You cannot be a Jack Reacher — a superbly fit, world-weary, immensely attractive, chivalrous, extremely observant six-foot five former military policeman in his forties, with an arsenal of abilities that make you the bane of all bullies and wrongdoers — because he is a fictional creation. However, you can spend time in his company — one of the great pleasures of contemporary thriller and mystery fiction since the 1995 publication of Killing Floor, the first of 13 books by Lee Child.
If you are one of his millions of fans, you probably know that Lee Child is actually the pseudonym of a Briton, a former Granada TV executive, who has, along with other talents, an astonishing command of American settings, language and culture. (This is a rare gift, given that some of Britain’s best literary novelists are notorious for getting the details or the big picture wrong when setting books in the US.) You no doubt appreciate Child’s mastery of the thriller-writer’s craft, so that his books insist on being devoured in a handful of sittings. You are likely to admire his apparent capacity for research into the arcana of kidnappings, assassination, sniping, surveillance, first aid, etc. Most of all, you find yourself seduced by Child’s great creation, Jack Reacher.
Reacher is the literary descendant of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee, also a tall, thoughtful, formidable, altruistic loner and former military officer, with various practical skills underestimated by both enemies and allies. He is the big brother or partner any one would wish for: unflappable, invincible, loyal, able to read people like books. At once implausible and deeply satisfying, Reacher lives like a vagrant or an American knight errant, drifting from one small town or big city to another, like an updated version of the nameless protagonist of Clint Eastwood’s early Westerns. Something of a Luddite and one of nature’s libertarians, Reacher is unconnected from the grid: he has no mobile phone, no driving licence, no possessions, no family, merely an ATM card and an impressive military record. Like a wandering demigod, he rights wrongs that are brought to his attention or which just happen to take place in his presence.
Long-running series usually follow a familiar trajectory. The author hits his stride within the first three or four books, then they gradually decline, though faithful readers keep on buying them in the hope of finding the magic again. This did not seem the case with Child until his disappointing 12th novel Nothing to Lose. The pages turned quickly enough but there was something mechanical about the book, as if the author was becoming bored with his creation. One remarkable and refreshing aspect of the series, Child’s unfashionable respect for the American military, seemed to have been soured by a new, all too fashionable obsession with the Iraq war and a bizarre idea about legions of deserters.
His new book (No. 1 on the bestseller list at the time of writing) marks a partial return to form, despite a higher than usual gore quotient, and plot twists that can seem determined more by the need for set-pieces — fights, interrogations, etc — than logic. It starts with a gripping scene as Reacher spots an apparent suicide bomber on the New York subway, and there were many subsequent chapters which prompted my heart to pound as if I’d just sprinted for a bus.
Unfortunately, Gone Tomorrow is again marred by Child’s apparent conversion to the bien pensant politics all too common in the literary world of New York (where he now lives). The book is full of paranoid blather about the Patriot Act: like many half-stoned college kids and staffers at the Left-wing magazine the Nation, Child has been persuaded that this post 9/11 legislation has given birth to a terrifying national security state whose agents routinely make people disappear. (More surprisingly, but perhaps as destructive to readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief, Child seems to imagine al-Qaeda is a kind of equal-opportunity criminal organisation, like Ian Fleming’s Spectre, which happily employs infidel mercenaries and gorgeous mini-skirted seductresses.) It would be a shame if the Reacher books were never again to be as perfect as they once seemed. Like Reacher himself, I shall “hope for the best and plan for the worst” — and keep on buying them.