Jack Reacher is like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. With Zen professionalism and logical deductions, he outwits his opponents every time. Then he kills them. It’s usually with a gun, but once in a while he’ll break the occasional neck. Admittedly, Holmes never did that. But if he’d been trained by the U.S. Army, perhaps he would have.
In The Hard Way, Lee Child’s latest thriller, Jack Reacher does more of the same — he appears out of nowhere, gets involved in a deadly mystery, and turns vicious. This time, sitting at an outdoor café in Manhattan, Reacher witnesses a kidnapper picking up a car full of ransom money. A very rich man who runs a private firm of mercenaries has had his wife and stepdaughter snatched, so he sends someone to pick up Reacher. They exchange short bursts of terse dialogue. Stuff along the lines of ”’You got a name?’ ‘Most people do.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘Reacher.”’ And so forth. Reacher decides to help, roams around New York, ends up in England, and kills a bunch of people. Some with guns, but no necks get broken. This time.
When Reacher was introduced ten books ago in 1997’s Killing Floor, Child was an out-of-work TV producer looking for a quick buck. Depressed by a perceived trend toward dysfunctional thriller heroes, he created a character who’s smart, strong, and deadly. A former Army MP, Reacher could look at the calluses on a person’s hand and tell what kind of gun they shoot. By the same token, he could also murder you with his fingernail. A roaming, solitary man, he has popped up in a different American town in every book. If Sam Spade and his hard-boiled ilk were a reworking of the medieval knight myth — the lone man searching for justice — then Reacher is an update several times removed: a brutal man for a brutal age. ”The remorse gene was missing from his DNA,” Child writes of his hero. ”Entirely. It just wasn’t there.” This is after Reacher obliterates a man’s head with a rifle stock. He then stabs the man in the chest, just to make sure.
There’s always been a strong streak of sadism in Child’s books, probably an outgrowth of his testosterone-soaked prose. His first two thrillers both featured people getting crucified and mutilated. The Hard Way just includes mutilation. It’s a step forward. Yet the great thing about the Reacher novels is that time and again they achieve an almost perfect balance between police procedural and tactical military thriller. Child can write about fingerprinting and how best to ambush a farmhouse and make both sound quite convincing. And while there’s no denying that the Reacher books are formulaic masculine fantasies, it seems pointless to fault a concoction composed of such electrifying elements.