November 27, 2012

Lee Child - still reaching

In an alternative universe, I could have been Lee Child. We're almost exactly the same age and were brought up in Coventry. I suspect, however, that he's brighter than me. He got himself a job in TV production and when he was 'let go' he moved to America to write thrillers, which he's done to staggering success.

When you come across your first Jack Reacher book it's a hell of a ride. Reacher is logical to the nth degree and can think his way out of almost any situation. And when he can't, then he's 6'5" tall and has hands the size of plates - so he can batter his way out.

And that's it ... that's the plot of his last seventeen books. Reacher travels the country with a toothbrush and a credit card, buying clothes when he needs them, falling into dangerous situations every couple of months or so. He finds some bad guys and some good guys and makes everything OK. Crucially, these situations are usually somewhere out in the American sticks, where Child can create the world in which Reacher can move and have his being.

And this is fundamental to his trick: Child draws on our folk knowledge of the mythical America so that he can regulate it and make Reacher's actions and thought-processes plausible. What does this mean? Here's an example from his latest book, A Wanted Man:

Cross-county traffic east to west and west to east was light, because the Interstate fifty miles north ran parallel and took most of the load. But traffic north to south and south to north was markedly heavier, because in one direction the Interstate attracted traffic, and in the other direction it dumped it out. It had taken local business people about five minutes to notice that pattern, and three miles out of town to the north they had developed a long ragged strip with gas and diesel and diners and motels and bars and convenience stores and cocktail lounges. [... ] The result was keno and poker machines in the bars, and strippers in the cocktail lounges, and rumours of prostitution in the motels, and a river of tax revenue into the county’s coffers.   
This is a description of a part of an unnamed county in Nebraska, and what Child does is make it absolutely 'typical' so that we recognise it immediately. We've seen the movies and read the books - the straight-line roads, the ragged strip of gas and diesel and diners and motels and bars ... we can see them in our mind's eye. Child constructs the world that Reacher moves through almost out of cultural building blocks - and in this book he's almost upfront about that:
He knew the grammar. There would be a no-name gas station, and a microwave oven and an urn of stewed coffee in a dismal hut across the street, and a faded mom-and-pop motel a mile down the road. He could see the gas station lights a mile away, blue and white in the night-time mist. A big place, probably, set up for trucks as well as cars.
And the 'grammar' is what Child uses. In linguistic terms, native speakers understand the grammar of a language even if they don't know all of its words. We too know the grammar of America, its truck-stops and motels, its freeways and convenience stores. Child enables us to use our own knowledge, creating an America that is both real and sketchy at the same time. There's enough detail in his descriptions (for example of cars) to ground the book in reality; but enough vagueness in the actual locations and circumstances to enable him to construct his characters and plots. This is probably why most of the books are set in the empty spaces of the US - there is more room for invention. Set a book in New York (which I think he's only done once) and suddenly you have to cope with the specificities: real buildings, the subway, the street names and so on.

A Wanted Man plays out almost as an archetypal Reacher adventure. Reacher criss-crosses Nebraska and Iowa in a number of cars with a number of people, both evading lawmen and women who are hunting him and also tracking a woman who has been taken hostage. And of course there is the usual Reacher-think - mileages, timings, destinations ... Reacher can calculate anyone's direction and motives because he's smart and because he used to be a military cop. He knows how ordinary mortals operate and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of America's highways, cities and rivers. He'll find you.

And this is the second part of Child's trick: because he's created a vision of America that draws on our folk knowledge - that is almost a cliché in its predictability and commonplace nature - he can draw conclusions and make predictions that are bound to come true. There is no messiness in this world. If Reacher knows that someone is thirty miles away, driving a straight road in a car that is probably ten years old, he will be able to tell you when that someone will arrive. From looking at a motel, or a church, or a restaurant, or an office-block, he will tell you where the exits are, how many people the lifts will hold, how many waitresses will be on-shift at any given time ... because it's all typical. By making the world in which Reacher operates ordinary, commonplace and what we expect, Child enables Reacher to be its lord and master because he knows its typicality inside out.

Of course he's smart - everything is exactly as he thinks it will be.

This is both the triumph and the downfall of the books. They're great fun to read because Reacher out-thinks everyone and, when he gets stuck, is big enough to thump them and win. Child has said that he writes his books based on a series of questions that he then answers, and this certainly gives the books a forward momentum - as one problem is solved, or a question answered, then another problem or question arrives. We certainly want to know what happens next because we want to see Jack get out of it.

The downside is that Child limits himself to a view of humanity that is almost mechanistic. Dialogue is premised on giving information and solving problems, not on developing character. There is quite a bit of humour in the books but barely one real character - they tend to be functions rather than humans. In A Wanted Man, someone even has to suffer an unexpected heart attack simply so that Reacher and his colleague can use his car and not be tracked for a while ... now that's just not nice.

Having said all that, it will be interesting to see how Tom Cruise portrays Reacher in the forthcoming film of One Shot. It doesn't augur well that they've already changed the title to Jack Reacher, making the story seem to focus more on the character himself than the story-problem he has to solve. And of course, there's the size issue. As we all know, size isn't everything. But in the case of Reacher, actually it is. Otherwise why make him an unusual 6'5" to begin with?


  1. I don't think of Lee's writing as 'mechanistic' in any kind of way. It always amazes me how much the stories draw me in, even though there is typically not that much true action until the climax of the storeis.

    Reacher is one of the most interesting and beloved characters to come out of the past ten years of thrillers, so I think it's a bit short-sighted to imply Lee's stories have zero focus on character development.

    In fact, Jack Reacher is easily one of the most readily identifiable fictional character of the this century, maybe he's second to Harry Potter, but for sure, it's a close second at this stage. Harry's over, Reacher's still going strong.

  2. It may seem monotonous to you, but the ultimate catch is how a single person, a man in this case, can be either in the military or out, but still maintain individualism given either the swallowing of all personality in the military or as a drifter as a civilian. It makes one wonder, thus allows one to keep reading all of the books.