Jack Reacher

It started when I watched Jack Reacher (2012), starring Tom Cruise. It was pretty good, and it’s as much fun seeing Robert Duvall in something as it is Christopher Walken. Plus, the bad guy is Werner Herzog! As it turns out, casting Cruise as Reacher is… interesting, but I’ll come back to that.

The movie is an adaptation of the 2005 Lee Child novel, One Shot, the ninth book in his Jack Reacher series. I enjoyed the movie enough that I thought I’d check out the book — my library had it (as well as the others in the series).

I’ve been binging on them ever since. To the point I’ve now read 16 of the 24 Lee Child Jack Reacher novels.

With this series the qualifications are important. Firstly, because there are also Jack Reacher short stories and novellas. Secondly, because the 25th novel, The Sentinel, the most recent published, was co-authored with younger brother Andrew. The two will co-author several before Andrew takes over the series.

Lee Child is a pen name for James Grant. His younger brother, Andrew Grant, is using the pen name Andrew Child, which keeps the authorial continuity.

I’m not big on other authors continuing a character-based series, and I usually refuse to follow once the original author has given up the helm (or life). I greatly respect how Sue Grafton put it in her will that her character, Kinsey Millhone, dies with her.

In contrast, someone is writing “Agatha Christie” stories.

Whatever. At least Lee and Andrew are keeping it in the family. My plan is to read the eight remaining Lee Child novels and go from there. I’ve read #2–#17. I just got my hands on the first book, Killing Floor (1997), which I’ve had on hold at the library since mid-March.

There is a second Tom Cruise movie, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016), which is based on the 18th book, Never Go Back (2013). I haven’t seen the movie, yet, nor read the book. Now that I’m through the earlier works, it and the rest are next.

Jack Reacher, compact version.

The plots of the books are diverse enough to make the series somewhat hard to label. Most use the broad label of crime thriller (or the broader label of just thriller). Yet one reason I like these is that they aren’t big screen blockbuster thrillers, they’re smaller and, thus to me, far more engaging.

And I think they’re well written. Hard to put down — as easy to munch on as tortilla chips. Child knows how to keep the story moving along nicely. Put it this way: I read 15 of them between mid-March and mid-April. As I said, binging. Like on a bowl of chips. They’re fun!

They’re not really murder mysteries, although many of them do start with a killing, and all of them have body counts. They aren’t whodunits in the usual sense (except one totally is), but there often is a mystery involving what’s going on or who’s behind it.

They have more in common with detective stories and police procedurals, although Jack Reacher isn’t a detective, certainly not in any intentional sense, and isn’t part of any organization. Sometimes Reacher ends up working with law enforcement, but sometimes he’s on their bad side, even considered wanted (for any number of reasons).

There’s a tiny resemblance to the Travis McGee stories, at least in terms of the protagonist’s lack of affiliation, desire for idleness, and willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve justice. On the other hand, McGee had a home base and people sought him out for help. Reacher is homeless and essentially unknown.

I see Reacher as the Lone Ranger — a mysterious stranger who appears, saves the day, moves on. Child sources Reacher from old European stories, medieval tales of the knight-errant (which come from even older stories, such as the Japanese ronin). In all cases, the wanderer who comes upon a situation, gets involved (always on the side of justice), and then rides off to other adventures. (Humanity has been writing serials for a long time.)


(The fiction character) Jack Reacher is the son of US Marine, so he and his brother Joe grew up on military bases around the world. They never stayed in one place very long. As a kid, Reacher (even his mother called him Reacher) got into a lot of fights with other boys, and he learned to fight to win.

When he was 18, he joined the Army, was accepted at West Point, and served in the military police, rising as high as major. He was demoted to captain (for reasons explained in one of the stories). He served with honor, won notable awards (including a Silver Star and a Purple Heart), and ran the (fictional) 110th Special Investigations Unit, which handled especially tough cases.

He chose to leave the Army in 1997, at age 36, in part because of downsizing due to the peace dividend and in part because of reasons explained in one of the stories (he pissed off someone high up the chain).

He’s big, six-foot-five, and built like a tank. His Army special training turned a boyhood scrapper into a fighting force of nature. Army MPs had to be able to deal with the biggest and baddest the Army had to offer. Reacher, as they say, doesn’t start fights, but he does finish them.

