Reacher Transcendent

September 8, 2015

In 2014 I started a series of reviews (call it My Favorite Books) on Seth Godin’s innovative review site, HugDug. Alas, the site soon closed down just after I’d posted one of those here. Six weeks ago I posted another one here. To celebrate the latest Jack Reacher novel, which hits the stands today, here is my review of my #1 favorite Reacher novel, The Enemy — a book that goes beyond the duty of a good thriller and touches upon something transcendent. — JDM

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Every Jack Reacher book is a helluva lot of fun. Lee Child does for the modern action hero what Raymond Chandler did for the WWII-era private eye, elevating him to something larger than life, a powerfully evocative hero of his time. In fact, Child’s unmistakable Reacher narrative style — succinct, bare-bones, at times comically terse (one of his signature lines, in response to another character’s line of dialog: “Reacher said nothing.”) — vividly echoes Chandler’s in places.

If you’ve never read any Reacher, here’s the basic deal: An ex-Army cop turned vagabond wrong-righter (knight-errant, ronin, gunslinger), Reacher is a very big man, all six feet five inches of him ruthlessly violent when the situation demands it. Still, he uses his brain and even more ruthless powers of observation and logical deduction a good deal more than his brawn. He also has — and it’s so dry that you’ll often miss it if you’re not paying attention — a screaming sense of humor.

Child was once asked, in the Q-and-A portion of a public talk, how much of Jack Reacher was modeled on Child himself. He replied that, in fact, Reacher’s experiences very much reflected the author’s own experiences.

“Of course,” he added with a completely straight face, “I’ve had to tone down the violence.”

You could write a whole review about the many ways Child’s books are deliciously entertaining. But that’s not my purpose here. I’m not here to simply tell you about Jack Reacher. I want to tell you about this Jack Reacher.

Because The Enemy is something special.

The eighth Reacher novel in as many years, The Enemy came after enough mega-success with the first seven that Child had by now set his own pace and defined his own game. And in much the way Chandler did with The Big Sleep, he now took his own game to a whole new level.

For one thing, the book steps out of its normal present-tense timeline, jumping back to 1990 to fill in a critical moment in his character’s back-story biography. (As he would later do again in Reacher #16, The Affair, which takes place just months before the first book in the series and shows us the moment Reacher left the Army and became the wandering masterless samurai we’ve come to know. Hmm. Book #8. Book #16. Wonder if Child will do this again in book #24.)

The book opens onto the New Year’s Eve that steps from 1989 into 1990. This time happens to chronicle a key transitional moment in Reacher’s personal life: his and his brother’s final days with his mother, and then the immediate aftermath of her death. Which makes the story intensely personal, albeit in a restrained, Reacherly way. (The Enemy is one of only a handful of the nineteen Reacher novels narrated in first person.)

As if in grand echo of these personal themes, the book’s larger story takes place within the context of the Soviet Union’s demise and the world’s passage from era to era, Cold War to War on Terror.

This epic-shift resonance, of the shift of one epoch to the next, reaches its most poignant expression in a passage so evocative and powerful that I excerpted two full paragraphs of it in my own Navy SEAL sniper memoir (with Brandon Webb), The Red Circle.

What is the twentieth century’s signature sound? You could have a debate about it. Some might say the slow drone of an aero engine. Maybe from a lone fighter crawling across an azure 1940s sky. Or the scream of a fast jet passing low overhead, shaking the ground. Or the whup whup whup of a helicopter. Or the roar of a laden 747 lifting off. Or the crump of bombs falling on a city. All of those would qualify. They’re all uniquely twentieth-century noises. They were never heard before. Never, in all of history. Some crazy optimists might lobby for a Beatles song. A yeah, yeah, yeah chorus fading under the screams of their audience. I would have sympathy for that choice. But a song and screaming would never qualify. Music and desire have been around since the dawn of time. They weren’t invented after 1900.

No, the twentieth century’s signature sound is the squeal and clatter of tank tracks on a paved street. That sound was heard in Warsaw, and Rotterdam, and Stalingrad, and Berlin. Then it was heard again in Budapest and Prague, and Seoul and Saigon. It’s a brutal sound. It’s the sound of fear. It speaks of overwhelming advantage in power. And it speaks of remote, impersonal indifference. Tank treads squeal and clatter and the very noise they make tells you they can’t be stopped. It tells you you’re weak and powerless against the machine. Then one track stops and the other keeps on going and the tank wheels around and lurches straight toward you, roaring and squealing. That’s the real twentieth-century sound.…

This passage still raises the hair on the back of my neck when I read it.

At the completely opposite end of the spectrum is the intimate scene between Reacher, his brother Joe, and their mother, who is dying of cancer — a scene that may (or may not) prove to be the last time the two boys see their mother alive.

Then she revisited another old family ritual. She did something she had done ten thousand times before, all through our lives, since we were first old enough to have individuality of our own … She moved herself over behind me. I could hear her ragged breathing. She kissed my cheek. Then like she used to all those years before she put her hands on my shoulders. Measured them, side to side. She was a small woman, fascinated by the way her baby had grown into a giant.

“You’ve got the strength of two normal boys,” she said.

“What are you going to do with this strength?” she asked me.

I didn’t answer. I never did. Our silence was part of the ritual.

“You’re going to do the right thing,” she said.

Then she bent down and kissed me on the cheek again.

I thought: Was that the last time?

I’ll leave it to you to discover who or what “the enemy” of the title refers to. But to me, the book is about the pain, poignancy, and inevitability of the passage of an age as it makes way for the next. Of things the way they were, and what it’s like when they are no longer that way, and of how we deal with that change — with grace, or resistance, or violence.

Some may say I am reading too much into this book and giving Child too much credit. Maybe. Maybe not. To judge for yourself, you’ll have to read it.

And either way, you’re going to have a helluva good time.

(Photo: Ulf Andersen)



  1. Laura Steward

    When I was going through my divorce last year someone suggested I read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books to help me get through it. I had never read his books before, kind of strange actually, and I asked her why. She said they would help me with the anger and frustration because the bad guys always get the, you know what, beat out of them. What I quickly realized was how good the books were. How much deeper they were than the surface of good beats evil and that there are many shades of gray in a situation that often seems just one way or another due to the hurt you are feeling at the time.

    Lee Child, through his books, helped me begin the process of healing my soul during my divorce and I am grateful for his words and yours which also have helped me heal the divorce and many other things John.

    • John David Mann

      Laura – You are so welcome! Thrilled to read that Lee Child’s prose helped you in a tough time. Fun fact: Years ago, when Renault came out with its “Le Car” model, Child – who still went by his real name, Jim Grant – and his wife were amused to no end when they heard an American pronounce it “Lee Car.” (Grant is from England. Wife American.) They were so tickled, they started referring to things around the house that way: “lee chair,” “lee table,” “lee dinner.” Their daughter, they referred to as “lee child.” When it came time for him to choose a pen name … why, there it was.

      • John David Mann

        (And yes, I’m sure that is causing at least one person out there to scratch his or head and say, “Hmm … wonder where he got ‘John Mann.'”)


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