The Lawless Pleasures of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher Novels

1.

Midway through Lee Child’s latest in the Jack Reacher series, more about “Make Me,” Reacher stands facing an armed man in a doorway. As is often the case in the Reacher novels—which involve, invariably, Reacher tumbling across some kind of malevolent conspiracy in the American heartland and killing everyone involved—Reacher is unarmed. He likes to travel light and acquires his guns on an as-needed basis. But the bad guy has a Ruger P-85 nine-millimetre with a nine-inch suppressor attached to the end of the barrel. Reacher is a giant—six feet five and built like a block of stone—and some part of his brain tells him that he’s safer in the hallway than inside the door, because the guy with the gun won’t want to shoot him in a semi-public place. How on earth do you move a dead, six-feet-five block of stone? He steps forward. The bad guy says, “Don’t move.” Reacher steps forward again. The bad guy says, “Back up now.” Reacher doesn’t, and with that act of defiance the power balance between the two of them shifts, imperceptibly, even though, by rights, it shouldn’t—and we are off once again, in what will prove to be one of many ever-escalating, ever-more-exhilarating outbreaks of bloodshed.

Tom Cruise made a movie out of the Jack Reacher series in 2012, and has plans to do another. His first attempt was a critical and commercial disappointment, and it is not hard to see why. Cruise is a long way from a six-feet-five block of stone. But the deeper problem is that a movie is about action, and action, in a Reacher book, is nearly always a secondary matter. We know going in that Reacher will kill the bad guy through some combination of tactical brilliance and brute force. The pleasure is in Reacher’s moment of introspection in the millisecond before the action occurs: his silent consideration of the variables of physics, geometry, and psychology that comprise a violent encounter. How do you do justice to that kind of intellectualized contemplation in a movie? You can’t. I mean, come on:

His standard procedure, such as it as, based on what had worked, for a right-handed person facing a right-handed gunman, was to drive slightly forward but mostly counterclockwise, a savage rotation from the waist, explosive, exaggerated like a dance move, with the right shoulder whipping hard around, therefore the right elbow whipping hard around, and the right hand and the right palm, the palm smacking hard against the inside of the bad guy’s wrist, and then pushing it, pushing it hard, pushing the gun out of orbit, then clamping on like a claw, the other hand meanwhile coming palm-to-palm with the gun hand, the left against his right, like dancing, like fighting over the gun, but it’s not fighting over the gun, it’s pushing the gun hand, pushing the gun hand back and back, all the time dragging the wrist forward with the claw, until the wrist breaks and the gun drops.

2.

Lee Child has now written twenty Jack Reacher novels. In each, Reacher kills roughly a dozen people—which means, if you do the math, that he’s murdered somewhere north of two hundred people in the course of his lifetime in fiction. That’s a lot of killing, and in “Make Me” the bodies seem to pile up faster than usual. For example, there is an intense set piece in a gated community outside Phoenix. Reacher has to confront three heavily armed bad guys aiming to do some serious damage while simultaneously protecting the hysterical family that has stumbled, for complicated reasons, into the middle of the madness. Reacher doesn’t have a gun, naturally. He has to get one from the bad guys, protect the family and kill lots of people, all in a really short period of time. Just working out the sequence and the angles is a tour de force of split-second calculation. In an ordinary airport thriller, this would be the climax. In “Make Me,” it’s a just a warm-up, Reacher’s version of an Olympic skater’s compulsory figures, where the contestant proves she has the basic skills to belong before getting on the with the real stuff:

It was a through-and-through, obviously, given the short range and the power of the Magnum round. Twenty feet behind the guy’s head the wall instantly cratered, the size of a punch bowl, and a ghastly split second later the contents of the guy’s brain pan arrived to fill it, with a wet slap, all red and gray and purple.

Later, in the scene where Reacher confronts the bad guy in the hallway (the next compulsory figure), we are told that Reacher looks at the guy “with the glassy stare of a psychopath.” It’s an awkward moment for the reader because, of course, the minute you read that line you realize that it’s true: if someone has killed over two hundred civilians in the course of his literary career—all with a fair amount of forethought and deliberation and more than a little relish—he is, technically speaking, a serial killer. At another moment in the shootout at the gated community, when Reacher puts a bullet through a bad guy’s upper lip and “out the base of his skull, shattering the slider window, and exploding a pile of wedding presents on the table in the yard outside, in a cloud of paper fragments, white and silver, like confetti a few days early,” we are told that Reacher is simply “a craftsman going about his business, calmly, using his natural born gifts.” That description doesn’t exactly make things better.

3.

The Reacher books are Westerns: they are about the man of honor coming to the lawless frontier town in order to impose a rough sort of justice. But in a crucial respect, they turn the genre on its head. The traditional Western was a fantasy about lawfulness: it was based on a longing for order among those who had been living without it for too long. The heroes conduct themselves according to strict rules of chivalry. They act—insofar as it is possible—with restraint. In the world we live in today, by contrast, we have too much order: we are, as we have been reminded so frequently lately, over-policed. Our contemporary fantasy is about lawlessness: about what would happen if the institutions of civility melted away and all we were left with was a hard-muscled, rangy guy who could do all the necessary calculations in his head to insure that the bad guy got what he had coming. That’s why there are rarely any police in Reacher novels—or judges or courts or lawyers or any discussion or consideration of the law. Nor is there any restraint on the part of the hero. He’s not pointing toward a more civilized tomorrow. He’s leading us back into the wilderness, with the reassurance that our psychopaths are bigger and stronger than the bad guys’ psychopaths. I’ve read all twenty of Lee Child’s novels. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. But I can’t wait for the twenty-first.