A few months ago I went on a trip to Malaysia with my parents. My mother insists on doing everything ‘el cheapo’ (a term she appropriated from my father) so I knew what to expect: a lot of time waiting in departure lounges broken up by longhaul flights with no food and limited entertainment, and long stopovers inbetween. Meaningful conversations onboard are drowned out by the engines’ roar, and there are only so many episodes of Two-and-a-Half Men you can watch. (How many? My record is 0.75.)
My friend Brian had tried to sell me on the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child before. I’ll paraphrase his sales pitch here: “Dude, Reacher kicks ass. He’s this huge, tough guy. In one book he gets shot in the chest and his pec is so thick it stops the bullet. He useta be a military detective, and now he just wanders around America like a vagrant with nothing but a fold-up toothbrush and an EFTPOS card and the clothes on his back. I musta read ten of those books, and they’re always the same: Reacher ends up in a jam or becomes a suspect in a murder somewhere, then he solves the murder and beats up Special Forces guys along the way. Like half action and half detective work. And there’s always a hot FBI or CIA woman he ends up banging. Reacher books rule. They’re basically action movie scripts.”
So I decided to buy a Reacher thriller by Lee Child from the bookstand in Auckland Airport. Because I’m trying to expand the scope of my reading from just literary fiction and sci-fi. Because not every film needs to be Upstream Colour, and not every book needs to be Finnegan’s Wake. Because sometimes you just want to eat popcorn and be entertained.
WARNING!!! Massive spoilers abound from here on in. I’m basically going to ruin any mystery or intrigue by discussing the details, twists and endings of these books, so if you plan on reading either The Visitor, Gone Tomorrow or 61 Hours any time soon, and want to be entertained as intended, you may want to pick a different Reacher book. Or a different blog.
The Visitor (2000) (also known as Running Blind) finds Reacher living in New York, uncharacteristically settled down with a girlfriend, Jodie, and a fixed address. The novel opens with Reacher eating pasta at a fledgling Italian joint being being shaken down by local mafia, and Child finds here an opportunity for Reacher to “save the cat” by beating up the protection money heavies. This is the standard one-two opener to many Reacher novels: our champion effortlessly dispatching two smalltime crooks/street thugs/hired goons who, although armed and much younger, cannot match our rogue hero’s brute strength, anatomical knowledge and decades-refined expertise in hand-to-hand combat. Repetition is comforting.
Reacher’s defence of the restaurant starts a mob war in New York, but this plays background to the core story: several ex-military women have been found drowned in bathtubs of olive-drab paint, and Reacher matches perfectly the psychological profile compiled by the nation’s best FBI analysts. In a bid to prove his innocence, Reacher aids the FBI in their investigation across America’s Heartland.
Several things about The Visitor stood out to me. For one, aside from the scuffle in the opening trope there was very little ‘action’ throughout the book, with most of the narrative revolving around Reacher interviewing grieving family members, driving across states chasing up leads, and other general detective work. This was Child’s fourth action-mystery; perhaps he was looking to diversify, to underplay one aspect and further explore the other.
Secondly, the depiction of women throughout the book is a little . . . well, you’ll see.
This is our introduction to Lisa Harper, an FBI agent working on the case and Reacher’s love interest for the duration of the book, despite his relationship with Jodie: “She looked about 16. She had long fair hair in a loose ponytail. White teeth in an open, tanned face. Bright blue eyes. She was wearing a man’s suit, extensively tailored to fit. She was over six feet tall, long-limbed and very slim. And completely spectacular. And she was smiling at him.”
Compare that to the description of Julia Lamarr, the FBI profiler who suspects Reacher of the murders: She was about 35, with “lines in her skin” (probably more frowns than smiles); “her hair was jet black but thin”, and she had “a tired, sickly look” and crossed teeth.
Reacher’s girlfriend Jodie barely appears in the novel; we should interpret her as a slightly older version of Lisa, and little more than a reason Reacher shouldn’t get together with Lisa. They inevitably do, though it’s only a kiss.
