Lee Child on Jack Reacher

Lee Child (James Grant)
[from Wikimedia Commons]

The last three Mystery Monday posts have all mentioned the Jack Reacher books by Lee Child. I’ve really taken to the character and his stories since I met him in the first Tom Cruise movie. (Which is actually the second-worst way to meet Reacher. The worst is the second movie, and even that’s not awful.)

Last week I stumbled across the Mysterious Profiles series published by Mysterious Press (founded by Otto Penzler, owner of The Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan). Each volume is a short essay by a mystery author. Based on the titles and the one I read, they’re about how the author conceived and built their series character.

The one I read was by Lee Child about Jack Reacher.

Most of it was information I’d read in various Wikipedia pages or other sources, but there were some new bits. More importantly, the 40+ page essay by the author himself made clear to me why I enjoy the character so much. I thought I’d record some of that here.

As an aside, neither the Mysterious Press website, nor the one for Open Road Media, seem to know anything about this Mysterious Profiles series (very mysterious). Searches return no results (or irrelevant ones). I don’t know what that’s all about, but Amazon (of course) has the entire 26-book series.

§

One of the early seeds for Jack Reacher was the chance airport purchase of a book to read during a flight. That book was The Lonely Silver Rain (1985) by John D. MacDonald (1916–1986). Child loved the book and later bought all the MacDonald Travis McGee books he could find.

I too loved the Travis McGee series. In fact, I rank it among my favorites. It’s in the small set of books I reread from time to time. (Talking about it here gets me thinking I should plan a reread. It’s been a while.) MacDonald, like Elmore Leonard (1925–2013), is one of those authors genre fans point to and say, “See? There really is great writing in genre fiction!” (MacDonald wrote some interesting science fiction, as well.)

There are some key similarities between McGee and Reacher — traits that stand out compared to many modern similar characters. Neither has formal or steady employment. McGee takes on “recovery” jobs according to his financial need and whimsy; Reacher mostly lives off his Army pension, occasional “spoils of war”, and the rare temporary job (such as bouncer or pool digger).

Neither owns a home. McGee owns a houseboat that lets him roam; Reacher is homeless and wanders constantly with only the clothes on his back.

Both are strong capable fighters; Reacher is almost unbeatable, even by a small group. Both are loners, especially romantically, but both enjoy brief relationships that generally end without regrets on either side. Both have a strong thoughtful moral sense but one based on somewhat old-fashioned values. Both are people to be reckoned with, benign to the innocent, dangerous to the maleficent.

§

A much earlier seed comes from his classical British education, long before James Dover Grant (1945–) took the penname Lee Child.

In the ancient European sagas, myths, and poems, especially the medieval stories, he met the “knight errant” at the western wellspring. Jack Reacher easily compares to Travis McGee, both compare to the Lone Ranger, and all three have roots in the medieval knight errant.

The wandering Samauri is one Eastern version of the lonely hero. In all cases, the basic story arc involves a capable stranger who appears during a time of need, is drawn (or sometimes forced) to help, and disappears after solving the problem. A lot of westerns follow that pattern.

Child was a voracious reader, although apparently not of westerns. He jumped from the medieval knight stories straight to Travis McGee! I’d guess westerns aren’t something most Brits connect with. Along the way he found he had some definite tastes in stories — tastes I largely share.

Likes: outlaws, cleverness and ingenuity, intriguing revelations (like solving the mystery), and winners. Dislikes: smart heroes who do something dumb at the end of the second act in order to set up the third act. Stupidity because plot.

Special dislike: the common Rocky mode where a hero must lose, lose, lose, until finally, at the end, often through nothing more than plot and will, the hero prevails. Child writes that, in sports, he “liked crushing victories rather than ninth-inning nail-biters.” (If nothing else, the lose-lose-lose-win meme has gotten really old.)

§

Child took a law degree, which, firstly, shows a very intelligent and capable mind. Both the Reacher character and the writing benefit from it. (I really enjoy highly intelligent authors.) Secondly, the study of law teaches an important clarity and directness in writing.

And the Reacher books are extremely readable. (At times I’ve started one meaning just to check out the opening scene only to have to force myself to stop several chapters later.)

Child (no doubt as Grant) also spent time working in the theatre, which surely fostered his creative side. It was there, during the era of experimental theatre (most of which was bad), that he was exposed to the contempt some artists can have for their patrons. The lack of audience was seen as a badge of honor (rather than good taste in staying away, they were too stupid to get it).

Child writes:

I hated that attitude. To me, entertainment was a transaction. You do it, they watch it, then it exists. Like a Zen question: If you put on a show and nobody comes, have you in fact put on a show at all?

Child goes on to quote G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936) on Charles Dickens:

“Dickens didn’t write what people wanted. Dickens wanted what people wanted.”

