The first message I saw in my Twitter mentions on Saturday morning was brief, consisting of just three words and a hashtag.
“Have you heard? #reacher”
It was from the writer and columnist Lucy Mangan, and though it might appear cryptic, it was all she needed to say. The hashtag, of course, referred to Jack Reacher, hero of Lee Child’s long-running thriller series and for us the subject of endless discussion, all of it energetic if not dependably high-minded.
As for her question, its ominous character was evident not just in its terseness but in its timing. There had been Reacher news, clearly, and not of an everyday kind. We’d happily cluck away over a title reveal, sure, but not at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning.
No, this was a development of such magnitude that our little convocation of the faithful had been called into emergency session. If I hadn’t already, I was required to scan my newsfeed and apprise myself of all available intelligence. I would be expected to arrive fully briefed.
But I had heard, of course. I had seen the headline in a notification before I even unlocked my phone. While still hunched on the edge of my bed, I had scrolled in mounting dismay through rehashings by four or five different news outlets of what was clearly the same press release, with the same baleful import. I had by no means come to terms with what I had learned, as I fortified my coffee with a third shot of espresso, but by 9.45 or so I was at least in possession of the facts.
And the facts were these: Lee Child, whose real name is James Grant and who last year published his 24th novel to routine acclaim, had announced his retirement. Jack Reacher, however, was to live on. Child’s brother, Andrew Grant, would become Andrew Child and would – following a collaborative transition period – assume full authorship of the ongoing oeuvre.
This was, as Reacher himself might put it, no kind of a small deal. That was for damn sure.
So, who is this Jack Reacher, and why does he inspire such devotion? Although a richer back story unfolds in the subsequent novels, Child’s leading man emerges more or less fully formed in the opening pages of Killing Floor, published in 1997.
He is a former soldier, or more precisely (and he is a man who values precision) a former military cop who once commanded the feared 110th Special Unit. Though decorated for acts of valour (which he seldom mentions), his fraught relations with authority stalled his advance, leaving him – in the service jargon he still favours – “terminal at Major”.
Following his honourable discharge, Reacher embraces the freedom of civilian life with a characteristic maximalism. He adopts a vagrant and ascetic lifestyle, hitchhiking from town to town and bedding down in motels where the carpets are sticky but no questions are asked.
He renounces all personal possessions save for the contents of his pockets, which are itemised with such regularity that to the initiated they have assumed a liturgical familiarity. Reacher carries with him a folding toothbrush, a lapsed passport and a modest stash of folding money. This forlorn inventory varies only to the extent that Reacher’s cash reserves are occasionally supplemented in the course of what might be termed his vocational activities.
This brings us to the other main thing about Reacher. He doesn’t look for trouble, but he invariably finds it. When he does, he shows himself to be a fearsome exponent of extrajudicial redress, confronting hired goons and hulking farm boys with a tranquil demeanour and a preternatural aptitude for physical combat.
In such moments (and they are many), we behold a virtuoso of bodily harm, an agent of fabulous violence equipped with both a monumental physique (he is 6ft 5in and possessed of fists “the size of supermarket chickens”) and an unshakeable view of retributive moral justice.
The retributive-moral-justice element of Reacher's nature ought to be troubling. He is, at least in the abstract, an itinerant practitioner of artisanal fascism
This last element of Reacher’s nature ought to be troubling. He is, at least in the abstract, an itinerant practitioner of artisanal fascism, educating even the pettiest of hoodlums in the doctrine of just war and opening pop-up dispensaries of overwhelming force wherever he identifies sufficient demand.
In a superb essay surveying the Reacher canon, Sam Leith notes that "he doesn't live within the Army's code [but] has (at least insofar as it's useful to him) internalized it". We ought to be repelled, surely, by this kind of carry-on, yet on the page it is not merely acceptable but enthralling.
The extent of this appeal is evident – the Reacher novels have sold in the tens of millions – but its nature is a much trickier thing to account for. In any genre of fiction, one can point to writers of surpassing ability, and to many more who are merely competent. Lee Child is certainly of the former kind, which is to say that he immerses us in a fully habitable world and animates his improbable protagonist so convincingly that we go beyond caring about what happens to him; we come to care about him. For all his exotic attributes, this is as true of Jack Reacher as it is of Lizzie Bennet or Harry Angstrom, and like them his existence is sustained by a particular confluence of gifts.
Lee Child, in other words, isn’t just good at what he does. He’s uniquely good at what he does. And for those of us who cherish it, the dynastic succession he has set in train must be considered in that light. Among the fans I know personally, the question of what will become of Reacher has already merged with a more selfish anxiety. What, we are now asking ourselves, is to become of us?
My Twitter conversation with Lucy Mangan was quickly joined by likeminded friends. “How do you think I feel?” replied the musician and writer Tracey Thorn, who had only recently begun the series. “I’m newly in love and in no way prepared for this kind of betrayal.” The novelist Charlotte Mendelson was likewise distraught, and while the ensuing discussion was by no means uniformly sombre, touching at one point on the anatomical implications of Reacher’s having “elbows the size of pineapples”, her concluding heartbreak emoji seemed nonetheless to capture the general mood.
This may sound like flagrant namedropping – and it is, inescapably – but I mention these contributors because the exchange was typical in the best sense and encapsulated a phenomenon I’ve often remarked on, and which seems worth examining in the present context.
The Jack Reacher novels aren’t just hugely popular with readers; they’re hugely popular with writers.
