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GENERAL KNOWLEDGE: JACK REACHER – Your Introduction to an Exceptional Detective

December 20 2012

Ahead of the Tom Cruise movie adaptation, a look at Lee Child’s phenomenal mystery series

by K. Burtt

I sometimes feel like a traitor to the cause when I read non-genre books. But the truth must come out, and I am here, admitting to you all that not only do I read non-genre, but there is even a series that takes the place near the very top of my to-read list. Indeed, the series of which I still sit and read the latest additions in one go are few and far between, and yet one of them is non-genre (I know! I’m as flabbergasted as you! And I don’t just say that ’cause it’s fun to use the word “flabbergasted”!). So yes, I am a traitor to the cause and even espouse that others should do the same.

The prompting for my espousing? (Yes, ‘espouse’ is also a fun word to use.) Well, the book series in question is about to be introduced to the world at large – or, as much as a series that comprises seventeen books, is regularly on the New York Times bestseller lists, and has won numerous awards can be “introduced”) in the form of a movie.

Starring Tom Cruise.

Sigh.

Thus, I felt it no less than my duty to introduce you all to the series ahead of time before any thoughts you may have about it are forever colored by…Tom Cruise (sigh).

The series in question is the Jack Reacher books, thriller/mysteries written by Lee Child. Reacher (he is almost always referred to by his last name only, including by his parents when they were alive) is a former Military Policeman. He spent thirteen years in the US Army investigating crimes and hunting down trained killers. He now finds himself without a job, without direction, going wherever the road takes him. He is a drifter. He has no possessions other than an ID card and his toothbrush. He buys new clothes every few days rather than keeping a suitcase of any sort. He takes buses or trains or even hitchhikes. And he lives this life by choice.

Combining his sense of right (one reason he became an MP), his investigative mind, and lack of responsibilities tying him down – or sometimes (well, usually, really) just luck (good or bad) – Reacher regularly finds himself in the midst of situations where people could use his help. And help he gives. From being arrested within hours of arriving at a small town in Georgia (the first book in the series, 1997’s Killing Floor), to being asked to help find a kidnapped wife and daughter (2006′s The Hard Way), to being kidnapped (accidentally) along with an FBI agent (1998′s Die Trying), to hunting down the killer of a former Army colleague (2007′s Bad Luck and Trouble), to finding himself on a subway in New York late at night with a woman who exhibits too many signs of being a suicide bomber (2009′s Gone Tomorrow), there is always a mystery or a problem for Reacher to solve.

The set up for the character is one of the (many) reasons that the series excels in the thriller genre. A great many different situations are possible when your main character isn’t tied down by anything. Rarely does a plot feel forced or out of place. Many other mystery or thriller series end up very monotonous; after a while, one realizes that each new book is in many ways just a rehash of those that came before. Those that aren’t completely repetitive usually avoid such due to either continual reinventions of the main character, or the introduction of new ones – this can make it difficult for a newcomer to pick up a book in the middle of the series and follow along. The Reacher books are all mostly stand alone (I say “mostly” because there are a few instances of threads carrying through two or three books, but these are rare and never that integral to the story). Myself, I started with the sixth book, Without Fail (Reacher is hired to assassinate the Vice-President. Sort of.), and didn’t feel at all like I’d missed essential backstory.

Of course, the set-up is only half of the equation for a successful, worthy series. The other half lies with the writing. Child’s prose is fast-paced and intriguing. He excels at grabbing the reader quickly and never letting go until the end. Take, for example, the above mentioned Gone Tomorrow. In just a few short pages of the first chapter, the reader is introduced to Reacher running through a list of eleven tell-tale signs of a suicide bomber, and what he is currently seeing on a subway car late at night. It’s a great set up that is both interesting and mysterious: who is the woman? Is she really a suicide bomber? Why would she be on a subway at 2am? And beyond that, it even makes the reader wonder what kind of people he/she has ever encountered on a subway: have I ever paid enough attention to someone such that I would have noticed such little things that are on this list? In any case, the reader is drawn into the story so immediately that one doesn’t want to stop after just the first short chapter. One feels compelled to continue on to the next chapter to gain more info.

There are, certainly, quite a few quirks with the books. One in particular I have always found odd. It is the only book series I know of (if you know of others, dear readers, feel free to let us know!) that will change between first-person and third-person narratives. Not mid-book; but some books are written in first person, others in third-person. [Robert Aspirin’s Myth-Adventures of Skeeve and Aahz series comes to mind. – Ed.] I will admit that I hadn’t realized that for a few books; the writing is good enough that I just got pulled into each story and just didn’t notice the perspective. It’s still kind of odd, though.

