Anatomy of a character

For a popular fiction character, author Lee Child’s creation Jack Reacher is surprisingly adaptive to age

brunch Updated: Feb 17, 2018 23:26 IST
Anushree Nande
Anushree Nande
Hindustan Times
Lee Child,Jack Reacher,Anushree Nande
Author Lee Child has been slowly adding layers to a character in danger of becoming caricature-like and tired. (Getty images )

Jack-none-Reacher. 6 feet 5 inches. 250 pounds. Ex-US Military Police. Now loner, drifter and occasional hero.

After 22 books, you’re right in assuming that you know the guy. You know that he’s got his own moral code, that he’s a hell of an investigator, and a hell of a brawler. You know that he’s logical. That he has never needed more than his folding toothbrush, the watch in his head and his Western Union money transfer details. You know that he can take on a gang of bikers and win.

Which is exactly what he does in the first few chapters of the latest book in the series, The Midnight Line. What he also does, as the book moves along, is spend time in the open, gazing at the starry Wyoming night sky, gazing at the sun as it sets when he’s up in the mountains.

Adapting to ageing

This would have surprised the 13-year-old me. Back when I had discovered Jack Reacher thanks to my father and read my way through 10 books before having to wait a year like everyone else. For me, Reacher meant constancy. What I didn’t quite grasp in those early, heady days was that familiarity and monotony share a micro-tip line. This series could easily have fallen prey. Until it didn’t.

Barring the blip with Personal, Child has been slowly adding layers to a character in danger of becoming caricature-like and tired

Barring the blip (comparatively) with Personal, author Lee Child has been slowly adding layers to a character in danger of becoming caricature-like and tired. Most of these layers have been so slow, so subtle, that not until The Midnight Line, his latest, have I felt the full weight of this altered perspective.

And maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I called it the moment Reacher had his nose broken in Worth Dying For. The series was heading towards an eventual acceptance of Reacher’s advancing age, with the necessary shifts in plot, tone and content to accommodate that. The actual shift happened with the milestone number 20 book, Make Me, where Reacher not only suffered a concussion, but faced a mystery where he was out of his depth.

Chronologically, The Midnight Line, book number 22, continues this shift, with a very different problem at its core that will require Reacher the investigator and team player more than Reacher the guy who can incapacitate hired muscle (though there’s just enough of that to satisfy expectations). He makes mistakes and is involved in some judgement errors – “as soon as he said it, he knew it was dumb.” (Though, of course, he deals with them in typical Reacher fashion by adapting.)

Keep the change

The Midnight Line reflects the full weight of his altered perspective

Overall, this story is morally complex, handled with a sensitivity and vigour that reflects the uncertainty of our current times. But it’s also quiet, patient and slow. The atmosphere is complemented by vivid descriptions of the open spaces of America’s western frontiers that mirror the chosen loneliness of Reacher’s existence, and for the first time, maybe, just maybe, let slip that he might be a bit weary of it all. But there’s a weird sort of peace in his inward moments, fleeting glimpses of a contentment in the man whose second favourite way to fall asleep is in a lawn chair in the summertime (no points for guessing the first!).

In my review of Night School, I had wondered, despite the book being a throwback to Reacher’s Military Police days, whether the shift in tone and narrative was a planned one that provided an insight into the future creative direction of this series. The Midnight Line seems to answer in the affirmative. Reacher’s changing, even as I am and have. When I return to the old books, I wonder what I’ll find. For now, it seems that sooner than later we might be headed for a collision with the question of Reacher’s mortality.

These are risks, and the writer knows it. Genre writing, by definition, distrusts too many deviations from the familiar. But when you do it with the skill, conviction and care shown by Child, you get something that stays within its prescribed structure, yet transcends it. You get a writer handling the challenge of an ageing hero with dignity and creativity. And you get long-time readers like myself wanting more even after 22 books.

Note: Jack Reacher, the protagonist first introduced to us in Killing Floor, is the hero of Lee Child’s bestselling series. Reacher, as he is called, is retired from the US Army Military Police and travels the vastness of the United States of America in search of odd jobs and things that catch his fancy, which are quite often in small towns, and of the dangerous variety. The series tracks his adventures across the country.

From HT Brunch, February 18, 2018

Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch

Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch

First Published: Feb 17, 2018 21:55 IST