I don’t always interact with the popular culture on a timely basis. This year, though, I find myself hiding in best-selling books. I seem to do that every winter but this year, with the extra time I’ve gained from a career interruption, it seems the only thing I’m capable of.
Off to the library I went, intent on stocking up on the light stuff. Among my haul was a new, for me, writer. That makes me clueless since Amazon says he’s the #17 author based on sales. In fact, if The New Yorker hadn’t decided to do an omnibus review of Lee Child‘s work I still wouldn’t know who he was.
Like any popular author, though, Child–or at least his primary character–is a brand. Such an approach always establishes limits although I’ve read Child is more likely to vary such things as point of view and narrative style from book to book. Child himself is hiding behind a pseudonym and at this point he’s an ex-pat Brit living in the South of France and, I might be wrong about this, sometimes in New York.
Oddly, his books are all set in the good ol’ USA. Go figure.
Times get the heroes they deserve and I’m wondering just what Child’s hero says about the era we’re living through. Jack Reacher is an ex-military man. In fact, he was an MP who seems to have stayed in just short of a pension-ensuring 20 years. He is also an enigma.
How, the true fan asks, can you say that?
All these character-focused series work the same way. You get some repetition of the character’s backstory from volume to volume. That way anyone new to the franchise can slip into the flow at any point. Read enough volumes in a series and you’ll know as much about the hero as you do about your cousin Hester.
In this case there isn’t a lot of that. You get the facts you need to frame Reacher and not terribly much more. You don’t even get a sense of his motivations although it seems clear there is some deeply rooted belief system or code that essentially compels him to act.
When we first meet Jack he’s in Miami dallying with a Norwegian flight attendant. But that’s 40 pages into the book. By then there’s been a massacre; a lone gunman has killed five people in a Midwestern city as the workday ends. The police are beyond diligent and manage to identify and arrest the alleged shooter who is the poster child for closed-mouthedness. His interrogation is one-sided except for his declaration of innocence and one request: “Find Jack Reacher.”
Which brings us back to Miami. Reacher, watching TV in a beachfront hotel room the morning after what could become the day before, sees a news item on the shooting that includes the name of the shooter and tells the girl he’s off to Indiana.
Here’s the first difference between our hero and, say, James Bond. Maybe I’m a prisoner of my childhood but I can’t imagine the Bond of my imagination let alone Connery or Moore leaving the girl at the beach.
It’s also the first time the word I’ve come to attach to this book (and Reacher) crept into my mind: improbable.
Okay, it’s crime fiction, emphasis on the noun. But still. It’s not just leaving the girl, it’s the whole package.
Our hero travels by bus. He’s six-foot five and yet unnoticeable when he wants to be by police and bad guys alike. Women are sexually (and otherwise) attracted to him yet he continually walks away.
There’s more. He must keep the S&A boutique in business because he buys new clothes every fourth day. That last bit is a trick since he never once goes to the bank (and where would he get a check anyway?)
The bad guys stretch the improbability further. They’re the Russian mob. Or are they? It’s unclear, though the Russian part isn’t in doubt.
Yet their back story doesn’t align with their present activities. If they really are survivors of the Gulag, why are they able to function in an open society? I get that it’s supposed to explain their ruthless ability to survive. It doesn’t explain their facility at white-collar crime or running a business.
Just to round it all out, the ending seems to have an end beyond just righting wrongs and tying up loose ends. I think, consciously or not, the goal was to out do Macbeth.
As a story I can’t fault it. It holds together and moves along at a nice clip. But I don’t know that I’d spend more time with Child and Reacher. I need something more in my crime fiction than this lone avenger.
Humour, for one. I’ve always preferred crime fighters who were quick with a quip. Nick Charles. John Corey. Chili Palmer (who is, paradoxically, both a crime fighter and a criminal). In a pinch I’ll even take a streak of slapstick in the shamus or his partner. Stephanie Plum and Lula. Doc Ford and Tomlinson.
All these folks, by the way, have a code that, I suspect, isn’t terribly different from Reacher’s. It’s just that the presence of the sidekick requires the explanation that Reacher never indulges in.
Maybe that’s why I can’t relate. I need things spelled out for me. Then again, it may tie back to my original question. Because the times may just be more about getting the end result you deserve without understanding why and how you got there.
And there’s nothing comforting or entertaining about that. At least for me.