At the same time, he’s a highly intelligent and educated man (a West Point graduate). He solves more problems with his mind than with his fists. I like that he has something of a penchant for numbers, notices them and likes to play with them. (Bad Luck and Trouble (2007) begins when someone deposits money into his bank account, and he realizes that the weird amount — the dollars and cents values — is a message.)

When the series begins, Reacher is out of the Army. The above is backstory we learn, mainly from three of the novels telling stories from Reacher’s Army days, but also from things Reacher says or remembers. Now his life consists of wandering around America seeing its sights. He lives off his Army pension and the occasional odd job. Sight-seeing is his only goal. His only possessions are ID and a traveling toothbrush. He mostly gets around by hitchhiking.

But he keeps stumbling into these situations…


Dangerous situations involving dangerous people, and the variety of the situations Child comes up with impresses me. They don’t have much of a common denominator, either in how they start, or in what’s going on. Sometimes Reacher gets sucked into something, sometimes he sees something and involves himself.

For instance, in the second book, Die Trying (1998), he’s accidentally kidnapped along with the federal agent he happened to pass on the street. She dropped something, he picked it up, the kidnappers assumed they were together. (That was their first mistake.)

In Nothing to Lose (2008), he’s run out of a small town he’s passing through, gets curious about why, and involves himself in an explosive and life-threatening situation, a madman, and a recycling facility. It’s a little bit like First Blood (1972), but only a little.

In 61 Hours (2010) he’s on a bus that accidentally ends up the ditch during a snowstorm. Unexpectedly stuck in the nearby town, he gets caught up in an explosive and life-threatening situation. I think here Child was doing Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, either as an homage or (given the title) for real trying to end the series. But since that’s now only book #14 (of 27 published or planned), it’s obvious Reacher survives. (Most books, he just leaves town.)

I’ll say it again: I read 15 of these in a month’s time and wasn’t bored. I only stopped because I had the first two on hold and wanted to read them before jumping to #18 and beyond. Die Trying finally became available early this month and now, so has Killing Floor.


Speaking of which, that first book, Killing Floor, from 1997 (the year Reacher left the Army), is the basis of the first season of the new Amazon Prime adaptation, Reacher, starring Alan Ritchson.

Jack Reacher, full-sized version.

The movie led me to the books. The books motivated me to try the show. I haven’t read the book, so can’t speak on plot changes, but I’d say Ritchson nailed Reacher. He’s built like Reacher is described to be (although he’s only six-foot-two), so it’s not hard to believe he could take on five guys. (When Tom Cruise does it, it’s movie magic.)

Given all the bad adaptations I’ve seen (usually of science fiction texts), this was a breath of fresh air and gets an Ah! rating. Worth seeing (as always: if you like that sort of thing). The plot involves Reacher coincidentally and unknowingly visiting the same town where his brother was murdered a short time before.

If this show follows the pattern of many others (such as The Expanse), season two (which has been ordered) will adapt book two, and so on for however long the series lasts. The books published already considerably outnumber the lifetimes of most series.


Most of the action is small-scale, Child keeps it close and personal. The stakes are relatively small, only handfuls of people involved. I’m weary of world-saving (let alone of reality as we know it). He also keeps things pretty realistic on most levels in terms of what people can do. And he’s not afraid to sometimes kill off key characters, even among the small, rarely appearing, recurring cast.

As a writing note, the books are usually written in third person omniscient (present tense), but a handful are written in first person. I’ve read two of the (three) stories that take place while he was an MP in the Army; both those are in first person. Past tense, if I recall correctly, as though Reacher was telling the story. Those aren’t the only ones in first person, though. Child uses it in a few books in Reacher’s current timeline (including the first book).

One book uses some creepy second person present tense. Ask yourself why. It’s a clue to whodunit. In fact, once you see why Child used second person, it’s kind of obvious.

Speaking of which, I’m usually so bad at guessing whodunit that I don’t even try, I just sit back and enjoy the story. But in this series, a surprising number of times, I’ve guessed the big plot secret, especially when it involves who the secret bad person is. That might actually be an aspect of Child making his plots realistic. In real life, secrets are hard to hide.


