Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book Review: Lee Child's 'Jack Reacher' Series

Lee Child is a British TV producer and author who, more than any of America’s many home-grown crime writers, has mastered what might be called the modern American outlaw novel.

His hero, Jack Reacher, is so much a composite of American literary and movie stereotypes, from Owen Wister and Zane Grey cowboy opera via a dozen Clint Eastwood characters to Jason Bourne, that it is amazing no American novelist has come up with quite such a perfect encapsulation of the loner action-hero genre.

What has always made Lee Child so readable, though, is not so much his slightly implausible hero but the cathartic quality of his storylining and the transparency of his narrative technique.

Firstly, catharsis. There cannot be many middle-aged, domesticated men who have not for a moment hankered after Reacher’s lifestyle – a total lack of any responsibility to ordered society, complete freedom from domestic chores, and a radical lack of commitments (other than to risk his life once every few months in some quixotic battle against injustice in the remote heartlands). And it’s hard to read one of these stories, however moral, liberal and pacifistic you may be, without on some level wanting Reacher to do what he does: Cripple the thugs, rescue the damsel (and possibly have carnal knowledge if to do so does not threaten a committed relationship) and summarily execute those who have persistently abused whole communities. However implausible things get, you are generally happy to suspend disbelief because you so much want it to be true in spite of yourself.

Secondly, transparency. The virtue of elegant simplicity. The complex art of making it look simple. Some people used to criticise R.E.M. for being simplistic until they tried to play the songs. Similarly, some people have criticised Lee Child for his long passages of single-viewpoint narrative and lack of complex plot-twists, while countless would-be bestseller writers have tried unsuccessfully to replicate his commercially super-successful formula. Child’s skill lies in the ability to weave familiar elements together in a fresh and appealing way, and present them such that the manner of story-telling does not come between the reader and a sense of immersion in the story itself.

In the final analysis, Child’s novels are intensely political, rather subversive, and yet strong on traditional American values. Perhaps only an outsider to the American dream, a wannabe-American like Child seems to be, could so distil into mythical landscapes and characters all that is most and least attractive about life in the USA. It is by living the ultimate off-grid lifestyle, by being the ultimate outlaw and thug, by turning his military training against corrupt members of the law & order establishment, that Jack Reacher can function as a symbol of justice and social order.

Sadly, on the most recent outing ("A Wanted Man"), both Lee Child and Jack Reacher slightly miss their mark for the first time since the series began so many years and novels ago. This happens because both author and character deviate from what they do best. Whether this is because Child has come under external pressure to evolve his creation, or because he has become bored with repetition. It remains by any standards a good thriller, but here are some clues to what has changed from earlier novels that I consider to be more successful: 
  1. A more complex and involved back-story. The virtue of deceptive simplicity has been sacrificed in favour of a seriously complicated plot premise that has just too many coincidences to swallow.
  2. A more claustrophobic setting, involving more of spoken dialogue that is not Child's strong point.
  3. A more fashionable storyline about terrorism and homeland security. Reacher has always been at his best confronting America's homegrown dark side. Middle-eastern terrorists are such a soft target for the American reading public, and in the past Child has been conscientious at defusing stereotypes like this. Here again, the new novel is at its best when inter-agency dominance games become part of the threat. 
  4. A more inclusive approach to typecasting the female characters – a good thing in itself, but it is not perfectly realised in this particular case. One gets the impression that Child is not sure how to make Reacher react to strong, self-sufficient women, but feels he has to include them. 
  5. A more self-conscious and mannered narrative technique which tends to obstruct the reader’s feeling of involvement, including a preoccupation with irrelevant facts and statistics and excessive switches of viewpoint between different characters. 
In conclusion, regular followers of the series will want this, and most will be only mildly disappointed if at all. This is not the best place for new readers to start, however. And if the trend continues, the author risks turning his back on the distinctive strengths on which his success was built.

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