As the author of twenty internation-ally best-selling novels, Lee Child must be doing something right.
The New York Times calls his books “utterly addictive.” Rick Geko-ski of England’s The Guardian calls Child’s protagonist, Jack Reacher, “a one-man wrecking crew, hurling bad guys into the darkness with breathtaking efficiency.”
I won’t go into whether Jack Reacher is Child’s alter ego. Let’s just say Jack is the man most men want to be and the man most women would like to crawl into bed with.
So how does Lee Child do it? What makes his novels so popular? Let’s look at it from a fiction writer’s point of view.
His protagonist is an extreme character.
What does that mean? He is extraordinary and does things ordinary people like us wouldn’t have the passion or courage to do.
To say Jack Reacher is different is an understatement. He has no middle name and no home address. He lives mostly in shabby motels. He travels light—no luggage, no backpack. However, he does keep a toothbrush in his pocket. He doesn’t own or drive a car because he “failed defensive driving,” but he gets where he wants by hitchhiking or traveling by train or bus.
He’s six foot five and weighs about 250 pounds, and he knows how to throw his weight around.
He’s also implacable. In one passage, the bad guys are blocking the road. When the lovely woman driving the car asks Reacher what she should do, he says, “Drive straight at them.”
“And crash?” she says.
“That’s always an option.”
He doesn’t have an itinerary. In Make Me, he stops at a small town called Mother’s Rest. Why? Because, “He had no place to go, and all the time in the world to get there, so detours cost him nothing.”
When a female ex-FBI agent asks if he’s in town to work, he says, ”I’m not here to work. And I’m on nobody’s side. I’m just a passerby.”
When his clothes get grungy, he goes to the local hardware store and buys a shirt and a sturdy pair of pants. He tosses his previous wardrobe in the trash. He has a “default breakfast”—“pancakes, eggs, and bacon, but most of all coffee, first and always.”
He didn’t carry any identification until after 9/11 when he needed a passport. He has no apparent source of income, and yet when he needs money, he simply acquires it by eliminating a drug lord or a similar villain and confiscating thousands in cash.
Reacher doesn’t carry a gun but, when necessary, manages to find one and blow his enemies into very tiny bits. At one point, Child writes that Reacher looks at a guy “with the glassy stare of a psychopath.” He has killed more than 200 people, mostly without remorse. But in Make Me, he does have a moment of hesitation.
"Some small part of Reacher’s mind didn’t want to shoot at the one-eyed guy. He’s a poor old handicapped man.”
But the guy was pointing a weapon at Reacher’s current lover so, of course, he had to kill him.
Reacher has casual sex but he’s selective, attentive and careful. Not exactly a good candidate for a husband or a father, though.
He’s not in prison, but the FBI is looking for him.
Okay, but that’s just his bad side.
Jack Reacher is an anti-hero, and a characteristic of an anti-hero is he has a good side, usually a very good side.
In this case, our anti-hero is smart, sexy, cerebral, introspective and moral—in a way. He isn’t your stereotypical alcoholic, wounded man trying to heal himself. He doesn’t have a recently murdered wife or a disastrous love affair.
As one reviewer said, “Just tell the damn story! Some of us read mysteries for the mystery, not to learn yet more about Harry Bosch's tortured internal life. There are actually people who are ok with themselves and just do whatever they do well and don't spend a lot of their (and our) time navel gazing.”
As Kevin Nance wrote in The Washington Post, Reacher has “absolute clarity about the world and his place in it.”
Reacher is a graduate of West Point and served in the military long enough to acquire two Silver Stars, the Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Soldier’s Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
He’s skilled in physics, geometry and psychology, so when he needs to take down a bad guy, he first works out the logistics of space and time in his head and moves into action like a human evil-seeking missile.
Here’s Reacher’s analysis of a gunfight:
“’If Knox is right-handed, then he was shooting diagonally across his body. He would want reasonable arm extension. The muzzle was probably out the window, just a little. The ejection port on a Glock is on the right side of the gun. So he had to be very careful with his position. He had to keep the ejection port inside the car. Kind of cramped. No opportunity to aim down the barrel. Yet he hit the guy right between the eyes. Not easy. Is Knox that good a shot?”
‘I don’t know.’
‘You should try to find out.’”
Here’s another example:
“Reacher’s gun tracked his move. Rear sight, front sight, target.
Reacher fired. Single shot. Range, eighty feet. Nine-millimeter Parabellum, 124 grains, full metal jacket. Muzzle velocity, more than eight hundred miles an hour. Time to target, less than a fifteenth of a second. Virtually instantaneous. The round hit the guy high on the back, dead center, at the base of the neck. A spine shot.”
Reacher’s natural intelligence, his physical mass, military training, curiosity and analytical abilities are his major strengths. Without them, he’d be a one-dimensional character, just another hulk.
Child’s books are heavy on dialogue. Short, staccato sentences and fragments with little need for modifiers. Reacher is a minimalist when it comes to talking, and, yet, we learn more about him from his dialogue than from inner thoughts.
He isn’t vindictive and he never kills innocent people. He does only what needs to be done.
His dialogue is simple, underlaid with dry humor and subtext.
“A click. A purr. The voice. It said, ‘Where the hell are you?’
Reacher said, ‘What? Now you’re my mother?’
‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you.’
‘I’m out at the Air Force place. Trying to get in. Looking for the key. I need to know the top twenty ingenious places you’ve ever found a small hidden object.’
‘VCR slot, kettle, shoe, inside a TV set, the battery compartment of a transistor radio, a hollowed-out book, cut into the foam inside the seat of a car, in a bar of soap, in a tub of cream cheese.’
‘That’s only nine. You’re hopeless.’” As usual, there’s a smile underneath Reacher’s words.
So what is Lee Child’s secret? What makes people wait for his next novel?
Jack Reacher is a engaging extreme character. He’s completely unique and lives a life many of us are attracted to. Who doesn’t occasionally want to walk away from a burdensome, boring daily existence and be completely independent? Okay, so he breaks the law but only when necessary and only to right wrongs. He’s clever and he is continually calculating how to get out of dangerous situations.
Child’s books have lots of tension, suspense, a little romance and explosive endings. What more could you want?