Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers are some of the best. But what makes them so terrific? I put it down to consistent quality; great characterisation (including fine women and minor fellers); humour; dialogue; satisfying problem-solving; and wisdom. If you like thrillers, it’s worth putting Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers on your list of “best books to read”.
Meet Lee Child’s Jack Reacher
Burly, yet brilliant. Violent, yet sensitive to the needs of women. Loyal to friends, yet indifferent to relationships.
Jack Reacher, hero of Lee Child’s thriller series, is an ex military policeman with terrific characteristics.
“The Affair” is excellent
How I got hooked
I’ve been a Jack Reacher fan since reading my first Lee Child novel, “Tripwire” (Jack Reacher 3), over a decade ago. That book features a cunning plot; extreme violence; and a powerful, satisfying resolution.
Child has published two dozen Jack Reacher novels, one a year since 1997. They are hugely successful: “Blue Moon” (no.24 in the series, published in 2019), for example, has over 9,000 reviews on Amazon.com and over 8,500 on Amazon.co.uk.
8 reasons people love Jack Reacher
Here are 8 reasons why people love Jack Reacher.
(i) The early novels are consistently good. In addition to “Tripwire” I enjoyed, for example, “Killing Floor” (JR1: crisp, authoritative writing and richly textured, eg Reacher’s quest to find legendary guitar player Blind Blake), “Die Trying” (JR2); “The Visitor” (JR4: an original, creepy and tricky mystery which Reacher struggles to solve); “Echo Burning” (JR5: strong, complex plot); and “Without Fail” (JR6).
(ii) I particularly like the enigmatic Frances Neagley, a female equivalent of Reacher who is if anything even cooler and tougher than he is and also features in “Bad Luck and Trouble” (JR11); “The Enemy” (JR8); and “The Affair” (JR16). I also liked the improbably beautiful Elizabeth Deveraux in “The Affair”, with her remarkable appetite:
The grease from the meat made her lips glisten. She was a slim woman. She must have had a metabolism like a nuclear reactor.
(iii) In some novels, eg “The Enemy”, Reacher displays dry, ironic humour (US readers: apologies for my UK spelling tendencies), particularly in displaying insubordination. When asked “Where did he have the heart attack?”, Reacher replies “In his chest cavity”.
(iv) I find the dialogue in many of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books outstanding. Take this, between Reacher and Deveraux, after sex, in “The Affair” (Reacher is narrating):
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.
Jack Reacher: later works
(v) Some of Lee Child’s later works are again excellent. I recently read “The Affair” (Reacher 16) which re-introduces not only Neagley but also Reacher’s sense of humour;
(vi) Lee Child also writes some terrific male minor characters, such as military men Leon Garber and Stan Lowrey, of whom Reacher, narrating the story, 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.
In addition to Garber and Lowrey, I particularly like 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”. Here, too, the hotel receptionist has better lines than Peter Sellers.
Jack Reacher’s intuition
(vii) Jack Reacher has an almost Holmesian ability to infer events from invisible clues as he, for example, reconstructs the murder of Janice May Chapman in “The Affair”.
Jack Reacher epigrams
(viii) Finally, Reacher has plenty of good one-liners and epigrams, eg:
I didn’t like him much. A snap judgement, maybe, but generally those are as good as any other kind.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher: Nothing is perfect
Is there a down side to Jack Reacher? Personally, I think some of the middle and later novels are less good than others. My least favourites include “Bad Luck and Trouble” (JR11) and “Nothing to Lose” (JR12), where Reacher’s fine sense of humour seems to have been excised. I found “61 Hours” (JR14) slow-moving. But things picked up with “Worth Dying For” (JR15). “The Affair” (JR16) is so good it inspired me to write this blog.
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, keep reading!
For: solid thrillers with a hero saved from caricature by his great sense of humour (more humour in future episodes, please, Mr Child)
Against: in those books low on humour, Jack Reacher is less entertaining.
P.S. If you like thrillers, you should try my own Blood Summit (“Hugely entertaining” – John Connolly).