Jack Reacher: Mythic hero on a bus

This has been been the sunny season when I lay on a lounger and read something like three-quarters of the 20-some Jack Reacher thrillers produced by the Englishman in New York, Lee Child. I think Reacher is a rare – possibly unique – type in the detective thriller, though it is quite common in Marvel comics and movies. In written form it is a story from over 3,000 years ago. It deploys the epic manner in telling stories about a mythic, and partly divine, figure.

Lee Child’s creation satisfactorily invokes or deploys other tropes, and especially The Pastoral and The Romantic – shepherds and errant knights, and all that – which are amongst The Fabulous Four types of heroism, as I  categorise such long-running themes, whose narrative arcs I explore elsewhere.

But Child and Reacher are on to bigger stuff, as are Marvel’s super-heroes (and Mad Max and Logan). I have been realising (perhaps a bit late) the key difference between stories that are mythic and those that are “just” human legends or romances (whether heroic or amorous). I think the former inherently flirt with the divine: gods or demi-gods, or persons with godly powers, are essential to them. They are nothing without the unseen, and nothing without seriousness, even when they are escapist. I am tolerably sure that Child is unique in the history of detective thriller-writing in centering on, or at least channelling, the ancient and pre-classical (or comic-book) – taste for the quite profoundly touching semi-divine mythic figure. It is true, though, that various adventure-writers of great quality – including John Masters, Nicholas Monserratt, Geoffrey Household and Nevil Shute – have all taken the mythic very seriously. So have moderns such as Robert Harris and Martin Cruz Smith.

I entered September by reading Reacher Said Nothing (Bantam Press, 2015), a witty if breathless and showy metabook about the writing of Child’s 20th Reacher, Make Me (Bantam, 2015). It is written by Andy Martin, a Cambridge University academic who specialises in French linguistics and philosophy. Martin goes some way to showing that whatever it is separates serious literature from a good read, it probably isn’t the weight of the grey matter of their respective authors. He reminds us that clever people are often fans of Pop Culture, and shows that for all his success, and even though his fans include Antonia Fraser, Lee Child seems to be as peeved as the next non-arty thriller writer.

I learned various completely fresh things from Dr Martin. One is that Socrates said that a text goes on saying the same thing forever, whatever Roland Barthes might say. And the other is that one reason why the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami likes and admires Child’s novels is that they are all the same. Indeed: one doesn’t mess with an archetype; once invented, it is exposed to different situations and its consistency refracts within them.

Andy Martin doesn’t miss much: he makes most of the connections I could have hoped for between Reacher and the historical canon of the story. But as much as he is almost exquisite on the writing process, he is a little loose or scattergun on the links between Reacher and his precursors. He and Lee Child seem happiest to see Reacher as some sort of throwback to a giant of the prehistoric savannah. Maybe they have read too much evolutionary psychology, a pseudoscience which is overly inventive whilst lacking imagination. Reacher, in this conception, is a highly developed version of a human with skills most of us have let atrophy. It misses something.

I feel like running my colours up the mast: Jack Reacher is as good a demi-god as could well pitch up in the 21st Century, and I rather doubt that either Lee Child or Andy Martin quite sees that. So Reacher is the doubly-fated hero: blessed or cursed with powers, and unwitting with it. Reacher is quite like the Mesopotamian giant Gilgamesh, who was two thirds man and one third god. He is not on the kind of specific quest which is familiar to the Gilgamesh type. But he does wander the earth (well, the US, mostly) and he does have to face assorted challengers. As a part-god, he has fabulous strengths to use against his enemies; as a human, he is capable of out-thinking them. Unlike TV’s Ray Donovan (who is not godly at all), Reacher is not a troubled soul, so he is not channelling greek tragedy.

Jack Reacher is a detective but he is not of the same broad stamp that pressed out Philip Marlow, Lucas Davenport or Harry Bosch. He shares some of their skills, of course, and certainly has Davenport’s dangerous appetite for violent retribution. He is also quite capable of Holmes’s dazzling deductions, or Poirot’s. He is as insightful as Maigret.

