Nothing to Lose by Lee Child
Last year, the Telegraph ran an interview with Lee Child, a former British television executive who had been laid off by Grenada in 1995, at which time he wrote a thriller, inventing a hero named Jack Reacher. As of a year and a half ago Mr. Child had published 11 Reacher novels, and achieved startling success: in 2007, it has been asserted, not a minute passed without someone on the planet buying a copy of one of them. Mr. Child has just published Nothing To Lose, his 12th. What is Jack Reacher like? And what has now become of him?
Jack Reacher novels are cross-over genre fiction, and to understand why they were so original, and initially so successful, it is worth remembering the history of the genre Lee Child has reworked. Thrillers have sub-genres: spy stories, private eye novels and police procedurals are categories known to most of us. The heroes of many, perhaps most thrillers, and of most detective novels, tend to be competent at administering violence and good at the intellectual work of solving mysteries, although they will display these gifts in different proportions: some of the greatest figures of detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolf), for example, are almost never violent. When the thriller hero is skilled at violence, he is either exhibiting a professional competence (the policeman or former policeman, the agent of an intelligence service, etc.), or in one sub-genre is a naturally talented or simply lucky amateur. There are also various genres of military and naval fiction, where the intense violence administered and suffered is that of war, and the point of the fiction is to explore the workings of a world radically different from the one most of us inhabit, and consequently profoundly interesting.
There is occasionally some overlap between the protagonist of the war novel and the hero of the thriller-the latter has often learned violence during his wartime military service, and recalls his long-dormant skills during a crisis some years on. There is often something very satisfying about such plots-in fiction, as in some memorable episodes of fact, law-abiding citizens turn out to be a deal more deadly than the amoral specialists in violence. There is in such plots a small echo of the fate of the German and Japanese officer corps at the hands of British, American and Russian civilians, who when sufficiently provoked turned out to be staggeringly more effective at violence than their professional opponents had ever imagined they would be. People with a longer memory may also recall the fate of cocky Virginian gentleman-duellists at the hands of normally peaceable farm boys from Illinois and Vermont. And those plots often seemed plausible: for many decades of the 20th century; after all, a large number of people had served in the vast armies of the industrial age, participating in either of the world wars, or in one of the smaller wars that followed. Some of Elmore Leonard’s heroes are former soldiers, Travis McGee, the hero of John D. MacDonald’s thrillers, had served in the Second World War (in the later novels, this had become the Korean War), and Roberts Crais’ heroes Elvis Cole and Joe Pike both served in Vietnam, as did Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch. Nowadays, such heroes seem rare, almost certainly because relatively fewer Britons or Americans have recently served in wars, which means that the modern military is more alien to modern readers than 20th century armies were to readers a generation ago. Crossover genre fiction mixes two normally discrete genres, and ideally combines the pleasures of both. Jack Reacher, until immediately before the opening of the novel in which he first appeared, had been a professional soldier in the post-Vietnam American Army, a major of military police. Lee Child’s conceit is that military police are immensely formidable men, since they are trained to deal violently with men who are trained soldiers, i.e. specialists in violence. For all I know, this may even be true-a mutual friend once watched a strikingly sweet-tempered, late-middle aged, overweight and severely asthmatic acquaintance effortlessly break the arm of a young, large, fit and very sudden assailant, at which point the observer recalled that the pudgy and ageing asthmatic had been a Marine military policeman in Vietnam. Then again, it may not always be true, since I have never heard a combat veteran of the Second World War express awe at the martial prowess of MPs. Whether or not it is true in fact, it works in fiction, where Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, like MacDonald’s Travis McGee, is both very large and startlingly proficient at violence. Unlike McGee’s, Reacher’s feats are all explained, in some detail, as the result of specialized military training. The point of these episodes is that unlike the feats of former soldiers in older thrillers, Reacher’s prowess is imagined to be impossible for anyone not very extensively trained as a long-service professional soldier. The formula has been amazingly successful. Child seems to have intuited that women as well as men would enjoy reading about an ex-military superman, and he was, at least until recently, dead on.
