Danyl McLauchlan celebrates the string of masterpieces written by Lee Child.
About 15 years ago I was having a drink with an old friend, and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Dire Straits started playing on the bar’s stereo. My friend had very elevated taste in music and I wanted to impress him so I said, “Oh god no, not Dire Straits,” because Dire Straits was – and is – a popular mainstream band despised by most musical sophisticates. But, to my disappointment, my friend disagreed with me. “Dire Straits are fine. Mark Knopfler,” he added, after a moment’s reflection, “is good at creating characters in his songs.” Which, I realised, listening to the song for a few seconds and thinking about other Dire Straits songs I’d spent years performatively hating, is true.
The lesson I took from that is that when something is insanely popular – a writer, a movie, a musician, whatever – people are often reacting to something of value in the work. Which might seem obvious but if, like me, you have a contrarian impulse to reject anything popular, possibly to disguise your own devastating sense of inferiority, I don’t know, I don’t know you, and you give into that impulse, you can deprive yourself of a lot of simple pleasures. To those people I say: give mainstream popular culture a chance.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels are insanely popular. There are 21 in the series; he writes a new one every year, and in 21 years he’s sold an estimated 100 million books. Someone buys one every nine seconds. He has the highest return readership rate of any bestselling author: if you read one Reacher novel you’re likely to read more. This is my fourth, or fifth, or maybe sixth. They blur into each other.
Reacher books occupy a similar cultural niche to Dire Straits: they’re the books a stereotypical dad gets for Father’s Day, hence deeply unfashionable in literary circles. When I told a couple of writers I know I was reading a Jack Reacher novel they looked physically ill. Let’s be generous and assume Child is doing something right. But what?
Jack Reacher’s hands are as “big as a supermarket chicken.” He’s a huge guy: six and a half feet tall. He’s a graduate of West Point and a former major in the Military Police. Reacher can beat anyone in a fight and defeat any number of simultaneous attackers. He’s an expert with every type of firearm and he never misses. He knows basically everything in every area of human knowledge – thanks to his military training – and where there are gaps in his education his intuition is never wrong. Reacher has no responsibilities: no family, no job – but he always has enough money to eat at a truck stop and rent a cheap motel room. He’s haunted by his past, but not in the sense that he has depression or anxiety or anything like that. No, Reacher is haunted in a romantic, harmless, tough way, and so he Walks The Earth, meeting people and getting into adventures. He always knows the time but never wears a watch.
Child’s 2017 Reacher book, The Midnight Line, starts with Reacher getting off a bus in a small town in the US Midwest, strolling past a pawn shop and seeing a woman’s West Point class ring in the window. Reacher knows you don’t graduate from West Point and then pawn your class ring for a couple of bucks: his gut tells him that the woman who owned that ring is in trouble. He spends the rest of the book tracking down the ring’s owner, hitching his way around the post-industrial Midwest and into the wilds of Wyoming, confronting biker gangs and drug dealers and beating the shit out of all of them until he finds the girl. Every weapon and vehicle Reacher encounters is described in fetishistic detail: make, model, age, condition. The books have a huge readership in the US and UK armed forces, and Child reports that this audience pounces on any inaccuracy. Child himself is not a military man: his real name is James Grant, a British former TV writer. He worked on Cracker and Brideshead Revisited!
It would be easy to say that Reacher is a male fantasy, but when Child is questioned about this he points out that two-thirds of his readers are women (you don’t sell 100 million books without a keen understanding of your product’s target market). So maybe Reacher functions as a crossover fantasy. He’s a modern manifestation of an ancient archetype, Child explains: a knight-errant, a wandering ronin or mysterious stranger from a western who rides into town and solves a problem and then disappears into the sunset.
