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).
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.