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For the love of Lee Child
For the love of Lee Child
When publishers send out copies of new releases to the newspapers, they customarily place an embargo which states that no review should appear before the stated publication date. This injunction is frequently ignored, as literary editors scramble to get their stuff up early. I am often unable to buy recently reviewed books because publication date is still weeks away. In general, I don't mind. I have plenty of reading to be getting on with.
But there are limits to my patience, and Lee Child is one of them. I recently read a review of a new Jack Reacher title (Never Go Back), and immediately tried to download it on the old Kindle, only to be told that it was not yet available. For two weeks! I wait a whole year for a new one to come out, and when it does I want it right away, as in, I am going to read this today, all day, all of it. I will not put it down, because I cannot. (I was introduced to Reacher by a New Zealand friend who was once on a plane with 10 pages still to go, and carried on reading until he was gently removed from his seat by a bemused flight attendant. He hadn't noticed that the plane had landed and that everyone had left.)
I am, in general, unembarrassed by the lowness of many of my tastes. Bugs Bunny is one of my role models, and I support Coventry City Football Club. But even so, I was for some time unwilling to share – at least with serious literary friends – the depth of my devotion to Lee Child's novels. It is one thing to like crime fiction and thrillers – to admire Ian Rankin, John le Carré, James Lee Burke, proper writers all of them – but no one, I imagine, values Child for the quality of his prose. One can hardly find, in the entire corpus of the work, a single sentence worthy of independent admiration. But put them together, one by one and page by page, and I am consumed, not by admiration exactly, but by something much more powerful – the great animating impulse of the whole story-telling business – the desire, the rage, to know what is going to happen.
This is genre fiction at its most basic, of the Grisham, Patterson sort – books that grip but don't abide. You forget them pretty quickly, and unless your memory is as bad as mine (and you cannot remember them a year or two later) you never return for a second go. You know who did it, to whom, why and how.
The major pleasures of a Reacher book are relatively simple. The ex-army major and MP, a peripatetic loner who leaves no traces except in the hearts of those he has touched, is a one-man wrecking crew, hurling bad guys into the darkness with breathtaking efficiency. In one scene, a fight in a bar, five roughnecks are dispatched within a minute. How cool is that? (Though I also recall – and was profoundly shocked by – a scene in which two tough women manage to beat him up. I took me full week to get over it – longer than him – during which I drafted a letter of protest to Child, though I had enough residual sanity not to send it).
I have established a simple rule for ranking the books: the more people he kills (and the badder they are), the better I like it, and him. Reacher is, of course, in a long line of American outcast heroes (how does the Coventry-born ex-TV-man author know so much about this?) who abjure emotional ties, head out into the wilderness and take upon their own broad shoulders the primitive moral conscience of the tribe. Too immature to make a sexual commitment, obsessed with death and terror, this archetypal hero of American fiction was first described in Leslie Fiedler's classic Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). Reacher fits nicely, though I wonder if the relentless Fiedler would find traces of repressed homosexuality in Child's hero? Perhaps you don't need to be that butch unless …? But I don't want to go there. I like Reacher how he is, un-Freudianised, omnipotent, hetero.
I have, of course, read the 17 previous Reachers, as well as the bits of written-for-Kindle short fiction. I have a few friends with whom I enthusiastically share this passion, and together we deride the recent casting of the diminutive Tom Cruise as the 6ft 5in, 250-pound Reacher. No amount of shrewd camera angles, and casting of short(er) actors in other parts, can disguise the fact that whatever Cruise is – and he is never anything more than Cruise – he could never be mistaken for the übermenschlich hero of Child's books. In action, he is more like the Tasmanian devil of the cartoons, a whirlingly destructive miniature, without gravitas. Or, indeed, soul.
But to have used the word "soul" in this context, to describe the immature and uncommitted hero of Child's books, is to indicate how far I have fallen, and how careful (I thought) I have to be in sharing my passion for them. And then, sometime last year, a couple of funny things happened.
First, I was driving home from Shropshire, after teaching an Arvon writing course with my friend Selina Hastings, the chronicler of the lives of many of our great writers, and we got to talking about which authors I should approach to annotate one of their books for the forthcoming PEN charity auction. I gave her a quick list of those who had already signed on: Barnes, McEwan, Stoppard, Heaney, Ishiguro …
She stopped me in mid-gush.
"What about Lee Child?" she asked, with the breathless excitement of a child pulling a rabbit out of a magician's hat.
"You like Lee Child?" I asked, both incredulous and delighted to be joined in my enthusiasm by someone as trenchant and demanding as Selina.
"Who doesn't? I love him!"
The hell with the PEN auction. We spent much of the rest of the journey recalling – or trying to recall – which of the books was which, and trying to explain to each other and ourselves why we liked them, since they are so forgettable. Turns out it isn't hard. They're exciting. You can't put them down.
The experience of finding a haut literary acquaintance who shares my enthusiasm was repeated some six months later when I was sitting next to Philip Pullman at a dinner given by the Double Crown Club. I am a great admirer of his work, which is engrossing, demanding and of the highest seriousness. His Dark Materials is a classic, not of children's literature, but of fiction generally.
We eventually, as one does in meeting a literate stranger, got to talking about our reading, and discovered a mutual love of thrillers. So far, so predicable. Almost everyone I know likes thrillers. Except Howard Jacobson, who can't see the point of them. Philip and I made the usual recommendations to each other (his best tip was to revisit Lionel Davidson) and seemed to have read much of the same stuff. But, all of a sudden, there it was:
"Lee Child," he said, "I think they are terrific. Have you read him?"
I nearly leaned across my dessert to fall into his arms. A kindred spirit. But also another confirmation that I was not alone, and that the literary undergrowth I inhabited had others in it too.