Other titans of the thriller genre may sell in astronomical numbers, but no one else's appeal has ruptured boundaries and overwhelmed prejudices in quite the same way
Why should that matter? Well, it shouldn’t, necessarily. Writers are just readers too, and their views as individuals carry no special weight. But we’re talking about a lot of writers here (we’ll come to some examples in a moment), and from right across the spectrum of genre and taste. This seems noteworthy if only because Child is unique in this respect. Other titans of the thriller genre – like James Patterson, say, or Tom Clancy in his time – may sell in astronomical numbers, but I can think of no one else whose appeal has ruptured boundaries and overwhelmed prejudices in quite the same way.
Hoping to bear this observation out, I began asking around, seeking the reactions first of Child’s peers within the genre. Steve Cavanagh, author of the bestselling thrillers Thirteen and, most recently, Twisted, confessed to mixed feelings about the passing of the crown, but took comfort in Andrew Grant’s standing as “a fantastic thriller writer” in his own right. Cavanagh’s high esteem for Child himself came as no surprise – “he leaves the genre enormously enriched,” the younger writer concluded – but I was struck by the genuine warmth of his feelings. Cavanagh will, he confided, “miss having a pint with my mate”.
But this high regard is by no means confined to those working the same literary beat. It is shared by such august and seemingly unlikely figures as Philip Pullman and Margaret Drabble, who astutely praises his evocation of small-town landscapes and concludes morosely that “he does all the things I could never do”. High praise indeed.
And it’s not just the old guard. On Saturday afternoon, queuing at the till in Lidl and still much beset by gloom, I noticed a message from Max Porter. Porter’s maddeningly virtuosic novels have contended for every illustrious prize you can think of, but he had seen the earlier exchange on Twitter and offered some characteristically thoughtful insights.
Recalling a half-joking conversation with his own brother about assigning the burden of his literary estate, he took a benevolent view of Child’s decision, approving of how it “dismantles the fetishisation of the author in such a nimble way”. Reacher, he noted, wouldn’t give a damn who was at the keyboard and perhaps we shouldn’t either.
Well, perhaps. Intrigued but still unconsoled, I sought the counsel of Eleanor Catton, whose literary credentials are obviously formidable – she won the Booker Prize for The Luminaries – and whose command of the Reacher canon is said to be unsurpassed. I was not disappointed.
Catton eased into the material, while simultaneously evaluating my own bona fides. Had I encountered Reacher Said Nothing, she wanted to know, referring to Andy Martin’s work of over-the-shoulder reportage and its illumination of Child’s writing process. I confirmed that I had, and that I had encountered in it Child’s summation of his technique: “You should write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.”
But Catton, being Catton, had much more to say. In an astute appraisal of Child’s characterisation, she pointed out that Reacher’s persona relies on few if any familiar tropes. Making reference to David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, she observed that comparable archetypes like Sherlock Holmes (solitary and sexless) and James Bond (state-sanctioned and voracious) are defined in terms of their submission or opposition to powerful social forces.
But Reacher, in Catton’s estimation, “seems much more of a person than either of those men, and seems to embody more contradictions”. His enigma, she goes on to observe, is bound up with his peculiar form of solitude: “[Reacher] always walks off into the sunset, usually alone – and yet he is socially astute and never isolated. He hasn’t checked out from ordinary society, and doesn’t consider himself above it – he’s just living his life the way he chooses to.”
Lee Child is simply living his life the way he chooses to. There would be an undeniable nobility, after all, in keeping such radical faith with the code of one's own creation.
Left unstated here was the suggestion that, in arriving at his decision, Lee Child too is simply living his life the way he chooses to. Again, it’s a thought that holds out a certain comfort. There would be an undeniable nobility, after all, in keeping such radical faith with the code of one’s own creation.
Still, as grateful as I was for the wisdom of all those I consulted, I realised that I must find my own way – as every Reacher fan must – of coming to terms with Saturday’s news. The experiment may well succeed, and Andrew Child may well prove a worthy custodian of his brother’s legacy. I certainly wish him well, and wish the elder Child many easeful years in which to contemplate a horizon unshadowed by deadlines.
But whatever the outcome, an era has undeniably ended. We have been spared an altogether bleaker alternative – the exit in “a blaze of bullets” that Child had apparently considered – and for that we may be thankful. But the Reacher we loved – who we loved for his taciturn vigilance, his unshowy rectitude and venturesome curiosity, even for his hilarious ineptitude with computers – that finely shaded and irreplaceable Reacher is no longer with us.
Each of us must mourn his passing in our own way. For myself, after a decent interval, my inclination is simply to begin the journey again. I’ve read all of the novels at least twice, and always with undiminished enjoyment. It’s not about knowing the destination, as Reacher himself would confirm. It’s about being free again, and back on the road.
Before I start, though, I think I’ll open one of my favourites right at the end. I’ll watch the big guy take quiet leave of his temporary comrades, offer a perfunctory valediction to the woman he has joined both in battle and in intimate congress, bringing to each undertaking the same conviction and unsparing energy. I’ll follow him out to the county highway, or maybe to the interstate where the odds of a ride are a little better, and after a while I’ll watch him climb aboard some elderly Chevy pickup.
And then as the sun sinks over the lube shops and strip malls on the edge of town, for one last time I’ll watch him go on his way.
Paraic O’Donnell is a novelist and critic. His most recent novel, The House on Vesper Sands, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson