March 12, 2013


Wherein we examine books everyone else checked out ages ago

by Lee Child
532 pages, Transworld

Review by Pat Black

**Author’s note: This review was written without the aid of any punning related to the term ‘reacharound’**

Jack Reacher. Big guy. Tough customer. Likes a rumble. Short sentences.

He’s been around for a while, in a series of novels penned by British author Lee Child. Reacher’s a former US military policeman who wanders the States, getting involved in other people’s problems and sorting them out - often violently. A sort of one-man A-Team. Except when Reacher fires his guns or throws some punches, people die.

Killing Floor is the first book in the very popular series, first published in 1997. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but it’s only…just…this side of the digital era. Mobile phones are referenced, but not everyone has one. Information is still largely sought by telephone, rather than computer. With a shock akin to a slap in the face, you realise that international criminals are not automatically Muslim extremists. A curious timewarp effect. Contemporary, but not up-to-date.

It begins as the bold Jack, fresh off the bus, eats a hearty breakfast in a small town in Georgia. He is interrupted at his coffee and bacon when he gets arrested in a raid by the local plod, apparently having been witnessed at the scene of a murder the night before. Jack is thrown into the local jail, along with a local businessman, despite having a watertight alibi.

The odds are stacked against Reacher from the start, but he’s a hard nut. In his clipped first-person narration – think sparse, then trim a few more branches – we are given to understand that he knows unarmed combat and weaponry. It would definitely be his specialist subject on Mastermind, and he’d be well suited to the no-nonsense Q&A format. He knows what tactics the cops are using to bring him in, for example. He gives their efforts a solid six or seven out of ten, but he knows how he could disarm at least one of them before commandeering their weapons – he just chooses not to. 

Over the course of the book, he gives practical demonstrations of this knowledge as he examines a conspiracy involving counterfeiting and also his brother, who works with a national enforcement agency and just happened to be looking into a big case in the area.

It’s got great “hook” value. There’s something about the short, precise sentences that invites more and more reading, a simplicity that makes the pages whizz by. Reacher is mostly a phlegmatic, if dangerous, big fellow. He does cut loose now and again, though, and he’s as much of a lover with Roscoe, the female copper who takes his side, as he is a fighter with anyone who crosses him. In real life, I reckon it would be extremely odd to find someone so comfortable, experienced and able with regard to deadly violence on a day-to-day basis who is also a sensitive, caring and understanding lover. I may be wrong. All the same, you are always rooting for him.

One key element of Reacher’s appeal is that he’s always in control. Whether he’s plotting violence, getting involved in tense situations and stand-offs, giving villains some hard-boiled backchat or even carrying out jaw-dropping deductions lifted straight out of the Sherlock Holmes handbook, he knows the score. He’s not bragging about it, and he certainly isn’t an academic. He’s smart, not cerebral. It’s just the way he is. He’s kind of the anti-Holmes, in a way.

Deep down, many guys probably want to be a bit like Reacher, and I’m sure many women would like to have a man like Reacher. Despite being able to punch holes in people, he has what I often see referred to as “emotional intelligence”. When a love rival gives him heat about Roscoe, his police fancywoman, Reacher gives a reaction straight out of a Mills and Boon novel. “If she wants me to back off, I’ll be happy to back off. I’ll totally respect you both. If she doesn’t, and you cause trouble, I’ll pull you arse over your ears.” Or words to that effect.

Swoon! He’s basically a fantasy figure, as much as Edward from Twilight is.

The scenes of violence are exceptionally well handled. Not so much in the execution, but in the stomach-churning sense of fear and tension in the build-up. It’s the moment when the nutcase in the pub’s head swivels, his eyes go full beam, dazzling your own, and he says, slowly and deliberately: “What are you looking at?”

Well? What are you looking at? You going to do something about it? You want to be a hero? Eh? EH?

It takes Reacher a while to get busting heads, but when he does, it’s spectacular. As part of a plot to have him bumped off, Reacher and the man arrested alongside him are thrown into the lifers’ wing of the local prison instead of the holding pens, without prison overalls. This amounts to illuminating a sign for their fellow inmates: “GET YER MALE RAPE HERE”. When a group of these guys break into Reacher’s pen, you almost feel like cowering on the floor much like his cellmate, clinging to the big man’s legs. Please help me, Jack! Don’t let them bum me! 