This was, I think, pretty pathetic of me. First, to have been embarrassed by my attachment to Reacher. Second, by my losing this embarrassment simply because some estimable literary types shared my passion. So what? Why not have a little more self-confidence in one's own tastes?
There we are then. I love Child. He is one of my favourite authors. It's a relief, coming out of the closet like this. So. I presume I am not alone in my tastes. If you can remember, which Reacher do you like most?
Never Go Back by Lee Child (Dealacorte, 2013, 416 pages, $28.00) is the eighteenth title in the Jack Reacher series of mystery thrillers featuring the mysterious Reacher, who mysteriously arrives in town when things are going wrong, steps in to save the day, and moves on to continue his lone voyage. The novels are robust, manly (whatever that means), and exciting. A drug for those addicted to this genre tracing itself back to the very mists of story writing concerned with the lone hero, not a part of society, but an observer, and, when needed, a participant in it. Since the book is, on publication, has already spent 71 days in the Amazon top 100 and is currently at number 9, a new film starring Tom Cruise based on the Jack Reacher character has just been released, and Child has embarked on a lively book tour. I'll not spend to much time discussing this particular volume, but rather try to explore Reacher himself, why he appeals to readers, and, perhaps, a little bit of speculation about Child's mode of working on this very popular character.
One of the delights of reading Reacher lies in the reader's ability to pick up any book in the series without having to have read any earlier ones. Although Never Go Back has a repeat character from 61 Hours, reaching back four novels, it has no relevance at all to the current tale except to establish a reason for Reacher's going to Washington, DC. where he has gone to meet Susan Turner, who he's only met previously by telephone. Soon after his arrival he is arrested on charges of murder and rape, as well as smacked with a paternity suit, which all supposedly occurred about fourteen years previously. Reacher, a retired army officer who had previously served as commanding officer of the Military Police unit Turner now commands, soon creates enough havoc to get himself arrested while also discovering that Turner is in jail on charges of having taken a bribe. The rest of the book involves their working together to prove their innocence and destroy the illegal operation and conspiracy which has trumped up charges to get both of them out of the way. They become involved in a cross country chase, a series of daring encounters, and working closely together while discovering an irresistible physical attraction. Revealing any more of the plot would only serve to take away from its ingenuity and surprise.
What about Lee Child's approach to the enigmatic character Jack Reacher makes these books exciting and enjoyable reads? Jack Reacher is a retired military officer, a graduate of West Point, son of an officer. He is endowed with physical and intellectual powers which make him a dangerous man to oppose as well as a fine person to have on your side. It remains something of a mystery to me why good people trust him and bad people don't, but that's pretty much the way it is. When Reacher comes to town, he always finds the trouble there and those who need his help or intervention are easily persuaded he's the man to provide it. But Reacher lives off the grid. He carries no ID, has no cell phone or credit card. He hasn't had an address for years. He sees things others don't. He responds in the moment, almost always just a step ahead of his opponents. His physical skills combine with great size and speed to make him a more than formidable character. His intelligence and penetrating logic help him to see the need and keep a perspective that helps him to choose the precise amount of physical response necessary to achieve his goal without causing more damage than necessary, yet he knows how to inflict pain when called upon to do so. He's always on the edge of violence, yet never commits more than necessary. Readers can find a Wikipedia profile of Reacher stitched together from the novels here. Men like him and women love him. What's not to admire?
Author Lee Child (real name: Jim Grant), according to a recent interview on MSNBC, didn't expect to be a writer. Born in England, he was twenty years into a successful career as a television producer, when he lost his job. Taking the bit in his teeth, he decided (against all reasonable odds) to write a mystery thriller. The first book won The Barry Award as best first novel in British crime fiction, placing his work on a fast track which has led to eighteen successful Reacher novels. Since then he has won another Barry as best novel for The Enemy in 2005, placing him in really fast company in the crime fiction genre. Child's narrative is very cinematic in nature. It's easy to visualize the characters and situations. At times, they almost seem as if they've been designed to convert immediately into action films, although the current Tom Cruise vehicle (Jack Reacher) is the first to reach theaters. I gather that all the Jack Reacher books have been optioned for film, meaning it could become quite a franchise, although the choice of Tom Cruise as a suitable actor to portray the character over a series which could continue for years seems questionable.
It often seems that Child creates a Reacher novel on the run. He places his character in a situations and then almost sits back and records what happens to him and what his responses are. He invents new elements to his character which contribute to the plot of the present story, whatever he needs to move the story along. Regardless, there remains an internal consistency to Jack Reacher that readers obviously enjoy. When I picked up my first Reacher book, I finished it in a day or so and right away returned to the local library to get a couple more. However, I found I easily overdosed and decided not to read through the entire series. Now, I look forward to the next volume, but have waited to get it until it reaches the remaindered shelves. However, it's fun to see where Child chooses to send Reacher and how he uses Reacher's various strengths to solve the problem at hand.
Never Go Back by Lee Child (Dealacorte, 2013, 416 pages, $28.00), the eighteenth in this series of crime thrillers, provides a diverting and enjoyable few hours in the fantasy America of Jack Reacher, a hero of near super proportions. People who like the books really like them; these books are a real or guilty pleasure. Apparently there are a lot of them, including me. I received the book as a digital download
Well. All right then. I am going to have to give them a try.
Did you ever read "First Blood"? The story Rambo is based on?
Don't run... The book is fantastic. The movies. Well. Not so much. But you might want to try the book.
Didn't even realize that movie was based on a book. Have to look for it.
Never Go Back (2013), Personal (2014), and Make Me (2015) become books numbers 18, 19, and 20. Never Go Back and Personal both are classic Jack Reacher stories, have not acquired Make Me yet to read.
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