These books (and their adaptations) are pure escape, but they’re well-written and intelligent escape. They move along and are hard to put down. The variety makes it easy to want to get to the next one to see what happens to Reacher this time.

Stay Reaching, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

20 responses to “Jack Reacher

  • Wyrd Smythe

    It’s getting harder and harder to have any respect for the folks running WordPress. I forgot to do my little trick of wrapping my paragraphs in <P> tags and, sure enough, when it published WordPress removed my paragraph breaks. This bug has been present and breaking people’s posts for a long time now (many months, at least). And the WP Reader has gotten almost useless.

    Does WordPress not care or are they just incompetent these days? Either would be in accord with how most tech companies are behaving these days.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Just started Killing Floor. Unlike any of the others I’ve read, this one has a Forward by Lee Child that talks about how he came to write the Jack Reacher series. Kinda blew me away on multiple levels.

    For one thing, he mentions the Lone Ranger! He goes on to say he was never into westerns and (as he’s said in interviews) traces Reacher to the medieval European knight errant stories that were one of his sources of inspiration.

    He also mentioned the Travis McGee series as a major influence, so I wasn’t imagining that connection. As I said in the post, Reacher and McGee have significant differences, but do share some similarities.

    He also mentions how Reacher is intended to be at peace with himself in contrast to all the self-loathing usually divorced typically hard drinking and angst-ridden crime-solvers that became popular. (As Child points out, the innovators of that style were geniuses, but then it became overused.)

    Along those same lines, Reacher is intended to be the winner in nearly all fights. In the end, pretty much by definition, all heroes win, but Reacher wins the little fights, too. The bad guys are meant to be inferior and to fear him. It’s a refreshing change from the Rocky arc where the hero gets the shit kicked out of him until the reversal moment finally happens and the hero turns things around. Reacher is more along the Superman lines.

    And I was never one of those who found Superman boring. He was always, in fact, my favorite superhero. It’s the aspirational element again. It’s okay to have ideals.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Having finished the book, I decided to binge all eight episodes of Reacher last night (with some fast-forwarding to speed things up).

      Having seen the series again, and being able to compare it to the book, I’m not quite as enamored with it as I was the first time through. I still think it’s pretty good (for Hollywood these days), even really good, and definitely captures the spirit of the Jack Reacher series. (Definitely better than the Tom Cruise movie, although I enjoyed that for what it was.)

      But adaptations [1] remove things, [2] change things, and [3] add things, and it’s that last one that I usually have the most problems with. Especially when they’ve removed things and then added new things. I always wonder why. What was the point?

      And the show does all three. I’m usually fine with the removed things. Even an eight-episode series struggles to fit everything from the books into its runtime. Lots gets cut out. There were a lot of changes, especially regarding the structure of the bad guys — who was really behind it all. But, okay, whatever. It was the things they added that puzzled me.

      The final action sequence (the fire) was both more and less than in the book. The fight, which pairs off Finley/Picard, Roscoe/Teale, Reacher/KJ, is pure Hollywood bullshit (especially in the pairings), but the final aspect of the fire was boring and uneventful compared to what happens in the book (it was ironically, less Hollywood than the book, perhaps because of budget).

      Still thumbs up, still eager for more seasons, but the blush is off the rose just a little.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Having finished Never Go Back (#18, 2013), I decided to rent the movie, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016).

      The TV series is much better than the first movie, and that first movie is much better than the second movie. Talk about a sophomore slump. The second movie is a standard heaping of worn-out Hollywood tropes and cliches. (Including a parade chase and a rooftop chase. And car chases. How often have we seen that crap?) And the script takes only the basic plot points, re-writes the rest, and removes all nuance and detail. I give the first movie a high Eh! rating (nearly a weak Ah!) but the second one gets a middling Meh! rating.

      That said, I don’t think novels translate well to feature films. Too much must be removed. Adaptations necessarily change things, but I don’t think movies are big enough for full-length novels. (Short stores — there have been some good movie adaptations of short stories.) TV series do much better (although even Reacher skipped over a lot of stuff). Christopher McQuarrie just did a much better job writing (and directing) the first movie than Edward Zwick and Richard Wenk did the second (Zwick directed). I like McQuarrie’s work much better than what I’ve seen of Zwick’s or Wenk’s.