But is a kiss just a kiss? Are we to admonish Reacher’s minor infidelity, or admire his restraint? And what message are we meant to take away from these three broad representations of women: Jodie the wife at home, Lisa the young fair temptress, and [spoiler] Julia the ugly villainess?
Antagonists in fiction have long been characterised by their physical shortcomings (more on this in 61 Hours) — a facial scar, or a dead eye, perhaps — but I really wish here Child had inverted this beautiful-ugly binary, perhaps even recast it so that Reacher flirted with the unnattractive but clever Julia and was constantly at odds with the beautiful Lisa. By telegraphing throughout the novel how outwardly disagreeable Julia is — and how much the reader should dislike her looks as well as her personality — it comes as little shock when it turns out Julia was the murderer all along.
The Visitor ends with Reacher confronting Julia, poised to murder another woman. In a desperate moment Reacher throws a huge roundhouse on Julia, breaking her neck and killing her with one lethal punch.
Now, Child goes to great lengths (in this book and in the others I would soon read) to underline Reacher’s expert knowledge of the human anatomy and its pressure points, and his ability to disable assailants with non-deadly force, as demonstrated in the two-goon takedown opener. Reacher is defined as a lethal weapon with a conscience: a man adept at death but coolheaded and humanitarian enough to only employ his training when necessary. So breaking Julia’s neck was no accident. It was a calculated attack, because Reacher is always calculating.
Was this overkill really necessary here? The novel was not the action-heavy rollercoaster I had been led to expect, certainly, but this last-minute inclusion of violence feels misplaced. By equating ugliness with evil, here it (somehow) becomes justifiable to kinghit an unarmed (though villainously unattractive) woman and righteously break her sickly little neck on purpose.
I bought a second Reacher book in Kuala Lumpur. For entertainment, sure, but also as a kind of control in this literary experiment: Would this next novel conform more closely to Brian’s formulaic forecast, or defy expectations again?
Gone Tomorrow (2009) opens with Reacher riding the New York City subway at two in the morning. What he suspects is a potential suicide bomb attack turns out to be a conventional suicide — the woman blows her head off with a handgun as he tries to talk her out of it — and Reacher becomes caught between the NYPD, various DoD factions, an ex-soldier running for senator, and private security thugs working for millionaire Lila Hoth, the 26-year-old Ukrainian beauty with bright blue eyes (a Child favourite, apparently), who is accompanied by her squat, ugly mother Svetlana.
Reacher rides the subway all over New York, gets shot with gorilla tranquilisers, and beats up criminals and authorities alike in his quest for the missing flash drive at the heart of the mystery. Along the way, Reacher sleeps with the NYPD officer working the subway suicide, Theresa Lee. The form-fitting pantsuit has been passed from the fair and girlish Lisa of The Visitor to an older brunette version in Theresa Lee: more streetwise; more ‘New York’.
And New York is made such a feature in Gone Tomorrow, the city moved from mere backdrop to character in its own right. Of course, by setting the story in the Greatest City in The World and opening with Reacher’s fears of terrorist attacks, Child brings to mind the attacks on September 11, 2001 (as well as the war that followed) that seem omnipresent in the American collective memory.
So it comes as little shock when the Hoth women and their retinue turn out to be Afghan terrorists. Anti-Islamic preaching is kept to a minimum throughout the book, though Child (through Reacher) expresses a fervent hatred for al-Qaeda; Reacher is, after all, a redblooded American: “I liked the Twin Towers. I liked the way the world used to be . . . The chance to meet an active al-Qaeda cell [and kill them] seems pretty much like all my birthdays and Christmases rolled into one.”
And so kill them he does. After Reacher has stitched three rapid-burst bullets in the face of every al-Qaeda goon guarding the villainesses’ hide-out (a form of cathartic overkill, a residual payback for 9/11), he is caught, stripped to his boxers and forced into a bloody knifefight with Lila and Svetlana Hoth.
