The Reacher Phenomenon

Lee Child has officially come of age, with 21 Reacher novels under his belt.

For those of you whose only exposure to Jack Reacher has come from the two films, you are in for one hell of a shock when you come to reading the books. When casting for Reacher began, author Lee Child would probably have had just about every other actor in Hollywood in mind ahead of Tom Cruise. Sure, the movie business these days is a magical world of CGI, but even those computer wizards couldn’t make the 5ft 6inch (on tippy-toes) Cruise become an imposing 6ft 5inch Reacher. Andy Serkis became Gollum, Mark Rylance the BFG, but Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher? Pull the other one. Still, Lee Child was happy enough. And Reacher is his man.

Lee Child has officially come of age, with 21 Reacher novels under his belt. The legend began in 1997 with The Killing Floor, whilst the latest, Night School, was published only recently. During the series we’ve seen Reacher past and present, lone wolf walking the earth like Caine from Kung-Fu, finding trouble wherever he goes (if it doesn’t find him first), or hard-as-nails Military Police major. Reacher has also ventured into first-person POV, which makes for an interesting insight into what makes the man tick.

Of course, Reacher is not great literature. According to those who tell us what great literature is, at least. Stephen King once wrote: It is the tale, not he who tells it, expanding on Elmore Leonard’s theory that the story is the main driving force, not how it is told. Lee Child seldom strays beyond ‘he/she said’ when writing dialogue – another Leonard rule – but the tales he tells are nonetheless compelling. Usually. Yes, the phrase ‘Reacher said nothing’ has become so overused the reader may begin to dread its next appearance, but we forgive it as we are blown along by the force  – and brevity – of the prose. For every Kingsley Amis there is a Lee Child, and that’s how it should be. They both get the job done, just in different ways.

Having been fired from his corporate job at the age of 40, Englishman Jim Grant decided to write his first Reacher novel. The decisions to both set his protagonist in the USA, and publish under the pen name of Lee Child, were brave – especially given the cliché that authors should write about what they know. But then, what awful advice that often is. Of course, Lee Child and Jack Reacher are very much products of this ‘I want it all, I want it now, and I want to achieve it in as little time as humanly possible’ modern world. Few Reacher adventures live long in the memory, but whilst consuming them they are always both satisfying and tasty.

Well over 100 million Reacher books have been sold, and with the movie tie-in there appears to be no end to this cash cow continuing to reel in readers. I’m one of them – hooked a little late, but have since read every novel. This enduring character, with good intentions, a genuine sense of right and wrong, allied to the strength, physique, determination and will to do something about it, is someone we can all root for. Someone we hope might be in our corner should we need him.

Jack Reacher was not the first literary hardman, and he will not be the last. But the strength of the character is thus: with the Thomas Harris creation, Hannibal Lecter, every subsequent sociopathic serial killer was compared to him; so every fictional tough guy with a heart is compared to Reacher. Substance over style wins the day