      Movies are amusement park rides. Books are long drives in the country.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I enjoyed the Tom Cruise movie, but haven’t seen the TV show yet. I had heard of the book series, and remember reading the Amazon preview of the book the movie was based on, and feeling the draw of the narrative, a definite sign of the author’s skill. I do plan to eventually read some of these books, if for no other reason than to study how the author does things.

    Any particular book you’d recommend trying first?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Depending on how you feel about reading the book of a movie you’ve seen, I’d say starting with book #9, One Shot, as I did, isn’t a bad way to go. The first books are good, but I think Child got better over time, honed his character and his craft. If you wanted to meet Reacher during his Army days, you could try #8, The Enemy, or #16, The Affair. The latter is his last case for the Army and ends with his quitting. The first book, Killing Floor, takes place six months after. I’ll mention that first book, and #3, Tripwire, contain some key aspects that echo a bit in the rest of the series, but I didn’t get to them until I’d read a dozen of the others and that worked out fine. It’s mostly that events in those two are mentioned later.

      My sister, having seen the Amazon series, has decided to start with book #2, Die Trying, which would work. The writing isn’t quite as smooth as later books, but it’s still quintessential Reacher.

      Child’s writing style is unapologetically commercial — that is, easy and fun to read. In his Forward to Killing Floor he says he writes what he wants to read. In contrast to most other authors, his later books, on average, seem to have fewer pages (and I do find some of his early work a tiny bit over descriptive). Roy Bittan, Bruce Springsteen’s piano player, once commented his evolution as a rock piano player involved learning to play fewer notes. Learning what was better to leave out. I feel Child evolved in a similar way. The later books are “cleaner” somehow.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        At this point, my memory of the movie is pretty hazy, so I don’t think I’d have an issue reading the one it’s based on. I kind of like seeing the contrast between book and movie adaptations. (And I actually haven’t seen the second movie yet. Not sure I knew about it.) I see where Amazon has Editor Picks for some of them, starting with book 8.

        I have no problem with writing that’s easy and fun to read, commercial or otherwise. And I definitely like writing that is tighter and cleaner. So it sounds like the later stuff would be better to start with, particularly for my purposes. Thanks! (Now to just get around to actually reading them.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I like comparing books and film adaptations, too. (Preferably book first, I’ve decided.) I’m reading the 18th book, Never Go Back, now so I can rent the movie from Amazon.

        You’d have no problem starting with the later books. As I mentioned #8 is a flashback story from his Army days. The books do follow a chronology (except for the three flashback ones), but they stand alone no problem. My reading order was: #9, #7, #8, #10—#17, #5, #4, #6, #3, #2, #1, and now #18. So I think you almost can’t go wrong whatever you do.

    • Anonymole

      The series was worth watching. Reacher & the blonde have good chemistry. She’s worth bringing along for future series, one can hope.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Alas, you’ll have to wait for some other TV series to see her again. Every Jack Reacher story involves a new location and new people. A few stories involve people he knows from his military past, Neagley for instance, but it’s generally a whole new crop of characters in each book.

  • stolzyblog

    I liked both screen versions of Reacher, though for different reasons. I’ve read none of the books and am not motivated to, as my reading time is pretty filled up. So I more or less view the two Cruise movies and the 10-part (was it?) Alan Gargantua series as works in their own right. The differences between the movies and the series are already evident in the amount of time devoted to exposing the story. Cruise feels forced to go big and splashy, cutting to the chase all the time while the series can afford to languish in tiny mysteries for an episode or two. Both vehicles have a charm, though maybe Alan’s is more witty and funny in parts. In both the payoff is the bad guys’ comeuppances, always with a reroute or two along the way as to who the actual kingpins are and who are the cronies. One comparable scene is rendered in both the first Cruise film and the first Ritchson series. A small squadron of low-level hoods are dispatched to take out Reacher and teach him a lesson. In the series, 4 baddies encircle the bored Reacher who remarks that ok, first I have to take out the leader then two more of you. The leader then mocks that there are four of us, dopey, not three. But Reacher replies that he must leave one uninjured able to drive the others to the hospital. He then destroys them in like three screen seconds. In the movie, Cruise ups this similar scenario to five assailants. Cruise always has to stretch his odds beyond credibility (as in the highly ridiculous but visually beautiful ‘The Last Samurai’. His smart aleck remark is also altered a bit, explaining that usually he takes the leader out first, then the two topdog angry followers, whereupon the last two usually turn tail and flee. Perhaps jokes like this are repeatedly riffed upon in a 25-volume canon, not sure.