So it’s another peculiar showdown, this time with two women. At least here the equation of evil with ugliness (Julia Lamarr) and its corollary virtue with beauty (Lisa Harper) explored in The Visitor have become muddied: Reacher brutalises the young and beautiful femme fatale Lila just as evenhandedly as he does the old and ugly Svetlana. Evil is innately ugly, we are told, and its ugly core shines its way even through youth and beauty. Both women receive deaths of equal ugliness, deaths arguably surpassing the violence of Julia’s broken neck: the old woman’s throat is sawn open with a knife, then the younger woman is strangled after Reacher breaks her nose with his fist.
The last Reacher book I read on my holiday was 61 Hours (2010), a distinct departure from the previous two. Reacher finds himself stranded by a blizzard in the small town of Bolton. The action revolves around a riot at the nearby prison, a local biker gang, a drug lord in a Mexican compound, and an elderly witness whose life Reacher must protect. Glorious descriptions of snow flurries and ice shards abound, and a countdown clock marks each of the eponymous sixty-one hours until Reacher’s death/disappearance.
This book seemed the most mature and polished of the series (it won the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award), and certainly the most expectedly “Reacher-ish” novel I read, embracing its own conventions — yet often defying them. Punchups with bikers replace the opening one-two gangster goons trope. (Repetition is comforting, but repetition is repetitious too.) Reacher’s romantic exploits are relegated to a series of flirtatious phone calls with a military woman out of state, made ostensibly for leads and clues. Arguably, the female love interest type has been abandoned for/transmuted into the elderly witness: a grandmotherly librarian type, sequestered and useful only as symbol and narrative stake despite Child’s attempts to deepen her. She gains significance only in her surprising death, Reacher’s failure to protect her inducing in him a rare episode of self flagellation and doubt. The action escalates with Reacher’s exposure of crooked cops and the arrival of a planeful of armed mercenaries. All this, set against the harsh wintry backdrop and the counting down of the clock. Pretty good stuff.
But, like The Visitor and Gone Tomorrow, the final showdown of the novel subverts expectations. 61 Hours doesn’t end in a shootout with the team of gunmen on the frozen runway, but instead climaxes with a fistfight between 6’5″ Reacher and a 5’1″ Mexican drug baron in a cramped bunker maze packed with tonnes of methamphetamine and stolen gold trinkets. No, I’m not kidding. Reacher has to crouch and scoot around on his ass beneath the low ceiling, while the short stature of Plato the drug lord becomes an advantage in the strange arena. Does that make the fight a little fairer? Perhaps. Does the scene succeed without unintentional comic/surrealist absurdity? Perhaps not.
Racial caricaturing and xenophobia aside, let’s focus on the gender issues and sexual/romantic implications raised here.
The Visitor dealt in flirtation and mild infidelity. 61 Hours’ sexual intrigue was limited to a series of flirtatious phonecalls. Gone Tomorrow was clearly the most sexually charged, with some violent psycho-sexual innuendo in the phone calls between Reacher and Lila Hoth, their half-naked knifefight at the end, and, of course, Reacher sleeping with Theresa Lee.
Admittedly, of the three books I read, Reacher only properly hooked up with the love interest in one of them. But let’s play devil’s advocate. I’m going to guess that The Visitor and 61 Hours were exceptions to the rule. Let’s argue that Gone Tomorrow follows the more typical pattern of the majority of the series: Reacher becomes embroiled in an investigation, inevitably beds the female investigator before kicking ass, solving the case and moving on again. Sounds fine.
But here’s where it becomes muddy; perhaps even sinister.
