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9 March 2022updated 15 Mar 2022 5:54pm

The rise of Jack Reacher: how Lee Child created the ultimate escapist hero

Jack’s back in a new TV series – and its immediate success proves there is such a thing as a timeless formula.

By Leo Robson

“Must be action, adventure, ingenuity, unbeatable self-defence,” Jim Grant wrote in 1994, on his way to becoming Lee Child. He was 39, married with one daughter, and working as a transmission controller at Granada Television, in Manchester. He knew his days were numbered. Union-busting had radically altered the industry. Automation was on its way. Grant’s plan was to write a thriller offering what he variously called “a surrogate, vicarious, escapist mood”, an “escapist feeling”, and a sense of “escapist identification” for those who could only imagine living without a job or beating up their boss. The proximity of writer and reader, or the writer’s status as proxy-reader, was intensified by his decision to proceed without a plan, so that the story was decided, almost one sentence at a time, by what Grant himself wanted to see happen. The phenomenal success of the Jack Reacher books – the 20-plus bestsellers, the 100 million copies sold, the admirers ranging from Margaret Drabble to Bill Clinton – have done nothing to disturb Child’s basic tenet. “What is the purpose of fiction?” he asked in his non-fiction book, The Hero (2019). “To give people what they don’t get in real life.”

Grant’s exercise in wish-fulfilment fantasy now stands as an exemplary case of the dream come true. He didn’t exactly get to beat up his boss, but he has certainly been able to survive without a job – and launched his new life with a book, Killing Floor (1997), in which a corrupt town official shared a surname with Granada’s then director of programmes Steve Morrison. Central to achieving Grant’s desired effect was the figure initially identified as “H” (for hero), and soon to become Jack Reacher who, after retiring as a major in the US military police, becomes a “hobo” and vigilante. He would need to be “unfeasibly tough… invulnerable”. He is also notably unencumbered. “No middle name,” in the words of Killing Floor. “No address.” No possessions, either. And no milk or sugar in his coffee.

In With Child (2019), an account of the book tour for Child’s 20th novel Make Me (2015), the academic Andy Martin attempts to identify all of Reacher’s influences and precursors. Among them are the hunter-gatherer, Popeye after spinach, King Kong (but with less hair), Desperate Dan, and Michael Connelly’s LA detective Hieronymus Bosch, who, having a job, a home, and a fancy name, provided Grant with a source of counter-inspiration. Somewhere in the background – though too distant to qualify for the 17-strong list – is James Bond, who as Child noted in The Hero, is also a man of rank engaged in “dispensing rough justice.”

Another crucial ingredient was the landscape through which Reacher moves, as archetypically American as Bond’s is English – more so, in fact, because this was the republic as dreamscape. Killing Floor is set in Margrave, a town that Grant made up, in a state, Georgia, he had never visited: “Heavy, damp red earth. Very long and straight rows of low bushes in the fields.” Reacher, the terrific Amazon show that derives its first season from Child’s debut, opens with the character walking along a stretch of freeway before stopping in at a diner – identified in the novel’s opening sentence as “Eno’s diner”, a location with echoes of “Henry’s lunchroom” – the backdrop for Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers”, arguably the foundational text for hardboiled prose. (It’s an odd fact that many of the juiciest examples of popular Americana have been the work of Brits, including the films American Honey, American Beauty, American Gangster, American Animals, and American History X.)

[see also: Lee Child Q&A: “We’ll be done soon, and the planet will recover“]

Just as important, though scanted by Child’s account, were the careful limits placed on Reacher’s tough-guy credentials. There’s a scene in With Child where Child and Martin discuss the ambivalent piece I wrote for the New Statesman in 2015 about Martin’s earlier book Reacher Said Nothing. Martin says that I considered him “a bit superficial”, and Child replies, “I’m going to have to start introducing you as my superficial friend.” What I actually wrote – and stand by – was that Martin, in following Child’s over-insistence on Reacher as the avenger with the knockout punch, missed just how much the series is about the character’s reasoning, erudition and Blue Peter-ish knowhow (mixing salt and ketchup to clean metal, and so on). Reacher’s biceps are not irrelevant to his following, but his strongest muscle is his brain. In one of the many delightful scenes from the new TV adaptation Reacher, he sits across a table from Margrave’s chief detective, and provides a meticulous account of the murder for which he has been wrongfully arrested. It begins, “Three men dropped this body” and ends, “In an investigation, details matter.”

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Child is hardly unaware of Reacher’s multi-dimensionality. He has acknowledged that his readers enjoy the contrast between Reacher’s “enormous physicality” and “delight at small intellectual diversions”. Though the Bruce Willis of Die Hard appears on Martin’s list of Reacher antecedents, Child’s original idea was for a character with Willis’s body but the head of the blond, sensitive, privately educated actor William Hurt, and one of the models for Reacher’s narration was Kevin Costner’s delicate, diaristic voiceover from Dances with Wolves. When yet another offspring of 1980s Hollywood, Tom Cruise, was cast as Reacher, in the first of two films, the unavoidable complaint was that he was too short (by almost a foot). But there were deeper problems. Cruise was also too familiar, too old, and above all, too squarely an action man, the producer-star of the ongoing Mission: Impossible series who insisted on doing his own stunts.

