Lee Child’s greatest accomplishment is creating a believable thriller hero for the twenty-first century. Almost all thriller heroes require a certain suspension of disbelief. Ian Fleming’s James Bond had the seeds of parody within him from the first novel, an aspect that the films about the character would ultimately reveal. Mitch Rapp, the hero of the political thrillers by Vince Flynn, is almost superhuman in his dispatching of foes. By making Reacher a former military police officer, Child takes advantage of the generally positive image the military enjoys in the United States.
Child gives Reacher the physical tools to accomplish his tasks and the knowledge of weaponry so beloved by certain fans of the genre. However, it is the basic premise of Reacher’s character—that he learned his skills in the U.S. Army’s military police and that his wandering was caused by his upbringing and the manner in which he was let go—that makes his appearance in a different part of the country at the beginning of each novel and his talent in unraveling the mystery and enforcing its solution all the more believable. MacDonald got around this credibility problem by making McGee a salvage expert. Child makes Reacher a sort of knight-errant, who wanders the countryside of his native land and becomes involved with people, sometimes almost against his will.
Child knows that the literary heritage of Jack Reacher begins with the heroes of the classics, then passes through medieval knights to the cowboy heroes of the American West. The tension in the Western hero is between his rugged individualism and the needs of the community; once the latter becomes too dominant, the hero rides off. In Reacher’s case, as he readily admits, he always leaves. In some of the novels, Reacher becomes involved in a case through family or quasi-family pressures. His older brother and his fate haunt Reacher, as does the last quest of his military mentor and father figure, Leon Garber. However, often Reacher becomes involved by merely being in what he views as the wrong place at the right time.
During the course of Child’s novels, the victims often are forced to grow into more capable, more self-aware characters. They are shaken out of their complacency because their mindless acceptance of a shifty business ethos has put them at the mercy of ruthless predators. A character whom Reacher dismisses as a Yuppie later grows into a character whom Reacher actually likes. If a husband does not develop into a better person, then his wife sometimes does. Even if victims express their independence by threatening Reacher, in one sense, Reacher’s task has been accomplished.
Child fuses in Reacher both the intellectual and physical aspects of the hero, unlike MacDonald, who endowed his hero Travis McGee with physical strength and McGee’s sidekick, Meyer Meyer, with intellect. However, Child often splits his villains into a team composed of mastermind and superhuman henchman. The superhuman villain is often so imposing that Reacher seems outmatched—but the hero still manages to vanquish his foe. The masterminds are devious, but they are not bent on world domination or even on attacking the United States. Rather, they are motivated by the more commonplace of the seven deadly sins—greed, anger, and lust. They are nonetheless savage in carrying out their plans, and Reacher is equally savage in stopping them and exacting a rough-hewn justice.
Child walks a fine line in depicting both the villains’ depravity and Reacher’s quest for retribution. The modern thriller writer is always in danger of going over the edge in the depiction of violence: not enough violence, and the novel seems tame; too much, and the reader seems to...
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