It is written nowhere that the female leads/love interests in these kinds of entertainments need to be realistic, fleshed-out characters. Simple representations of femininity and beauty sufficed for Ian Fleming’s Bond to intrigue, seduce, protect, etc. These kinds of books are not primarily intended as realistic portrayals or explorations of gender dynamics (although certain unintentional subtexts shine through). Both Fleming’s and Child’s books are action-thrillers captained by a (admittedly complexified) masculine archetype, a character whose three-dimensionality is underlined by the two-dimensionality of the supporting cast. That’s the supporting cast’s primary role, and that’s fine: these are airport pageturners. The female characters aren’t required to be more than windowdressing, plot devices, or objects for the hero to admire and impress. Fleming’s represention of, say, Pussy Galore (!) may seem limited, juvenile, chauvinistic, etc., but at least he was honest enough in his intentions.
What Lee Child pretends at is something more subtle, more insidious. We are presented again and again the same type, in brunette or blonde: an attractive woman in her late twenties/early thirties who works for the FBI/CIA/local PD. She is smart, well-qualified, and is no shrinking violet, either standing up to one of her male superiors in the bureau/agency/department (who are inevitably old, unfit, slow-witted and sexist in perfect contrast to Reacher who is wise, ripped, smart/cultured and gender equal, or at least pretends to be). But her mental and emotional strength is attributed as afterthought. Imagine a mannequin programmed with the broad basics of a personality, and allowed just enough cognition to remain unaware of how limited she is. Here writes a man who knows that women readers are attracted to Reacher, that Fleming’s days of chauvinism and ‘women as prize’ are over, at least on paper, and that women make up ~70% of fiction readership. (While this statistic may shift slightly when it comes to masculine power fantasies like the Reacher series, Child still wouldn’t want the controversy of blatant misogyny or the risk of alienating roughly half of his readers.) Therefore the female reader’s fictive mirror/vicarious character cannot be a vacuous bimbo, at least not overtly. So Child replaces the air in the beauty’s head with some token phrases and posturings, sticks her in a smart but form-flattering business suit, and problem solved. He succeeds in selling us the same 2D type, just packaged a little differently.
Yikes. I may have gotten carried away here with this over-reading of type, symbolism and sex, so let me clarify.
Lee Child is a brilliant writer: his prose is spare and swift; his dialogue rings true; his description and exposition, while strengthening Reacher’s ‘voice’, provide just enough detail to leave room for imagination; multiple timelines, viewpoints and subplots are no problem; and he can unveil a mystery with genius-level push-pull, delay and response, action and suspense. These are the reasons why a copy of a Reacher novel is sold somewhere on Earth approximately every 30 seconds.
But despite all that I admire about Child as a writer and about Reacher as his creation, the fact remains that the ‘final boss fights’ for 6’5″ tough guy Jack Reacher in the novels I read were, respectively: a thin and sickly ugly woman; a petite beautiful Islamic woman and her gypsy grandmother; and (let’s negate Child’s PC approach) a midget. The implication is ‘midget’.
Is this simply coincidence? Perhaps. Did I unconsciously gravitate towards the three most unconventional books in the series, somehow intuiting their endings from the blurbs alone? Unlikely. Is Lee Child purposefully seeking to subvert the assumed conventions of the hero v. villain showdown, to further confound readers’ expectations and usher in an evolution of the action-thriller form? That’s actually quite possible, and quite admirable.
But here is where I have a problem: Maybe I’m being old-fashioned, but it just doesn’t seem cool for a large powerful man to go around kinghitting and strangling little people or women (old, ugly or otherwise). Equal rights, sure, and if you’re a villain then your minority status shouldn’t shield you. But it just reads wrong on the page. Maybe Lee Child is too far ahead of his time; maybe it’s too soon to diversify the genre’s standards.
I expected certain conventions, and, in a way, I was happily surprised to find them subverted or absent. Where were the wiry Special Forces guys to attack Reacher three at a time, as I was promised? Where was the eight-foot juggernaut to outmatch him in size and strength, but not speed or smarts? Presumably these worthy opponents await Reacher in one of the other twenty-odd books in the series. Maybe I’ll find them next.
Or maybe the next Reacher novel I read will end with him stomping a small orphan girl in a wheelchair to death.