To make a show pour encourager les autres – a simple act of self-preservation, he reminds us, nothing to do with protecting his cowering cohabitee – Reacher makes a bloody, brutal example of the monsters on the lifers’ wing. He is definitely not to be screwed with. Later, as the investigation continues, revealing more and more corruption within the police department and local authorities of the town, he also gets to show us his ruthless command of firearms.

Whether it’s an eye gouge, a kick in the throat or a bullet in the back, Reacher is happy to tell us that there are no rules in any kind of combat. Cheat, he says. Get your retaliation in first. Hit them when their back’s turned. They put their dukes up, you pull out the big stick. There is no moral to the story.

Except there is. Or, there’s supposed to be. Like most violent revenge tales, Killing Floor’s protagonist has a righteous cause. No matter that Jack Reacher technically commits murder several times in this book; you know he’s on the right side, is taking down baddies, and has a genuine grievance.

If I have one complaint about revenge dramas, it will always be that we associate good behaviour, honourable conduct (well… eye-gouging aside) and above all a sense of righteousness with our skills involving fist and firearm. In American drama in particular, gaining revenge or righting wrongs often boils down to how good you are with a gun. 

This equation of moral certainty, courage and honour with how proficient we are at violence is a complete nonsense. It is disturbing how deeply this idea has stained narratives throughout history, across many borders. It is this ingrained notion of validation by blood, I would argue, which is more of a dangerous influence on weak minds than any images of violence per se, whether that’s on cinema screens, video games or between the pages of thrillers. It boils down to, “I’m right – so take that!” 

It equates the language of truth and justice and the narrative of morality with the acts of war. These things, whatever Sun-Tzu or anyone else might tell you, are rarely in balance.

This kind of score-settling very rarely happens in real life. Confrontations often don’t shake out the way we’d like them to – and even when they do, there can be awful, unforeseen consequences. When matters of honour are settled violently, in a civilised society, you can read all about it in the court reports of your local newspaper. There are a lot of people rotting in jail for the sake of a sense of honour.

I can imagine Jack Reacher’s reaction to that tirade. He would probably smile wryly, shrug his goalpost shoulders and stroll off to get some peace and quiet… although noting my face and what I said for future reference. But I’ve nothing against him. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. A terrific airport novel. And I mean that as a very sincere compliment; as in writing a front page for a tabloid newspaper or composing a three-minute pop song, it is no easy thing to write an airport bestseller. Child is very good at what he does.

The book is flawed. Not to give too much plot away, but Killing Floor does rely on massive coincidences. As in all great thrill rides, however, you’re so distracted by the lights, colours and sounds that you don’t pay a lot of attention to the fine detail. But the very notion of Reacher himself is hard to take. He’s just left the military and is now just wandering around. A bum. Off the grid, no-one knowing who he is or where he’s been, not even knowing himself where he’s going. No address, no ID, just his pay-off from the military police and no particular desire to spend it. Rootless, like Kane from Kung Fu, and finding trouble inexorably drawn to him in similar ways. No ties, no plans, just drifting, often on foot. It seemed a little too Zen.

And he ingratiates himself with the “good cops” in the Georgia town too easily. He might as well be a deputy by the end of the story. Although the big guy knows his onions and he’s a great help to Finlay, the “good cop” on the force, he’s still a stranger. Anyone becoming a minister of violence without portfolio would surely run into massive legal problems.

I had gone for this book having heard the hoo-ha about Tom Cruise portraying Jack Reacher in a recent movie (which, for the record, I haven’t seen). I can understand how some fans were upset about this – nothing to do with Tom Cruise’s abilities as an actor, but because Reacher is described as a hulking, formidable brute, 6ft 5in up and down and side to side, more wrestling star than man. Cruise doesn’t have that height or physique. But to be fair to Cruise, I can understand why he was chosen for the role, and it’s not too difficult to imagine him playing Reacher. The intensity. The assertiveness. Punching. And then running towards the camera, screaming like a Comanche, staunner like the prow of an icebreaker, reason sundered, control cast to the winds! AWWAAIOOOOOWWWWAAHOOOOOOOO!!!

Tough guy movies: how we all wish we starred in those!

For my next Late to the Party entry, get ready for court intrigue, political gamesmanship, boobs and blood, as we rather languidly ask fellow guests if anyone’s heard of A Game of Thrones, only to be buffeted by wave after wave of laughter.

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