I first met Jack Reacher two decades back, on a cottage weekend. We spent two nights staying up way too late. There’s still no one in fiction I’d rather hang out with.
When I first encountered Reacher, the former military cop was wandering rural Georgia, tracing the roots of an obscure jazz musician. He ended up facing off with a seriously nasty counterfeiter. That book from 1997, the first from former British TV writer Lee Child, is called Killing Floor. It’s the opening instalment in what’s now a journey across 22 books — the 23rd book, titled Past Tense, is due this fall. I can’t wait.
Before we go further, let’s deal with the movies. The Reacher novels spawned two forgettable films, both starring Tom Cruise. To print purists such as me, these movies are travesties, done in by poor casting and even poorer screenwriting. Reacher is a massive slab of a human being. Cruise is a tiny perfect product of the Hollywood machine. You can hate the movies and still love the books – legions of fans take this view.
Reacher’s appeal is in straight-ahead storytelling. The hero is a classic outsider – a commanding physical presence, quick to insight, quicker to violence, solving mysteries and delivering frontier justice with fists, elbows and firearms, all while drifting aimlessly across the landscape. In a moral universe coloured in various shades of grey, Reacher sees in black and white. He sees the bad guy, he messes with bad guy. There’s one fight scene, in the book Persuader, that plays out over four full pages. You don’t want the punches to stop. It’s hugely entertaining.
The intellectual pull of Child’s novels comes from the fact that they play out against thoroughly modern backdrops. Reacher’s most recent adventure, The Midnight Line, is woven around a nuanced look at the opioid epidemic. Other books draw inspiration from sex trafficking, terrorism and illegal immigration. There is depth to Child’s writing that’s missing from most beach reading.
My favourite Reacher books play out in rural settings, such as the Nebraska farmlands that Reacher travels in Worth Dying For, where he takes on a series of increasingly beefy football players, or the small town in Colorado that is home to an apocalyptic religious cult in Nothing To Lose. Child is equally entertaining when he drops his hero into the back streets of New York – the author’s current home and setting for several novels – or in the middle of London’s gangs, which play starring roles in Personal.
Even the weaker novels in the series – where the story suffers because the villain is just too villainous or the plot doesn’t quite hang together – feature an array of entertaining characters and stirring action. And Reacher’s careless charm and nomadic ways mean a series of strong women feature in the stories, adding a little spice without shifting the focus from action to romance.
That’s what makes the Reacher novels your classic summer read. Like summer vacations, summer movies and summer songs, these books serve to entertain, first and foremost. A Reacher adventure both sets my pulse racing and leaves me totally relaxed. The same is true of the short stories Child has written about his globe-trotting U.S. Army veteran, recently packaged under the title No Middle Name.
Do I come away from a Reacher adventure with new insights, as I did from Hillbilly Elegy, the best book I read last summer? Nope, but that’s not the point of a novel that I crack open on a rainy afternoon at the lake. I’m reading for fun, and that’s what Child provides.
Reacher is the perfect antidote to a world filled with complicated issues and unresolved conflicts. He solves problems, in a brutal fashion, and moves on.
There’s a rough time line to books, so if you’re tapping into Child’s series for the first time this summer, pick up Killing Floor first, then chew through the rest of the series in the order they were written. Chances are you, too, will stay up too late as you wander the world with Jack Reacher. And I’ll bet you enjoy every minute of the ride.