This was an instrumental insight for Child. He determined he would write, not what he thought people wanted, but what he wanted as a reader. And that turned out to very much be what people wanted.

§

He was thirty-nine when sat down to begin life as an author. He started by thinking about things and coming up with three conclusions:

“First: Character is king.” He points out that only a handful of stories are ever remembered for their plots. What we remember are the characters. No one remembers the plot of any Lone Ranger story, but everyone remembers the character.

“Second conclusion: If you can see a bandwagon, it’s too late to get on.” If you can see a trend, it’s necessarily because that trend is a trend; it’s already crowded. Child has a great take on the modern mystery genre, one I had to think about a moment. He says most character series, when distilled down, are soap operas, and he’s right. Modern characters have lives, homes, partners, bills, friends, favorite watering holes, and so on.

He goes on to point out that soap opera has gotten a bad name but it’s actually “an incredibly powerful narrative engine”. In science fiction, space opera is a time-honored form, and even what many see as the lowest form, the actual daytime soap operas, are compelling enough to have run for decades.

His third conclusion: “You can’t design a character too specifically.” A character can’t be the result of a committee or a laundry list (or a set of currently politically correct motivations). He let Jack Reacher evolve from two notions:

To provide an inbuilt sense of dislocation and alienation, Reacher is a military brat who joined the Army as soon as he was old enough. Pushed unwillingly out of military service, civilian life and his native country are largely unknown to him. He begins to wander and explore both, which leads to most of his adventures (a few are flashbacks to his time in the Army).

Secondly, Reacher was military police during his time served, and this gives him a background in investigation (often necessary in his adventures). This also provides a second layer of alienation for the character, that of cop versus civilian.

And to make him as simple as granite, his birth certificate names him Jack Reacher. Jack isn’t short for anything, and he has no middle name.

§

A vital part of the man is his size and strength. Jack Reacher is 6′-5″, about 250 pounds, all muscle, a force of nature. Child wanted a hero that was scarier than the bad guys, someone they should rightly fear.

In part it’s about winners and crushing victories; in part it’s about avoiding the over-crowded bandwagon. Child writes:

For a long time what the others had been doing was making their protagonists more and more flawed and vulnerable. Way back, it had been a welcome development to move away from the uniformly lantern-jawed he-men that had crowded the genre. Heroes became smaller, realistically afraid, physically unexceptional.

He continues (and I love this bit):

On the emotional side, they became battered. They were alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, divorced recovering alcoholics, divorced recovering alcoholics living in cabins in the woods and traumatized by professional mistakes. Literal and metaphorical bullets were lodges near hearts. There was an overwhelming feeling of incipient failure and melancholy.

Indeed. As Child points out, it was a welcome change at first, but it became a bandwagon, and now it’s gotten old (and in these PC times, cloying).

Jack Reacher, in contrast, is well-adjusted and happy with who he is. His lifestyle and approach seem almost autistic, and Reacher is in many ways dysfunctional, but the key is that Reacher doesn’t realize it. In his eyes, his approach to life works. It’s this dysfunction that humanizes the character. He would be a valuable, but difficult, friend to have.

§

A last intriguing thing about Jack Reacher is his motivation in getting involved with the situations he encounters. He doesn’t accept recovery jobs like Travis McGee. He’s not a private eye or cop, and he really doesn’t much care what other people are up to.

But because of his skills, upbringing, history, he feels some sense of obligation to those in need. In one of the books, when pushed about whether he really cares about the little guy, Reacher replies:

“Not really. I don’t really care about the little guy. I just hate the big guy. I hate big smug people who think they can get away with things.”

Don’t we all? That’s his motivation. He despises unfairness and injustice. He can’t fix the world, but he can try to clean up the dirty bits he stumbles over when he can see people being hurt.

§ §

All-in-all a pretty awesome character. I’ve gone through nearly the entire canon now, all the novels, nearly all the short stories. Not a stinker in the bunch.

This Jack Reacher series, and (so far) everything by science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer, are my happy-happy literary discoveries of 2022.

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 “Lee Child on Jack Reacher

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I really thought this would be a very short post. Child’s essay is only 44 pages, so I figured there wouldn’t be much to say about it. Silly me.

  • Anonymole

    Then why the hell did Child agree to let that pipsqueak Cruise play Reacher?

    The recent series (Prime?) then takes the character in the right direction. I’d say that actor and the mien with which he play Reacher appears much closer to what you describe above.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Tough question: Tom Cruise offers you a bucket of money to star as your character but being huge and strong is a fundamental aspect of said character. The psychology that really interests me there is why Cruise wanted to play Reacher to begin with. Overcompensation isn’t just a river in… wait… um… never mind.

      Yes! Alan Ritchson is excellent as Reacher. Very much more what Child had in mind. And he’s not just some ex-wrestler they dragged up. He’s been acting for almost twenty years, so he’s comfortable in front of the camera. I watched the first season again after reading the novel it’s based on (#1, Killing Floor) and enjoyed it just as much the second time.

