10/7/13 — THE ENDURING APPEAL OF LEE CHILD’S JACK REACHER
It takes a special kind of a protagonist to carry a long series of books.
Our heroes have to be characters we can root for and identify with. We don’t expect to ever do what they can do, but we have to share their values and dreams and appreciate their finer qualities. (Think Robert Parker’s Spenser, whose sense of right and wrong comes along with his devotion to the woman he loves, a friend who’d die for him, and gourmet cooking skills).
They have to be unique, with special talents and characteristics that make them stand out in a crowd, as well as a weakness or two to make them human. (Think Sherlock Holmes, with his unmatched brain power and his almost fatal addiction).
And they have to grow and develop over the course of the series, even age a little, as long as they don’t lose the things we love about them (Think Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, a loner who suddenly discovers and becomes attached to a family halfway through the alphabet series.)
That’s a tall order, and few authors can create a protagonist to fill it, not over the course of an extended period. That’s why you have to appreciate the work of Lee Child, whose hero Jack Reacher has sold over 60 million books. Read any one of Child’s 18 novels and chances are you’ll be a Reacher fan for life. Men want to be like him. Women want to sleep with him. Kids want him for a father (though he’d be a lousy one). Civilians want him as their protector, and cops want him on their team.
Reacher’s appeal is easy to explain, even if he does wear the same clothes for several days running. He embodies the American spirit of old, the noble loner, the mysterious stranger, the homeless drifter who eschews possessions, roots of any kind, and all commitments except the one that is at the heart of every Reacher novel–a commitment to justice, to helping the underdog, to righting the wrong he always manages to stumble into.
Reacher is the alpha male who doles out summary justice. He always kills the bad guys in the end, taking no prisoners and suffering no remorse. Child says that’s a key reason for the novels’ success; they give a reader a sense of satisfaction that rarely exists in real life (That Reacher is the quintessential American hero is all the more interesting when you consider that his creator is a Brit, a former TV director who wrote his first novel at age 40 after being sacked by Granada Television.)
Reacher is uniquely equipped to carry out his role. He’s ex-Army, a former MP, an expert marksman, standing 6’5” and weighing 250 pounds, with a 50-inch chest, sandy brown hair, ice blue eyes, arms “so long they gave him a greyhound’s grace” and hands like “giant battered mitts that bunched into fists the size of footballs.” Still, while Reacher has all the brawn he’ll ever need, he prefers to rely on his brain (he’s a West Point grad), and he uses it to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.
His lifestyle is key to his character. He doesn’t need a home because he has an unquenched thirst for travel, usually by bus or hitchhiking. He carries only a toothbrush, an outdated passport, and an ATM card. If he sleeps, and he rarely does, he’ll rent a cheap motel room. He buys clothes at the local dollar store or its equivalent, and when they get dirty, he throws them away and buys a new set. His family is all dead, and though in the most recent novels there’s a hint of a lasting romantic interest, his lifestyle lends itself more to one-night stands. His political leanings are to the left, a rarity among fictional crime fighting heroes.
There’s nothing realistic about Reacher or the plots of Child’s novels. He inevitably faces overwhelming odds and overcomes them. In A Wanted Man, for example, he single handled storms a nuclear-proof underground bunker and kills the 34 heavily armed bad guys inside.
Child’s writing makes it easy to suspend disbelief. It’s strong and confident. Some of the novels are written in the first person to give them more intimacy, while others are in third-person, which Child says gives him more ability to up the suspense. The writing is never pretentious; you won’t find a sentence that stands out or is at all memorable. But he can put them together. Oh, can he put them together. Read the first page of Gone Tomorrow (available here) and try to stop. The first chapter of that novel is a study in how to build suspense, and I reread it for inspiration at least once a month.
But Child is only able to write with force and create such suspense because of Reacher, the protagonist who carries all the books on his huge shoulders, muscling though unbelievable plots and complicated gyrations. It’s easy to explain the attraction, but hard to convey the feeling to someone who hasn’t read any of the novels. So do yourself a favor and pick one up.