Fail” (featuring the enigmatic Frances Neagley, a female equivalent of Reacher who is if anything even tougher than he is and also features in the pretty good “Bad Luck and Trouble”); and “The Enemy”.
In “The Enemy” I particularly liked Reacher’s ironic humour, eg in displaying insubordination (Q: “Where did he have the heart attack?” Reacher: “In his chest cavity”).
The bad news is that over time, several Reacher thrillers appear which are not as good as the others. “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Nothing to Lose” (Reacher 11&12), for example, both seems to have Reacher’s sense of humour excised and to need a bit of an edit to tighten them up. “61 Hours” (Reacher 14) is slow-moving, to the extent that I was considering abandoning Lee Child altogether; and “Worth Dying For” (Reacher 15) features a wealth of minor characters more generic than most.
But the second good news is that some of Lee Child’s later works are again excellent. I have just read “The Affair” (Reacher 16) which re-introduces not only the enigmatic Neagley (although, oddly, she plays almost no part in the plot) but also Reacher’s sense of humour. There are also several other strong minor characters, such as military men Leon Garber and Stan Lowrey, of whom Reacher, who narrates the story in the first person, gives this splendid account:
I leaned on the wall next to the phone… because Lowrey’s stories were usually very long. He fancied himself a raconteur. And he liked background. And context. Deep background, and deep context. Normally he liked to trace everything back to a seminal point just before random swirls of gas from the chartless wastes of the universe happened to get together and form the earth itself.
I particularly liked Major Duncan Munro, another military policeman, who delivers some splendid one-liners, such as this exchange, as Reacher explains why he wanted to keep certain information secret:
[Reacher:] ‘I wanted Munro to go back to Germany with a clear conscience.’
Munro said, ‘My conscience is always clear.’
‘But it’s easier to play dumb if you really don’t know the answer.’
‘I never had a problem playing dumb. Some folks think I am.’
This exchange, where Munro actually gets the better of Reacher, is reminiscent of the famous “Does your dog bite?” exchange between Peter Sellers, as Inspector Clouseau, and a hotel receptionist in the 1976 film “The Pink Panther Strikes Again”, in that the hotel receptionist has the better lines:
In “The Affair”, the women in the story are less well-sketched, although I like the immense appetite of the improbably beautiful Elizabeth Deveraux:
The grease from the meat made her lips glisten. She was a slim woman. She must have had a metabolism like a nuclear reactor.
Reacher and Deveraux have some fine exchanges, such as this, after sex:
Afterwards Deveraux yawned and stretched and said, ‘You’re not bad for a soldier boy.’
I said, ‘You’re excellent for a Marine.’
‘We’d better be careful. We might develop feelings for each other.’
‘What are those?’
‘What are what?’
She paused a beat.
She said, ‘Men should be more in touch with their feelings.’
I said, ‘If I ever have one, you’ll be the first to know, I promise.’
She paused, again. Then she laughed.
I also like Reacher’s almost Holmesian ability to infer events from almost invisible clues as he, for example, reconstructs the murder of Janice May Chapman. Reacher has plenty of good one-liners too, eg:
I didn’t like him much. A snap judgement, maybe, but generally those are as good as any other kind.
My advice: if you like thrillers and want to sample Lee Child, try some of the earlier books listed above. If you are a fan but have been deterred by some of the less compelling tales in the series, “The Affair” at least is still pretty good. It may also be worth checking the reviews of the later books.
For: solid thriller fare with above average consistency and a hero occasionally saved from caricature by his great sense of humour (more humour in future episodes, please, Mr Child)
Against: in those books low on irony and humour, Jack Reacher can become a bit dull.
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