    Net-net, I’d rate the series above the movies, but the Cruise pieces definitely have their place. 2 hours of popcorn fun, condensed, with a complete lack of respect for orthodoxy along the way on Reacher’s part. A second Ritchson multi-part series is supposedly close to releasing.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, I agree the series is better — Ritchson is a lot more like the Reacher from the books. And as you say, it also captures Reacher’s sense of humor better (Cruise played it pretty grim). The TV series was apparently hugely popular, so we ought to see more than two seasons.

      FWIW, the two fight scenes you describe are taken almost word-for-word from their respective books, dialog and all. Most of the books have a scene along those lines, Reacher against multiple assailants. There is invariably some banter from Reacher to the effect that four (or five or six) against one? Yeah, not very fair odds. For you guys, I mean…

      Child wanted to create a protagonist the bad guys should fear both intellectually and physically. An emotionally unconflicted superman in contrast to the angst-ridden, often fearful, crime-fighting protagonists that became popular (I think around the 1980s or so).

      • stolzyblog

        Interesting. Thanks for clarifying. There was a series from ’30s or ’40s I used to get absorbed in during my middle school years, reading it under the desk in lieu of history class. Similar kind of rounded renaissance man hero ideal. Doc Savage books, psuedo-authored by Kenneth Robeson. Man of Bronze. Adonis physique but also an intellectual polymath… doctor, inventor, scientist, etc. Always wondered if somebody would adapt for Netflix or something.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        A long-time friend of mine and I have wondered for decades why Hollywood ignores so many great stories from the past, especially the science fiction of the past. But people seem to prefer the safety of franchises and the well-known. Original stories never seem to land as well as the 27th Marvel movie or yet another Star [Trek|Wars] TV series.

        I know about the Doc Savage books, but never read any. For me it was Superman; Conan the Barbarian (Robert E. Howard); Simon Templer, The Saint (Leslie Charteris); James Bond (Ian Flemming); and others. All from a time when we didn’t mind ideal heroes — mythically powerful characters we looked up to. But the social deconstruction that I think began in the 1960s led to a shift towards more broken characters — ones supposedly more “like us.” I think they act as a kind of security blanket that assures people it’s okay to be average or even an asshat. Because so many of our “heroes” are. It allows a vox populi besotted on fantasy and often at sea regarding science to feel better about itself. I first noticed it when Rick Berman took over from Gene Roddenberry. The latter believed in an idealized future as a goal to aspire to, the former wanted things to be darker and more “realistic”. Star Trek was never the same, and now it’s “in name only.”

        BTW, saw the second Tom Cruise Jack Reacher movie, and while it wasn’t an awful movie on its own, much of the violence was that done to the original text. The story was recognizable, but after reading eighteen Reacher books and seeing the Amazon Prime series, Tom Cruise is so not Jack Reacher. I have to do the same thing I had to do with his Mission: Impossible movies. Understand “based on” as a point of departure with a very different point of arrival.

  • Death on the Nile | Logos con carne

    […] a Mystery Monday bonus, last week I posted about how I’d discovered the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child (I’m on #20 […]

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Well, I’ve read all the Lee Child Jack Reacher books and, I think, all (or nearly all) the short stories, and I’ve now read the two books Lee co-wrote with brother Andrew, Blue Moon (2019) and The Sentinel (2020). Looks like the series will be in good hands.

  • Mystery Monday 8/15/22 | Logos con carne

    […] finished the extant Jack Reacher canon (including either all or most of the short stories). [See Jack Reacher for details.] I’m a big fan of the series and will stay with it even now that younger brother […]

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    […] part of a continuing story (the John Wick movies are a good example) and some are distinct stories (the Jack Reacher series, in fact most detective series, are good […]

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