Published: Sunday February 24, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday April 20, 2013 MYT 5:27:44 PM

Hit the road, Jack

Lee Child’s fictional hero Jack Reacher is a modern-day cowboy who hitch-hikes his way into troubled towns and sets things right before riding off into the sunset ... on a bus.

SO, I reached for a bookmark from the stack on my table to accompany me on my journey through the world of Jack Reacher. The one I pulled out (at random, I must add) bore this inspirational saying: “The best way out of difficulty is through it.”

Which, when you consider Reacher’s approach to his problems (or those of other people that somehow become his), is a saying that fits him to a T.

Not one to mince words with a mob of ruffians when he can pound them into unconsciousness (with one blow apiece), or stand around weighing moral issues when he’s about to shoot an old serial killer in the head, Jack Reacher – the creation of author Lee Child and star of 17 novels, several short stories, a novelty compilation, one movie and a cameo “mention” in a Stephen King novel to date – is one guy who doesn’t “go” through difficulty so much as he rams it with a metaphorical 16-wheeler truck.

To be honest, I’d never heard of Jack Reacher (though I remember seeing the author’s name on some books on the bestseller shelves, I just never picked up any of them) until the movie came out. And of course, by then everyone was well into the whole “Tom Cruise isn’t Jack Reacher!” argument.


I was quite impressed by the movie, so I picked up One Shot, the novel on which it was based. I also grabbed a few others – Tripwire, Worth Dying For, 61 Hours, The Affair – since a colleague told me you could read them in no particular order.

Although I’d just watched the movie, I tore through One Shot fairly quickly. Familiarity with the story was not an obstacle to my enjoyment of the book, and I concluded that screenwriter-director Christopher McQuarrie had been quite faithful to the tone and general structure of his source material.

After putting One Shot back on the shelf, I picked up Worth Dying For and thought I would just check out the first few chapters.

Big mistake.

You don’t just check out the opening of a Jack Reacher book without sticking around until your eyes can hardly stay open, and suddenly, I got the picture why he and Child are such big deals to fans.

First, the books are real page-turners, and Child does vary his style enough to keep them from seeming too much alike. I’ve only read four of the books, but each one seemed to speak in a fresh voice.

They mostly seem to be mysteries wrapped in thrillers, where the issues of both whodunit and whogetsit (from Reacher) are equally exciting in their buildup and resolution.

Sometimes, the devices used by the author get a little repetitious, like the counting down that happens every few pages in 61 Hours and the way so many chapter stops in The Affair seem to be there just to set up pregnant pauses in the dialogue.

Speaking of The Affair, a murder-mystery and a sort of “origin story” for Reacher, I thought the book went on a good 50 or so pages longer than it should have and Child overdid it with the red herrings regarding one of the main characters.

But on the whole, in terms of plot and pacing, the books do draw you in and keep you spellbound as you keep turning pages to see how Reacher deals with his current situation.

It’s also quite interesting to see how Reacher frequently gets people to open up by hardly saying anything – it must be quite unnerving to be faced with a silent giant when you’ve got something to hide.

And of course there’s the whole idea of Child, a Brit (and a pen name; he’s actually named Jim Grant), writing so effectively about the exploits of such a true-blue American hero whose adventures frequently take him into the American heartland.

At any rate, Child relocated to the United States shortly after the first Reacher book came out.

Deciding to become a writer after becoming the victim of corporate downsizing, Child reportedly built this experience into Reacher’s back story as well. Instead of trying to find another job, Reacher simply hit the road and kept going.

The Hard Way

Perhaps the strongest appeal of the character, the way this Reacher newbie sees it, lies in the fact that he is neither constrained by the law nor bound by any dedication to due process.

In Reacher’s world-view, people who do very bad things are deserving of immediate retribution, delivered with the calm matter-of-factness of a man who just knows that things need to be set right.

Reacher is a big guy (a good 17cm taller than Cruise), described by the author as “an unstoppable force”, and his acts of dispensing justice are unemotional, detached and sudden ... like any force of nature should be.

And of course there’s his footloose lifestyle – not in the Kevin Bacon sense but the “free to go and do whatever he pleases” sense.

Ex-Military Police (army), Reacher has since the late 1990s adopted the lifestyle of a drifter, never staying too long in any place, with no baggage – literal or figurative – to weigh him down and no electronic trail. The son of a Marine, he lived a nomadic life growing up, continued like that when he was in uniform, and likewise after he was out of it.

So just what kind of hero is this Jack Reacher, anyway?

I’m leaning towards the wandering cowboy type, only without a horse or even a saddle to fling over one shoulder.

Reacher’s size and penchant for getting into “situations” remind me the most of Cheyenne, which starred the 1.9m Clint Walker and is largely credited with kickstarting the TV Western craze that ran from the 1950s through to the 1970s. (The show was a TV staple for many of us growing up in Malaysia the 1960s.)

Or fast-forward a little along the TV antihero timeline and he could even be Bill Bixby’s David Banner in The Incredible Hulk, moving from one spot of bother to another, only with no need to “Hulk out” because he’s already, you know, such an imposing figure.

Bad Luck And Trouble

Like those two-fisted gunslingers of pre-revisionist Westerns, Reacher is usually just out to live a quiet and undisturbed life while he wanders the land; only circumstances never allow it.

He might be hanging around one town, digging swimming pools for a living, when a private eye shows up looking for him and gets killed soon after. Or, finding himself at a motel bar where the local drunk happens to be the town doctor, Reacher drives the inebriated chap to attend to a domestic abuse victim and winds up getting in the way of a powerful and thoroughly rotten clan.

Some folks get stranded in small towns because of breakdowns or accidents; when it happens to Reacher, it transpires that the town is home to a determined old lady who is about to testify against drug-dealing bikers and whose life is in danger because of that.

And if he happens to like the coffee in a particular diner so much that he goes back the next evening for a second helping, you can bet that repeat visit will land him in a world of trouble. You get the idea.

I’ve only read four Reacher books (currently part-way through the fifth), so I’m less than a quarter of the way into Child’s oeuvre, but I’m quite impressed so far by how the author keeps throwing Reacher into the blender and making it convincing.

Just why has Jack Reacher become such a phenomenon?

This newcomer to the Reacherverse figures that his freedom to act, react and mete out punishment taps into the current mood so prevalent in the world today: the knowledge that things need to be set right, the feeling of helplessness in the face of conspiracies, organised crime (whatever colour the collar may be), big money, and corruption.

As the bad guys in the books are slowly revealed, or as the extent of their evil deeds is gradually described to us, we keep flipping the pages in gleeful anticipation of the moment when the “unstoppable force” will plough through them.

Reacher is not a really standup guy; he’s flawed, he screws up on occasion, he seems to behave selfishly or indifferently at times. Perhaps the more we see his flaws, though, the easier it becomes to live vicariously through his adventures and experiences, because – the physical dimensions notwithstanding – we derive from them some reassurance that setting things to rights is not so far out of ... reach

Tags / Keywords: Books, Lifestyle


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