Other quirks are with Reacher himself. He has some… hmmm… superpowers? Non-super superpowers (wait, so just powers?)? For one, he has a running clock in his head. He always knows what time it is, to the minute. Rarely does this become a major plot device, but it has. For another, he has a sometimes savant-like capacity for numbers: determining factors, primes, etc. He is also a world-class sniper, having won the Marine Corps 1000-yard Invitational (despite, you know, being in the Army) – this skill of his is perfectly believable, though surely if he were really that good at sniping, he would have been a, you know, sniper in the Army instead of an MP.

But the unique ability that comes into the books most is Reacher’s deductive reasoning skills. He regularly comes to (correct) conclusions on scant evidence, usually by thinking things through from the perspective of his target/adversary. I like this kind of logic, as we the reader get access to the chain of thoughts that lead to the conclusions and it (almost) always makes sense. But there are a few times where his (correct) conclusions are really a stretch. That is annoying, to be sure.

But the oddest part of the above “abilities”? How they randomly show up in some books but not in others. Reacher’s tendency to play with numbers in his head only comes into it in less than half of the books. His personal running internal clock? Probably more than half, but certainly not all. It sort of seems like Child wanted to add another personality trait to Reacher and just decided to do so even if there had been no hint of such things previously. This isn’t a problem, but it is a bit strange and noticeable.

Now, you may have noticed that I never actually described what Reacher looks like. Well, here it is: Reacher is 6-5, ~240 pounds of solid muscle. He is a gorilla of a man. He is most assuredly someone you do not want to mess with. And he uses his physicality to the fullest extent; he doesn’t shy away from violence. I think that is actually part of his appeal: when people do mess with him (suckers!), you know that they are going to get their comeuppance, usually in a brutal-yet-satisfactory way. It provides something to look forward to in the books, certainly.

Re-read that sentence above: Reacher is 6-5, ~240 pounds of solid muscle.

Tom Cruise? Um…I think not.

Sigh.

I’m certainly not against the idea of Reacher movies. In fact, the stand-alone-esque nature of the books could work quite well for adaptation; several of them would be ideal, including the book upon which the upcoming movie is based, 2005′s One Shot (book #9 in the series, were you wondering).

The plot centers around a sniper-shooting in a small city in Indiana, where the evidence all points to a former Army sniper. Once he’s caught, he refuses to speak except to say “You got the wrong guy” and “Get Jack Reacher”. Why did he do it? Did he do it at all? Why would he want Reacher? Oooh, the suspense! It’s a great thriller with some interesting twists. And would have been near the top of my list of books to use from the series to be filmed.

But then I heard it’s being made…starring Tom Cruise.

Sigh.

And then the first teaser came out. And I sighed harder. And threw in some fist-shaking for good measure. Let us take a look at that teaser:

The first half of that teaser is a) a guy in the hospital describing Reacher, and b) the revving of a hotrod, eventually followed by the reveal of Tom Cruise as Reacher, driving said hotrod. This is just wrong on so many levels. Well… three levels, at least. First, take a look at the above short description of the plot of the book. The only things the guy says are “You got the wrong guy” and “get Jack Reacher”. That is it. It’s a great hook for the reader, because it adds the first element of mystery. There is no random exposition by the guy to describe Reacher. Second, Reacher is not a car guy. At all. He owns a toothbrush. And an ID card (usually). He hitchhikes or Greyhounds everywhere he goes. Why… you know… in the world would they introduce his character for the first time on screen driving a hotrod?

And third, it’s Tom Cruise. Playing a guy who is 6-5/240 solid muscle.

I repeat my previous assertion of “Sigh”.

Now, I will say that more recent trailers for the movie have been somewhat better. Except for still showing Tom Cruise (sigh). And they still don’t always show any relation to the book in the least, but at least later trailers make the movie look interesting. Still, I have to say that I am looking forward to the movie. The books are that good, particularly One Shot, that I am willing to overlook the Tom-Cruise-ness (sigh). For one, Tom Cruise (sigh) has the approval of the author, Lee Child. Child has been quoted as saying “Reacher’s size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way.” And I think it could still end up being quite a good suspense thriller. Perhaps it won’t have much to do with the book, but good none-the-less. (Look at the Bourne movies – they share little resemblance with their source material, but were thoroughly enjoyable anyway).

So there you have it: Your introduction to the world of Reacher. I highly recommend picking up the series if you enjoy thrillers in the least. Any of the books will do (though you may want to avoid 2004′s The Enemy or 2011′s The Affair, if only because they are flashback books, taking place when Reacher was still an MP – good books in their own right, but perhaps not the best at introducing the character as the others in the series). And I still recommend them even when they don’t have any genre-ness to them. It’s okay to step out and explore what else is out there once in a while. Just don’t do it too often, and make sure you run back to the safety of Geek Speak when you are done.

And if you want to join me in shaking a fist at the casting of Tom Cruise (sigh), you are more than welcome to do so.

– K. Burtt

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