A Righteous Avenger: the five best Jack Reacher thrillers
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Hi everyone! As you’ve probably figured out by now, I don’t have any sort of plan or theme in these posts, and just chat about whatever is on my mind when I sit down to write them every fortnight… so having just finished reading my TWENTY-THIRD novel in the Jack Reacher series, it occurred to me that Lee Child’s grizzled, uncompromising modern action hero probably merited his own entry!
I first discovered Jack Reacher while on a family holiday in Wales in the late nineties. As a troubled teenager at the time, I was bored out of my mind and looking for something to read, preferably featuring a bucketload of blood, guts and violence. So when I wandered into a bookshop and saw the bloody footprints on the front cover of Killing Floor, the very first Jack Reacher novel, I immediately grabbed it. The blurb, about a seemingly peaceful town hiding something sinister behind its pleasant façade, was intriguing, and after buying the book I demolished it in the next few days. Little did I know that my love of this character would span four decades and two (ropey) Tom Cruise films!
For those of you who have only dabbled with Reacher, or are yet to read any of the series, I’m going to recommend a top five below (and I promise to keep them spoiler-free) but, before that, I wanted to talk more generally about what I think makes the books of Lee Child so compelling and so wildly successful.
Undoubtedly the biggest draw of the Reacher series is the character himself. He is an army veteran and former military policeman who, after his discharge, leads a nomadic lifestyle as a problem-solver, freelance investigator and general force for righteousness. He likes to see wrongs righted and villains punished (usually by him). He doesn’t care about the law, and instead uses his strong moral compass to guide him through his adventures. His appeal is perhaps best summed up by a Patricia Cornwell quote on the inside cover of recent release The Midnight Line: ‘Sometimes you just want someone who can beat the s**t out of people!’
Yet, sometimes, I still think people are missing the point. A lot of quotes and comments talk about how tough Reacher is (or even how ‘sexy’ he is – each to their own, I suppose!), but I think the character's most appealing trait seems to be constantly overlooked: he is really, really funny. At least once per novel, one of Reacher's intimidating quips or dry rejoinders will make me laugh out loud, as he seems to positively delight in knocking his enemies down a peg or three.
This wisecracking tendency also serves to reveal a much more deeply-buried aspect of Reacher’s character: he is, at heart, an overgrown child. The earlier novels mention his older brother Joe quite frequently, and how Reacher’s fighting skills were learned in infancy by scrapping alongside (or against) his bro at military bases around the world, and he sometimes still seems like a boy completely lost in a modern world that expects him to settle down, have children, get a respectable job and a fixed address. His outrageous jokes in the face of extreme danger, and even his (largely head-butt and ball-kick based) fighting style speak of a man who has never really grown up.
So that’s Reacher – but surely there must be other reasons that Child’s books have sold over 100 million copies and been translated into 49 languages? There are, and one of them is that they’re extremely well written. I’ve read a lot of reviews and comments from people describing Child’s books as poorly written, trashy page-turners, and everyone is entitled to their opinion of course… but I couldn’t disagree more. Child’s style is clipped, his sentences extremely short and his use of punctuation sparing – and this feels exactly like the way a military veteran would speak, think and act. He doesn’t shower us with florid descriptions of the sky glimpsed through the window, or the layers of grease on the countertops; he just tells us he’s in a diner, and the countertops are greasy. That he’s just ordered coffee, seating himself in the ideal position to observe the other three customers, in case they’re a threat. More than any other book I’ve read, the writing style perfectly matches the protagonist, even managing to convey Reacher’s concealed intellect in occasional snatches of genuinely well-crafted (but still punchy) descriptive prose.
Finally, the books are masterfully plotted, with the best in the series making you feel like you’re watching the most gripping thriller you’ve seen for decades. Child seems able to very quickly acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of whatever subset of the criminal underworld he has decided to plumb for each story, and the array of dastardly schemes his books have encompassed keeps them feeling fresh. Reacher is rarely battling conventional drug dealers; instead, we see him up against arms dealers, human traffickers, counterfeiters, and villains from the sickest depths of the dark web. To unravel these conspiracies, Reacher requires more than just brawn; like Batman (the character I think he has most in common with), Reacher is not just a one-man army, but also first and foremost a detective.