      If you recall the last scene of the season finale, Reacher walks into that small cafe where he never got pie. As he walks in, he almost collides with a guy who’s walking out. That guy is Lee Child. Little walk-on role there at the end.

      • Anonymole

        Oh, cool. I’ll have to have another go at that last episode.

      • Mark Edward Jabbour

        Cruise is, perhaps, THE actor of this era. I just watched “Cocktail” (1988). It’s a vehicle for Cruise, the person, as are most of his roles. He’s the opposite of Val Kilmer. In so many ways. Cruise plays Cruise. He doesn’t play a role, or character.

        In “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022) there is a repeated line: “Don’t give me that look”. The LOOK is the smile of a super-confident man – which is Cruise.

        Now the question is: Is that “overcompensation” for some childhood trauma of some kind? If it is it sure has worked. The guy is who he is – more so than anyone (except maybe Trump?).

        The Reacher movies, like you said, are good. The TV series is, however, more true to the character Child created. Most writers (myself included) make a character that reflects them – a phantasy person. As if a dream of who they are if they could be who they want to be. So Child creates himself (recall Child is not his real name); and then to make a movie? Well, you’d want your movie to be a hit, i.e. for people to go see it. You pitch it to Cruise, who says, “Sure, I can do that. Looks like fun.”

        The movies brought attention to the books and then – the TV series.
        Everybody wins.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I realized Cruise could act when I saw him in Magnolia (1999). Up until then, as you say, and as with many American actors, Cruise more or less just played himself. (Harrison Ford was my canonical example of actors who do that, although his Branch Rickey in 42 (2013) is a counterexample.) Looking at Cruise’s filmography, there sure are some gems. Four of them rank very high on my Really Good SF Films list.

        The overcompensation I had in mind was his height. This talk about Tom Cruise inspired me to read the Development section of the Jack Reacher movie’s Wiki page. Cruise’s production company owned the film rights to Jack Reacher. By the time McQuarrie got involved, One Shot (Reacher #9: 2005) was the most recently published, so that’s the one they adapted (I had wondered why that one). The second movie, released in 2016, likewise adapted Never Go Back (2013), which was the most recent when they began development in 2013. Which explains why that book, too.

        I hadn’t connected some important dots with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie. He’s the writer behind The Usual Suspects (1995), Valkyrie (2008), The Tourist (2010), Edge of Tomorrow (2014; an excellent Tom Cruise SF film), and Top Gun: Maverick (2022)! All worthy films, especially The Usual Suspects (a long-time favorite of mine). McQuarrie also wrote and directed The Way of the Gun (2000) a very good neo-western thriller starting Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro. And McQuarrie wrote and directed the fifth and six Mission: Impossible movies (and will do the next two). Wow! Busy guy. I’ve enjoyed his work.

        You’re absolutely right about that first movie. It was my gateway to Reacher. Liked the movie, so I read the book. Loved the book, so I read more, and the rest, as they say, is (very recent) history. So, I’m indebted to the movie.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    “They were alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, divorced recovering alcoholics, divorced recovering alcoholics living in cabins in the woods and traumatized by professional mistakes.” Yep. Sure rings true. 😉

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    You’ve given me a bunch of movies to watch, that I haven’t. Thanks. Yes, about Cruise’s height; but he might’ve used that as motivation early on and then been successful. If that was his motivation for his smile and confidence? Bravo! But maybe he just has “IT”.

    I haven’t seen “Magnolia”; but if my hypothesis is correct – Cruise would’ve said, “I can do that. You think I can’t act? Watch this.” Unlike many, he does his own stunts. Very dangerous and yet … . Cruise is a seriously tough dude.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’ve heard (which, of course, means little) that he’s sensitive about his height. That seems puzzling to me (if it’s true), because he is so successful and accomplished (and rich and powerful). If it is true, it might explain why he’s so driven. Or he’s just an intense perfectionist. All I can really say is that he’s made some memorable movies!

      Magnolia among them. And I thought Oblivion (2013) was a really good SF film. More psychological thriller than action thriller. His next film, Edge of Tomorrow (2104), an SF action thriller, gets all the props (it’s good, too), but Oblivion was, I thought, a deeper and richer SF film.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    I watched “Collateral” last night. Very odd story. An action buddy movie that mixes up black and white tropes. Philosophical. Cruise is his smart, confident, attractive self; but in a bad way – he’s a highly paid assassin working for criminals. Good entertainment = soundtrack, action, characterization, all of that. And a little crazy.

    Question: Have you seen “Hud”? Early Paul Newman and “Sometimes a Great Notion”? a few years later; directed by Newman who also stars in it. Both are adaptations of novels about men in the late 50’s, early 60’s, in the American west? Newman takes a character, Hud Bannon, and turns him into a better version, Hank Stamper. Fascinating, I think.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, Collateral is another good one. Nice tense, taut story. (I used to have a thing for assassin movies.)

