Five reasons why the Jack Reacher novels are brilliant

Stav Sherez explains why Lee Child’s creation is worthy of critical respect and picks out five must-read Reacher novels

Culture

19 Oct 2016

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is everywhere at the moment with the second Tom Cruise-led film, Never Go Back, released on Friday, swiftly followed by the publication of a new novel, Night School. The Reacher books are hugely popular, selling at the astonishing rate of one every 20 seconds, but fail to garner much in the way of critical respect. Here are five reasons why the public love Reacher and why critics should…

Jack Reacher

Reacher is without a doubt one of the most original, complex and compelling characters in crime fiction. An ex-military policeman turned drifter, he has nothing tieing him to the world except for his relentless (and almost psychopathic) desire for justice. He’s the archetypal existential avenging angel – John Wayne, Bogart and Brando rolled into one.

Plot

People often assume the books are full of gymnastic fight sequences and pyrotechnic car chases but Reacher is far closer to Sherlock Holmes than he is to James Bond. In Night School, for instance, there are approximately four pages of fighting – a total of one per cent of the novel. The joy of a Lee Child novel doesn’t consist in adrenaline-fuelled thrills but in watching Reacher’s Spock-like logic shred through the narrative.

Prose

Recently, there’s been a fad for articles in which commentators admit to loving the books but hating the prose. Child is a deliberate stylist and his prose is taut, dynamic and highly-sprung. The sentences have a rhythmic sophistication lacking in most other bestsellers and a minimalism that is highly conceptual. The opening of Without Fail is a perfect example of this: “They found out about him in July and stayed angry all through August. They tried to kill him in September. It was way too soon. They weren’t ready. The attempt was a failure. It could have been a disaster, but it was actually a miracle. Because no one noticed.” The way each sentence suggests the next mirrors the inexorable unfolding of fate and plot and plays a large part in making the books so compelling.

Location

Lee Child’s novels ooze a sensuous, smoky Americana. Whether he’s describing grain elevators, neon signs or motel facades, Child effortlessly conjures up the stark eeriness of the American Midwest, making him the poet laureate of the prairies par excellance.

Justice

The Reacher books are Westerns in disguise and this goes a long way to explaining why they are so phenomenally popular. The books resonate with the inherent mythic compulsion of the Western genre and Reacher is the classic silent stranger who rides into town and saves the small folk from rapacious bullies. In a world spinning out of control, where no-one and everyone is the bad guy, Lee Child’s novels provide an illusory but necessary reassurance.

Lee Child and Tom Cruise attend a screening of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Getty)

Lee Child and Tom Cruise attend a screening of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Getty)

If you’ve never read a Jack Reacher novel before, here five of the best to try…

Killing Floor (1997)
Reacher, recently made redundant from the Army, drifts into a small Georgia town and is immediately arrested and accused of murder. Unusually for Reacher, this debut case is personal, the first murder victim being his own brother. It is also one of only six Reacher novels narrated in the first-person. Child’s unique style hasn’t fully coalesced yet but the plot is phenomenal and the scene in the jailhouse will stalk your nightmares for a long time.

Without Fail (2002)
Playing with tropes of the Kennedy assassination, this sixth instalment finds Child in full possession of his talents with razor sharp sentences and one of his most baroque and serpentine plots.

One Shot (2005)
This was adapted for the first Reacher film and rightly so. It’s location of Indianapolis is a stroke of genius – a gunman loose in the bland, bleak heartland of suburban America. Child relishes in descriptions of highway overpasses, deep dark garages and rowdy sports bars. The bad guy (played with a chilling malevolence by Werner Herzog in the movie) is one of Child’s creepiest creations.

Gone Tomorrow (2009)
Another rare outing for first-person Reacher. The shift of POV isn’t merely a gimmick but lets the reader into Reacher’s thought processes as he comes across a suicide bomber on the New York subway. Like all Reacher novels, at the heart of this thriller is a complex, intricate mystery.

Worth Dying For (2010)
Child returns to the heartland, this time the endless prairie sea of Nebraska. An archetypical western with a fine sense of landscape, this also has one of Child’s darkest twists as well as set pieces of Hitchcock-like ingenuity and flair.

Stav Sherez is crime novelist published by Faber & Faber. His latest novel, The Intrusions, is published in February


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