Child is a pretty good stylist. There are lots of alleged rules out there about how to write good prose and how to structure stories – avoid cliche, show don’t tell, omit needless words – and Child ignores all of them, as most contemporary bestselling authors seem happy to do. He’s fine with cliche, and Reacher patiently re-explains the book’s plot to every character he meets (“You see this ring?”). But he’s good at tone, capturing the truck stops, diners, and hollowed out towns of the disintegrating post-industrial Midwest, and the dirt roads, abandoned farms, dying towns and desolate horizons of Wyoming.
And the action scenes are brilliant. Years ago when I was writing my first novel and searching the internet for literary advice I stumbled across a list of rules for writing erotic fiction, and one of them was “Never write a lesbian threesome,” which, when you consider the technical complexity of communicating such a scene to the reader without boring or confusing them, is genuinely good advice for aspiring writers and can be generalised out to “don’t write scenes in which multiple characters simultaneously interact with each other non-verbally”.
But rules like that are for beginners. How could Jack Reacher beat up seven members of a biker gang at once outside a bar without simultaneously interacting with them non-verbally? Child takes us inside Reacher’s head as he maps out his strategy for crippling his doomed opponents, and we always know the layout of the fight: who is where, and which character is kicking whose kidneys, then pivoting to break whose nose. There’s an undeniable level of technical skill on display. You always know Reacher is going to win: the tension comes from seeing how.
I was half-way through The Midnight Line when George Saunders won the Booker Prize for his first novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Saunders exists at the opposite end of the literary spectrum from Lee Child: his novel is experimental, brilliant, ostentatiously drenched in postmodern literary theory. But for all his formal invention the themes of Saunders’ novel sit very safely in the mainstream of contemporary progressivism: racism is evil, homophobia is evil, sexism is evil, slave owners are evil; racist sexist slave-owning rapists are evil. Which, okay, sure: but literary fiction is supposed to be challenging and the function of Saunders book seems to be the uncomplicated validation of the worldview of everyone likely to buy a copy in a campus bookstore.
It struck me, reading the Saunders coverage and then returning to The Midnight Line, that although the prose and structure are simpler, the moral world of Jack Reacher is more complex. On one level Child’s books are deeply conservative: respect for the military and those who serve in it are bedrock values. Reacher is prone to speeches about duty and loyalty and honour and sacred oaths and the US constitution, often delivered to characters he’s only just met, who either react well to these values (‘I got me a son in the infantry’) and give him the help he needs to progress to the next stage of the plot, or reject them, prompting Reacher to hospitalise or kill them. He’s a classic vigilante, solving problems and defeating evils that the justice system, crippled by its institutions and rules and due process and respect for human rights, etc, cannot hope to confront.
But, sneakily, these classic conservative tropes act as vehicles for progressive arguments. The Midnight Line is about the opioid epidemic in the US, and this is explicitly linked to capitalism and corporate greed. The drug addicts in the story are sympathetic victims rather than villains; former soldiers sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, horribly wounded in wars the book suggests were pointless foreign policy blunders, failed by their leadership and left to eke out lives of misery and addiction.
Child claims that Reacher is “post-feminist”. (Remember when Obama was elected in 2008 and numerous pundits announced that America was now “post-racial”?) What he means is that Reacher treats women as equals which, I’m no expert on social justice theory, but I think just makes him a feminist. “Post-feminist” is an astute marketing move though: it’s not going to alienate Child’s large military and conservative readership, or draw attention to the way this huge, tough American super-soldier of vigilante justice consistently advocates for progressive values. When he’s talking about US foreign policy or drug addiction or equality or capitalism Reacher sounds less like a military man and more like, well, a writer who worked on Brideshead Revisited.
We occupy an increasingly fragmented culture in which different political tribes consume different news, different music and different books and form increasingly incompatible views of the world. The Jack Reacher novels are one of the rare cultural commodities that spans that divide, read by both Malcolm Gladwell and the members of Seal Team Six. Maybe the reason such a diversity of readers respond to these books is that, unlike the superstars of contemporary literary fiction, Jack Reacher actually challenges them to think.
Midnight Line by Lee Child (Bantam, $38) is available at Unity Books.