      I think I say Hud back in my college days, but I know I’ve never seen Sometimes a Great Notion. I tend to stick to genre stories. Due to my raging misanthropy, I generally find ordinary dramas too ordinary. I need that extra element to make it interesting. I really liked Pillars of the Earth, for example, because it’s also about medieval architecture and construction.

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    Watching “Pillars of the Earth” now. Might take me awhile. I loved the book. Read it when it was published. And was a fan of Follet. Not so anymore.

    Btw re misanthropy – I thought I was I was a lone wolf. Cheers.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      The HBO miniseries, yeah, that was pretty good. I like Ian McShane, and the TV series was reasonably faithful to the book. I really like Pillars, and have read it several times, but I’m not otherwise very familiar with Follett’s work. I think I read Eye of the Needle long ago and maybe Capricorn One as well, but looking at his bibliography, I don’t see any other titles I recognize. I did start World Without End, the sequel to Pillars, a while back but didn’t get far into it, put it down, and never picked it up again. Maybe someday.

      I think being a lone wolf and being a misanthrope are related but can be separate. One can be a hermit while still being okay with people. I started that way. My misanthropy is the result of years of exposure to all the stupidity, toxicity, and divisiveness, of modern human culture (in contrast to what I see us as capable of). I was always a lone wolf going my own way, but the misanthropy seeds weren’t planted until high school and didn’t flower until after college when I left the “ivory tower” cradle of school. Regardless, either mode, cheers! 🍻

  • Mark Edward Jabbour

    You’ve done well to survive so long as a misanthropist. Cheers, indeed.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Finally saw Top Gun: Maverick (2022) last night. I’d had it in my Watch queue, but Amazon, after offering it for rent, only offered it to buy (and I’m not about to start yet another online movie collection I don’t actually own). They finally offered a rental again. (Not thrilled their rentals only last 48 hours, but that’s another topic.)

    Wow! What a ride! Not just a worth successor to the original, but a really good film in its own right. Excellent in every regard. Two thumbs up and highly recommended.

    It’s a good old-fashioned film (not a CGI acid trip) with real airplanes and real flying. They put a lot of effort into making the film physical and real. It gives the story serious heft. And it shows that Hollywood is still capable of making outstanding films. Well written, well directed, well performed. Nothing took me out of the story. To honor it, I did something I haven’t done in a while: Watched all the credits. (Used to always do that to respect those who made the film — the least you can do is read their names — but end credits have gotten ridiculous. I’m sorry, props to al, but I don’t need to know the name of the person who drives the honey wagon.)

    The plot was maybe a bit by the numbers, the surprises weren’t that surprising (one might even call them expected), but, oh boy, done so well that even watching the film for the first time the story has the warm feel of a friend. A lot of that, I think, is due to Tom Cruise, an experienced and able war horse who brings out his acting chops on this one. Some of it comes from the callbacks, both of plot and plot structure (Maverick screws up and gets in trouble, but, hey, he’s going to Top Gun anyway). I found the callbacks smooth and seamless.

    And Jennifer Connelly… what a stunning example of a fine wine becoming incredible with age. I was never one of the fan boys, in fact never really understood the attraction, but she’s all magnetisim now. Another experienced actor, she wears the role like a glove, and the romance between her and Cruise feels authentic. It seems right that, at this point in their lives, they find each other. (“Just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl…”)

    Interesting how they brought Val Kilmer back. They kinda had to, and they incorporated his throat cancer into the reality of the story. It was sad, but I’m glad he was able to be in the film.

    The story does (delightfully) surprise in one regard: One would expect the mission sequence to be the final act, but (surprise) it’s not. There’s a whole other action thing that happens after. Then comes the wrap up at the end and flying off into the sunset.

    Wow! Really good movie!

    [A friend gave me a 12-pack of Hop Rising a double IPA from Squatters Craft Beers in Utah. It’s 9% ABV! But pretty drinkable. Two of those while watching the movie wrapped me nicely in cotton wool.]

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Watched it again last night before the 48-hour Amazon rental ran out. Loved it the second time through. Even watched the final sequences twice.

      Interesting how the mission sequence has no dogfighting. They put that in the sequence that comes after it!

      In that latter sequence, I love how the F-14 and the chasing “fifth generation fighter” catch the spray of the waterfall in that canyon Cruise uses for cover. And how a plane fires a missile, but an explosion takes out both plane and the just-launched missile. Great visuals throughout this movie!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      And extremely well written. One could do a long post (although a video would be better) breaking down the story structure and beats.

      (I was impressed all over again by the acting chops of both Cruise and Connelly. Good chemistry in subtle performances. Just tasty all around.)

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