Briefly, Jack Reacher is an ex-MP who, since mustering out, hitchhikes around America using his distinctive skills to fight injustice and defend the oppressed. The skills in question include a razor-sharp intellect, years of experience with an elite police unit, and a startling capacity for violence in all its forms.
Reacher himself is every man's midlife-crisis fantasy: immensely large and strong, blithely confident of his own ability to solve every problem, and unencumbered by family or possessions -- forget the mortgage; Reacher has no credit card or bank account, and routinely wears one suit of clothes until they fall apart, then throws them in the trash to buy more. He has a few modest shortcomings, such as a big man's fear of enclosed places and a little confusion behind the wheel of civilian autos, but these just remind us of how big he is and of how he has been shaped by a life as a warrior.
The books combine elements of straight-up action with hard-boiled detection; Reacher is a compelling mixture of James Bond (or, maybe better, a Tom Clancy hero) and Philip Marlowe. Like Marlowe, incidentally, he is the creation of a British author -- and like Raymond Chandler, Lee Child has created a character who seems intrinsically American.
And, like the best hard-boiled writers, Child has mastered a sort of surreal tough-guy tone, in which both Reacher and his antagonists are able to come up with clever, intimidating trash talk on the spur of the moment. Our favorite example, quoted from memory, is a scene where Reacher is menaced by two burly ex-football players, now working as enforcers for a bad guy. Warning them off, he says something like, "Look, guys. I spent thirteen years in the Amry, learning to kill people. You spent four years in college, learning to play a game. So how scared are you now?" (Regrettably, they aren't scared enough, and he cripples them both.)
Child's prose is unremarkable on its face. It seems plain and workmanlike. (He has a peculiar fascination with the physics of violence, and spends an arguably inordinate amount of time describing the momentum, spin and trajectory of a punch from Reacher's turkey-sized fists, or of a bullet or a thrown rock.) And yet this plainness is coupled to an astonishing gift for creating suspense and moving a plot forward, so that the Reacher books are as thrilling any any thrillers we have ever read. Honestly, we should keep a doctor standing by when we read them, to monitor our surging adrenaline.
For what they are, these books are incredibly good. Our only complaint is that, for a huge muscular guy with a keen intellect and good relations with women, Reacher has comparatively little sex. This actually seems odd, but we take it to be a reflection of the pop-fiction marketplace, in which lovemaking is more fraught with commercial danger than murder and mayhem.
Those among our readers whose vacation reading is more likely to be George Lindbeck or Joseph Addison may be unfamiliar with Reacher. This is unfortunate, but easily remedied -- the books have been enormous bestsellers, and are available easily in airports all over the world.
However, we do ask that newbies resist one temptation, which will be to make Reacher's acquaintance via the forthcoming movie, One Shot. Oh, it may be a fine picture, for all we know, and as true to the spirit of the books as a movie can get. But it stars Tom Cruise, and this practically demands that the character be changed in ways that really matter.
Don't get us wrong; Tom Cruise may have some odd religious views, but we think highly of his acting. For every piece of unwatchable junk (Mission Impossible 3: Ghost Protocol may actually be the worst film ever made) he has done something ambitious or even remarkable (Rain Man, Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July). But Cruise is small and pretty, two things that Reacher cannot be and remain Reacher. He may be able to make us believe his fists are deadly weapons, but they are Cornish game hens, rather than butterball turkeys.
A trailer floating around on the net (watch it here in Russian, with wry commentary) shows Cruise in a classic Reacher situation, taking on an entire gang of ruffians. He looks grim enough, but lacks the sense of overwhelming superiority that Reacher brings to these encounters -- he's a scrapper, not a brute.
We're not knocking the picture, which we fully intend to watch. Just read the books first.