Let’s Talk About Lee Child

I recently read my first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor, which (unbeknownst to me until I got to the end) is also the first one in the series. I gave it three stars, and that’s a “will not read more by this author” three stars, not a “may try this author again if I detect improvement” three stars. Other folks with similar opinions of Lee Child may rate him lower, but I only give books one or two stars if they’re unreadable and/or totally ignore the conventions of the genre they’re supposed to be in.

This isn’t a review of Killing Floor so much as a rambling discussion about the baffling popularity of Lee Child, the flaws of Killing Floor, and the perplexities of publishing in general.

First off, Jack Reacher. Manly man, intelligent, makes the ladies swoon, knows how to kick some ass. One of my favorite Reacher traits is his ruthlessness. He’s not a noble Galahad, traipsing around the country in shining armor. When Reacher fights, he fights to win. He’ll gouge eyes, kick men in the groin, slit throats – whatever it takes. He lets others do the moral hand-wringing.

Besides this, though, there’s an emptiness to him. He claims to want a taste of the freedom that, being a military brat and then a military policeman, he’s never had, but I never felt this yearning in Killing Floor. To me, he’s almost a cipher, a rebel who appeals to people of all sensibilities because he’s not rebelling against a specific thing. Well, besides “The System,” but denigrating that will get applause from any audience. Maybe Child develops Reacher’s psyche in subsequent novels – or maybe Reacher’s emptiness is purposely done.

The plot of Killing Floor is, to my understanding, the standard Reacher plot:

1.) Reacher ends up in some random town, where evil is afoot.

2.) Despite initially being reluctant, Reacher soon becomes entangled in the web of conspiracies.

3.) There’s an attractive woman, who Reacher has sex with.

4.) There are fights, which Reacher wins by being a ruthless bastard.

5.) Someone betrays him (optional plotting device)

6.) Reacher solves the case/conspiracy/problem/whatever, and there’s a big final battle with lots of gunfire and explosions.

Nothing wrong with a formula like this. It’s a crowd-pleaser. One of the areas where Killing Floor falters, though, is how we get from start to finish. Namely, via Reacher’s godly deduction abilities.

Reacher’s “eureka” moments in Killing Floor are ridiculous. For example, he finds the hiding-for-his-life Hubble in Augusta, Georgia by using an odd “psychological rule” (“people move counterclockwise”) and some other convoluted assumptions about the man’s mental state. Another laughable moment is when he threatens Spivey – in broad daylight, right in front of the prison – because he “knew” Spivey would come out to confront him, and he “knew” the gate guard couldn’t see what was going on. Reacher “knows” a lot of things, things that the biggest genius in the history of the world wouldn’t be able to figure out.

I understand this is fiction, and I’m expected to suspend my disbelief. But when I’m asked to remove my entire brain, I cry foul.

If Child made it clear that this was an action-movie style plot, where nothing really matters, that would alleviate some of my frustration. But Child wants to have it both ways: he wants it to be realistic (sort of) but also filled with over-the-top macho action (sort of).

Now onto the writing style. It’s teeth-grindingly tedious. My not-so-far-off parody: “I got in the car. Backed out. Pulled onto the road. Jinked around the statue. Turned onto the county road. Gunned the engine. Cruising. Passing fields. Speedometer read eighty. Kept going.” He could’ve written, “I got into the car and headed to the county road” and ended the scene, but I guess that’s too easy. Seriously, Reacher drives around that goddam statue about a million times in the novel.

Here’s an actual paragraph that I just have to quote, it’s so terrible:

I held my breath. I was transfixed. It was an utterly unbelievable sight. I could see Kliner’s black pickup truck. It was backed in, just outside the roller door. Next to it was Teale’s white Cadillac. Both were big automobiles. But they were nothing next to the mountain of cash. They were just like toys on the beach. It was awesome. It was a fantastic scene from a fairy tale. Like a huge underground cavern in an emerald mine from some glittering fable. All brightly lit by the hundred arc lights. Tiny figures far below. I couldn’t believe it. Hubble had said a million dollars in singles was a hell of a sight. I was looking at forty million. It was the height of the drift that did it to me. It towered way up. Ten times higher than the two tiny figures working at floor level. Higher than two houses. It was incredible. It was a huge warehouse. And it was full of a solid mass of money. Full of forty million genuine one-dollar bills.

Let’s break down the almost criminal repetition and energy-depleting writing:

“I held my breath. I was transfixed. It was an utterly unbelievable sight.” – Three sentences where one would do.

“It was awesome…It was incredible.” – Two three-word sentences that mean the same thing.

“It was a fantastic scene from a fairy tale. Like a huge underground cavern in an emerald mine from some glittering fable.” – Two sentences about the same thing. Pick one, Mr. Child!

“I couldn’t believe it.” – That’s already been established.

“It towered way up.” – About as lame a way to say “it was tall” as I can think of.

“It was a huge warehouse.” – Uh…OK? We know that?

“I was looking at forty million…Full of forty million genuine one-dollar bills.” – Sigh. We got it the first time.

Maybe repetition is the new en vogue writing style. Maybe Gertrude Stein (“a rose is a rose is a rose”) has a new generation of followers. For me, though, “make every word tell” is still the golden rule – and Lee Child breaks this rule far too often.

So why are people absolutely gobsmacked by his work?

This is a mighty conundrum. You can replace Lee Child and Killing Floor with any author or novel – James Patterson, Fifty Shades of Grey, whatever. Millions of people flock to specific books, movies, or TV shows, claiming they’re “awesome,” while millions of other people scratch their heads and wonder what madness has afflicted the populace.

Of course, everyone has different aesthetics, but when Writer A is said to be a “master of the craft” and Writer B is ignored, despite writing in nearly the same style, it makes me question reality.

One theory I have is that people aren’t searching for quality literature as much as they’re searching for a totem to collectively rally around. After all, if all your friends are reading Novel X and telling you how awesome it is, it’s hard to resist trying it. That’s why I read Killing Floor: everyone else reads Lee Child, so I had to see what all the fuss was about.

I’ve really seen this totem-theory at work in literary circles. Take enough literature courses and you’ll see the same works used time and time again. Jane Austen, for instance, is held up as a Goddess by the establishment, whereas I see a bland writer who relied on the marriage plot.

It makes sense why Dear Jane is still being studied. When Professor Tweed Jacket was becoming a prof, Jane Austen was part of The Canon, so he studied her. When he began teaching, he passed along his knowledge to his students, some of whom may one day become literature professors themselves. And so on, until the end of time. It’s a safe path, but the result is we end up worshiping a few “Great Books” and ignoring the other fine works that have been produced in human history.

It’s the same with Lee Child. Child is no better than thousands of other writers (to be fair, he’s also no worse) but he’s somehow become a totem. He’ll have this status until he royally screws up, and even then his hardcore fans may forgive him.

TL;DR – Literature is strange.

Are you as bamboozled as I am about this stuff? Do you love Lee Child and think I’m a doofus doofushead? Will Jack Reacher ever take a vow of celibacy? Let me know in the comments!

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