The series hasn’t maintained the same heights throughout. Some of the stories are just too far-fetched, and I have never particularly liked the entries that ‘flash back’ to Reacher’s army career – they are a little too peppered with jingoistic patriotism for my tastes. The two movies aren't great either, although that’s possibly down to Tom Cruise’s decision to cast himself to play the six foot five inch man-mountain of a main character… but despite some minor hiccups, Lee Child almost always delivers. Page-turners? Absolutely – but in all the right ways.
Okay, it’s time for the main event, and in a tension-building move that Lee Child himself would be proud of, I’m going to count down my top five Jack Reacher thrillers in reverse order – here goes!
(Two quick things to mention: first, the books can be read in any order, as there is very little continuity or referencing of previous adventures in each story. Not only does this make the series ideal for new readers to dive into at any time, it also helps to cement the character as a sort of timeless, James Bond figure; regardless of the year, Reacher will always be there, about forty-odd, rejecting modern technological trends if he can help it, and dishing up his own brutal brand of justice to whatever ne’er-do-wells are foolish enough to cross his path. So, if this article does tempt you to give Reacher a try, don’t worry about having to go back to the very first book if some of the others sound more appealing.
Secondly, I should confess that, at the time of writing, there are actually twenty-four full-length Jack Reacher novels, as well as a collection of short fiction called No Middle Name. I haven’t yet read No Middle Name, or the most recent novel Blue Moon, so these will be omitted from consideration below.)
5). Die Trying
This is the second Reacher novel, and the first time I noticed that a lot of the characters had the same names as Premier League footballers (Milosevic, Staunton and McGrath all feature, as well as a fictional location named Yorke County…) It turns out Child, who is British, is a massive Villa fan, and tries to sneak names of ex-players into his books whenever he can!
The story itself is an entertaining thrill-ride that never takes its foot off the accelerator, and features the sort of odious bad guy you’ll be itching to see Reacher inflict some punishment upon.
Read it if you like: non-stop, high octane thrillers (or Aston Villa).
4). Make Me
I’ve already mentioned Reacher’s distaste for modern technology (this is a man who resents having to own a bank card, and doesn’t carry a phone), so what better way to challenge him than by thrusting him neck-deep into a twisted conspiracy from the blackest corner of the dark web? Like the baddie whose name no-one can remember from Die Hard 4.0 said to McClane: ‘John, you’re a Timex watch in a digital age’.
Read it if you like: disturbing twists.
3). Past Tense
I talked earlier about how Child seems capable of endlessly fabricating deliciously nefarious schemes for Reacher to unpick (or to drive a lorry through). This novel features perhaps my favourite ‘ohhhh that’s what they’re doing’ moment of the series, and for its first half almost borders on a horror mystery novel.
Read it if you like: trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
I think I’m right in saying that all but two of Lee Child’s novels are written in third person. This approach works very well, allowing him to retain Reacher as his primary POV character, while also enabling certain chapters to snap to different characters for the benefit of the plot’s advancement. However, I have really enjoyed Reacher’s first-person outings – the more intimate insight into the character is fascinating, and allows his vulnerability to show through a wee bit more.
In Persuader, this vulnerability is explored in more detail than perhaps any other entry in the series. Our hero must navigate a particularly murky case, and come face-to-face with a man that might be too strong even for him.
Read it if you like: the sound of Reacher meeting his match.
1). Killing Floor
The one that started it all. Also written in first-person, and before either Child or Reacher had become cemented as ultra-confident megastars, the plot is a perfectly-paced mystery, and the violence is uncompromising as you’d expect. Although there is no need to start at the beginning, I’d recommend you do, because for all of Lee Child’s achievements I don’t believe he has ever surpassed his breath-taking debut.
Read it if you like: really really ace books.
So there you have it! A whistle-stop tour of the Jack Reacher series, why I love it, and the books I’d recommend to any newcomers. If you have any comments, particularly if you’re a Reacher fan yourself and disagree wildly with my selections, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!
I’ll close out by saying that, much as I’d like to read a story about an ageing Reacher, in his sixties, struggling with his deteriorating physical state and the increasingly bonkers world we now inhabit, I’m very happy with the character’s timeless state if it means we keep getting more of these fantastic novels. A huge thank you to Lee Child for the many hours of bone-crunching delight he’s given us!
Until next time,