Cruise’s successor, Alan Ritchson, is size-appropriate (if still a few inches off Reacher’s 6ft 5in), and has a back catalogue that includes an American football player, a Hunger Games “victor”, and two superheroes. But he also possesses a calmer, less competitive energy, and excels at portraying the character’s practised watchfulness. In one bizarre but not unwelcome detail, Ritchson’s Reacher admits to being a fan of the short stories of Eudora Welty, which would have been unimaginable in the feature film versions. But while the character is unusually rounded, almost a Renaissance man, he doesn’t quite square the circle. “You’re an emotional dumpster fire,” one associate tells him. When the chief detective, nodding his head to 38 Special’s “Caught Up in You” tells Reacher “you gotta feel this”, it’s all too clear that he doesn’t. The Reacher of Killing Floor, though untroubled by his conscience, is capable of emotion and even admits to an outburst of weeping. The writing team for Reacher evidently decided that he is too good to be convincing, that a man so brilliant with minutiae and so quick with his fists, a logician with a Darwinian mentality, must sit somewhere on the autism spectrum. (He sheds just one tear, and that’s in a flashback.)

There’s a similar emphasis in Matt Reeves’ new film The Batman, another reboot set in an archetypal American locale, involving a beloved character deemed – albeit less universally – to have been mishandled in a pair of recent films (Batman v Superman and Justice League, where Ben Affleck took the role). Like Reacher, Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson) is in his mid-thirties. His parents are dead. He has a working relationship with a senior local police officer. He is a mixture of action-man and nerd, crime-fighter and crime-solver, and in both Reacher and The Batman, the case – a series of torture killings – involves the decoding of ciphers. (Also in both, a man is arrested at gunpoint having just ordered a piece of pie – peach in one case, pumpkin the other.) Though this Batman isn’t celibate, there’s clearly no prospect of him settling down, and he is surly and short-tempered towards his butler Alfred. His world is all riddles, no cuddles, and besides a bit of angsty journal-keeping, his private pain is entirely sublimated into the pursuit for justice.

Pattinson’s Batman is a descendant of Christian Bale’s take on the role and of Daniel Craig’s James Bond – a superhero for troubled times. The remarkable thing about Reacher is how little retooling he seems to require. He was created during the heyday of the action thriller, the genre that was born from the popularity of Die Hard, released in 1988. With its flying glass, swelling fireballs and bankable star (Willis, Wesley Snipes, Nicolas Cage, Steven Seagal), the action thriller updated the Western and was a box-office mainstay for more than a decade. It has since been comprehensively sidelined by the denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the members of DC Comics’ Justice League. And yet we still care about Reacher.

You might say that Reacher’s imperviousness to fashion reflects the power of the archetypal energies that Child was keen to channel. The old-fashioned hero, though no longer dominant at the multiplex, has proved a durable figure, as demonstrated by the recent careers of Jason Statham, Keanu Reeves and Liam Neeson, and by the busy afterlives of Reacher’s most obvious literary precursors – Robert Ludlum’s black-ops specialist turned renegade and fugitive Jason Bourne, and Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst Jack Ryan. In the summer of 2002 – a season ruled by Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the film that set off the superhero boom – these earthbound figures were incarnated with notable success by two well-known best friends, Matt Damon and Affleck, in The Bourne Identity and The Sum of all Fears respectively. The Bourne film produced three sequels made with distinctive flair by a new director, Paul Greengrass, who was born ten months after Jim Grant, and who also began a long stint at Granada Television in the autumn of 1977. And though the projected Ryan film series was abandoned due to the failure of Affleck’s other projects (a reboot, in 2014, with Chris Pine, also remained a one-off) the character was revived again, in an Amazon series starring John Krasinski that will return for a third series this year.

Jack Ryan does not feature in Andy Martin’s inventory of the Reacher DNA, and there are certainly differences. Ryan is a father, a Catholic, and has an economics PhD. We are left in no doubt as to his middle name (Patrick). But a Jack R with a military background who had been portrayed first in a highly successful TV series then, by Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, in two successful films, can hardly be irrelevant to Reacher’s conception. Clear and Present Danger, Ford’s second outing as Ryan, was released in England on 16 September 1994, 11 days after Jim Grant set to work. Perhaps he glimpsed the poster, with its tagline “Truth needs a soldier”, on the afternoon of 1 September, when – we learn from Heather Martin’s engaging biography The Reacher Guy – he visited WH Smith in Manchester’s Arndale Centre and spent £3.99 on lined paper, a pencil, a sharpener and a rubber. The bestselling fiction hardback in the UK that week, and no doubt amply available in Smith’s, was the latest addition to the “Ryanverse”, Debt of Honour.

Whether it’s a matter of influence or coincidence, there’s no question that Child benefited from the Clancy precedent – and continues to. Like the TV series Jack Ryan, which began in 2018, Reacher is a co-production between Skydance Television and Paramount, streaming on Amazon Prime. Like Reacher, Krasinski’s Ryan, though certainly more of a “boy scout”, excels in the realm of both thought and action – behind a desk and in the field – while struggling, though perhaps not terminally, with affairs of the heart. (At one point, Ryan’s superior officer calls him “Rain Man.”) The streaming services were notably quick to recognise that an appetite still exists for the hero without a cape. Bosch, a show based around the putative anti-Reacher, ran for seven seasons before ending in 2021.

At an earlier crossroads in the history of commercial television, the former Jim Grant gave hard thought to the mechanics of entertainment. What makes a gripping story? What makes a great hero? He recognised that despite the existence of mores and fashion, there is such a thing as a timeless formula. Alan Ritchson’s rendering is a tweaked version of the original. But the show’s immediate success and undoubted appeal remains a testament to Child’s Reacher-like powers of insight and determination – 25 years to the month since Killing Floor first hit the shelves.

“Reacher” is available on Amazon Prime; “Jack Ryan” returns this year; “The Batman” is on general release

[see also: Batman in the age of anxiety]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror