Monday, April 23, 2012


I set myself a task over the summer to read a lot more popular fiction action thrillers. I did this with varying degrees of success. Among the works I read a couple of the very popular Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, including the first of the ongoing series, Killing Floor.

Lee Child's novels have become a sales phenomenon, and Child's ability to put a plot line together is an object lesson in managing rising tension and turning points. The character of Jack Reacher is an interesting study in the ways that popular fiction heroes work. There has been a trend in the last thirty years or so, following on from the anti-heroes of film noir and its literary equivalents, for characters to be portrayed as rebels. Reacher represents a popular variant on this type, and the concept of 'portrayed' is important here. He expresses and riffs off of fundamental but seemingly opposing forces. On the one hand he is ex military, which means he represents the father archetype so beloved of the old westerns and male fiction,(strength, honesty, integrity, physical competence, the ability to act - not just talk), and some wider and often murkier manifestations of this archetype (the system, government, power, control, might as the definition of right.) At the same time the 'ex' is crucial. He's not currently 'in' the military. That gives him the edge of the rebel, bucking up against the system. So he has it both ways, and that appeals to conflicting needs within his audience. The need to be part of something bigger, but the need to be individual. The system - vs the lone wolf. Within - without. It is a constant conflict that is intoxicating for readers who want to be both tribal and individualistic.

Books on film theory often call these characters the 'enigmatic outsider.' In general terms the enigmatic outsider isn't the protagonist, as the creation of a protagonist often comes with a need for exhaustive exposition, which kind of kills the enigmatic part. So Reacher is unusual in that respect and Lee Child cleverly keeps his background sketchy. His constant restlessness, and itinerant lifestyle is an effective device to maintain that tension between 'home' (represented by his military background) and the enigma.

There were early manifestations of these characters in the ubiquitous private detectives of noir fiction, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, for example. They were like the problem child kicked out of the nest (the system) but still trying to do the things the system was set up to do, if it had any god-dammed guts and honesty left (ie: find and bring justice.) Often they were given tragic, or at least dark pasts, conflicts they had to overcome within themselves to overcome the conflicts arising in the plot and relationship lines of the story. The noir P.I.s had an extra edge of unreliability, you never really knew or trusted their motives, or got a sense that they themselves knew. For all his power and decisiveness, Jack Reacher lacks this edge. He fills that gap with extreme violence, metered out to deserving candidates. And for all his scariness, he's really a Sherman tank version of the cosy promise that it'll be alright in the end. That good will win out.

A closer manifestation of the noir detective would be the Dave Robicheaux character from James Lee Burke's stories, but he's still a cop, after all the ruminations and conflicts about the role and meaning of power. Perhaps modern fiction has tipped the enigmatic characters of noir more clearly over to the 'other' side, in characters like Tony Soprano. Instead of a good man in constant conflict with (though using the muscle and lack of morality of ) the bad man inside him we have a bad man who's morality is moment by moment, entirely derived from each situation, each relationship. Constantly demanding we re-frame the whole argument and concept.

I find the hyper violence of the Reacher novels over the top and his all powerful physicality and ability to kill five bad guys without breaking a sweat veers too close to Superman mythology, for me. James Lee Burke's characters are less perfect and stronger for it.

The two action thrillers from my recent sample I found most rewarding were by Michael Connelly. Lost Light and City of Bones. Connelly's characters (including his protagonist, Harry Bosch) strike me as more real, with layers of strength AND vulnerability. There is a lot more ambiguity in his writing. You never know who to trust, and Harry Bosch is just trying to do the best he can in lousy situations - he's not an Old Testament bringer of vengeance. There's no real ambiguity in Harry, but there sure is in the world around him. Who can you trust, and why, and how far?

I could see myself inviting Harry Bosch to dinner and we'd shake our heads at the stuff that's out there. I'd invite Robicheaux, but lock the liquor cabinet. I'm not sure I can see Jack Reacher strongly enough as a real person to even invite him. Anyway, with his lifestyle, where would you send the invitation?


  1. nice post James, Read the Killing floor myself recently, and as you say, he keeps it rolling along but Reacher doesn't feel real. After finishing the book, i found myself delving into my own lead character, and finding places where I could give him more vunerability and warmth.
    John Greet

  2. I struggle to separate Reacher from the comic book superheroes. Shows though how the avenging stranger meme is still so potent, almost a hundred years after the William S Hart westerns. Really only the level of violence has changed.

    Vulnerability and warmth - good idea. Even thinking about it opens up space in a writer's perception of a character.