In Reacher’s first appearance, his enemies were not themselves possessed of military training. In subsequent novels some of the villains were soldiers — the logic of the premise may even have required that turn, since if soldiers are invariably vastly more formidable than any civilian, Jack Reacher novels would otherwise have been as suspenseful as Superman stories would have been in a world without Kryptonite. But why were the novels so remarkably satisfying to so many readers? Probably because in consequence of his being an ex-soldier who had spent his entire life in an around the army, Reacher was imagined to be indifferent to money, ascetic, incorruptible, wholly fearless, and invariably given to acts of solidarity and honour that Child implied were at least improbable in a civilian. These qualities were depicted as almost uniquely military virtues, understandably alluring (and plausible) to a readership generally unacquainted with soldiers or armies. Reacher was an immigrant from a world separated from, and morally preferable to, 1990s America. Lee Child seemed to greatly admire the American military, not an attitude too frequently expressed in 1990s British or American publishing circles or film industries, which may explain why the Army was generally ignored in much of 1990s popular culture. It was a bold bet, and in commercial terms, anyway, a vastly successful one.Nothing To Lose, the most recent novel, is Lee Child’s first novel to make sustained reference to the Iraq War. The novel’s villains profit from that war, while the serving soldiers in the novel are either peripheral to the plot, or else shattered victims of the war. As has happened before in the series, the novel’s serious action begins with Reacher wandering into a desolate small American town in the middle of nowhere, where the local authorities are guilty of at least indifference to brutality and malfeasance. The novel ends with Reacher solving a series of mysteries after repeatedly beating the villains like drums. In this case, however, there is a crucial change in the plot, and if one opens the book expecting the pleasures provided by its eleven predecessors, it may bitterly disappoint. The chief villain is a Rightist evangelical who embodies many of the sins that authors, publishers and film-makers fairly regularly discern in American elites: in addition to being a (Christian) religious fanatic, the villain is also very rich, traffics in deadly toxic wastes, tyrannizes over the whole of a community with no opposition of any kind, and is thick as thieves with the military-industrial complex. Readers cued by some recent thrillers, who may expect to discover yet again that the specter of terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction has provoked the American Right into an overreaction more dangerous than any terrorist armed with WMD, will in fact be disappointed, but only because in Nothing To Lose the terrorist armed with WMD is himself on the American Right. This cunning twist spares the reader from considering the possibility that dreadful events have forced tragic choices on the authorities, who have under that pressure made comprehensible if sometimes ghastly mistakes.
The Iraq war, here imagined as pretty squalid, is also implied to be a grotesque and irredeemable blunder, and the soldiers who have served in it are more to be pitied and mourned than celebrated or even much admired. This attitude is in some ways retrospectively projected back onto the military that had been celebrated in the earlier novels: the last war worth the sacrifice of soldiers’ lives, Reacher at one point explains, was WWII. Lee Child may have suspected that 2008 was not a good year for a mass market thriller directed at a civilian audience to idolize the American Army, and thus sought to update his brand. If so, the cost of his move may be pretty steep. On this new vision of the American Army, the military virtues are presumably obsolete, and soldiers are not immensely formidable, but merely horrifically vulnerable. This seems a very risky move for a man who has made a fortune celebrating the prowess of American soldiers for an audience apparently very innocent of both their trade and its history.
Reacher remains an omni-competent killer and brawler, but the world from which he has emigrated into ours is no longer one his inventor is prepared to depict as worthy of our fascination, and is a instead a world of exploitation, deceit and defeat, populated chiefly by victims. Reacher, who was an original because of his inventor’s enthusiastic adumbration of an American military subculture, has been made less plausible, because he is now too unique a figure. His prowess and remarkable physical size remains, but he has nonetheless become smaller. Child’s imagined world, alas, is no longer too appealing a holiday from ours.