I was thrilled to learn from Martin that Child has always been a big fan of John D MacDonald’s 1950s-plus hero Travis McGee who lives on the “Busted Flush” in a Florida marina and is like a hippy member of the Rat Pack. McGee calls himself a “Salvage Consultant”. He gets things back, mostly for unfortunate women, and takes an agreed cut of the haul, usually to spend on his boat. He is a proto-green who loathes the commercial despoliation of the American Pastoral (which he surveys most memorably and with no hint of irony from 30,000 feet). Child has a variety of that aesthetic: Reacher often operates in the Fly-over states, amongst farmers who trash, or at least tame, the wide open spaces for a living. Luckily there is no sign in the novels of Child’s apparent longing, reported by Martin, that Reacher be a sort of covert liberal intellectual, nor much of the tedious anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-industrial prejudice which litters so much modern story-telling.

Reacher, like many thriller heroes, is in the romance tradition of the knight errant, righting wrongs and rescuing and wooing damsels (and making colleagues of the best and brightest of them, too). So he seems familiar enough at first sight. But from the start, we see that he is clearly cut from a different cloth.

Right now, in September, I think of Child sitting down to his annual re-creation of his strong, laconic, pedantic, feral, righteous giant of a mythic hero. The author’s knack – genius, whatever – is to have produced a character who is entirely human (he is a redundant military policeman) whilst being, one realises, quite superhuman in his various powers. His deductive tricks are merely extraordinary. But his physique (which requires no dietary or exercise regime) and his fighting capacity (which, it is true, benefitted from training and experience) are somehow godly, or a god-given gift, or anyway quite beyond ordinary explanation. Jack Reacher is much more than merely lucky. He kills a lot of people and hurts a lot more, but he is never wrong to do so. He can slow down time: many situations and outcomes unfold in his mind in slow motion. He always knows the time, but disdains to carry a watch. His premonitions are also not so much improbable as other-worldly.

So Reacher has physical, moral and mental powers which reality. Reacher’s easy antiquity (even his being vaguely primordial) is reinforced – made more accessible to us – by Child’s creation of him as analogue, not digital. One’s human imagination recreates this manly demi-god whom Child lays on the page for us, whether in print or on Kindle. He may not know how to do CGI, or even to text, but any Snowflake with sense would want Reacher in his or her camp, corner, or bed. It is a small point, but a telling one, that Reacher perhaps does not even know about CAD, but he is very alert to product design: his knowledge of the development of car door levers in the 1960s (neanderthal Ford thinking) helps him solve crime. And yers, Reacher may be the tiniest bit OCD.

Beyond beating the odds in any fight, Jack Reacher pushes a lot of the ordinarily human buttons we seek in our thriller heroes. He is as much a loner and a drifter as the best cowboy. He is as literate as the best scholar-gypsy. He also has features to be found in Geofrrey Household’s Rogue Male: he has an outsider’s appetite and capacity for invisibility. He is, for an American, very European. However long it is since he last had sex, he is able to deliver sensitive yet forceful and prolonged love-making. He can’t work a computer and can barely make a phone call on a mobile, which he doesn’t possess anyway. He won’t carry any sort of bag, nor pay rent or own property. He doesn’t like driving. But his Luddism is specific and useful: firstly, it allows his female collaborators to shine at the stuff he abjures, and secondly he is across the physics and chemistry which matter to his mission. In particular he is a poet of ballistics.

All these qualities – semi-divine and human – make him existentially free of all the clutter his readers have to master with their necessary habits and duties which tie them down like Swift’s shape-warped citizen tethered by dwarfs. Reacher has adopted alienation, whilst the rest of us sometimes wish we could afford it. And he is free, I think, of fashionable malaises such as autism, which Andy Martin casually ascribes to him, whatever Child thinks of the proposition (which we are not told). As a matter of fact, as Leo Robson points out in the New Statesman, Reacher is quite the intellectual, just not posy about it. And though he can kill wrongdoers without second thought, he knows that it is because he understands people that he can track them down and out-guess them.

All in all, Reacher is Everyman’s alter ego, and Everywoman’s dream squeeze. We should loathe this paragon, except we are too busy dreaming him. And the reason we do, I think, is that when he steps off the bus or the train which brings him into each new adventure, he leaves his private passage as the loner in our humdrum world and steps as a saviour into some dysfunctional but recognisable human nightmare whose balances and decencies he must somewhat restore. On the surface he looks like a skilled vigilante, but he is really a demi-god wreaking revenge or retribution or rectitude on some all-too human but wicked and perhaps even evil baddies, just as do Batman or the Iron Man. They change their clothes to become fliers; Reacher doesn’t, but has his own apparel policy. Plenty of us find Homeric legend rather tedious, and barely know of Gilgamesh: it might be that Lee Child has come across a way, like Hollywood and video games, of reconnecting us with that good stuff.

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Publication date

17 September 2017