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Regarding Mr. Child

Book #23 (August 7, 2010): The Killing Floor by Lee Child
Book #24 (August 11, 2010): Die Trying by Lee Child

My friend Dave, who started his writing career at roughly the same time and place as I started mine, occasionally likes to keep me apprised about what’s happening in the world of genre novels. The bad news: science fiction is dead, fantasy is dying and horror is in a kind of limbo. The good news: Mystery and suspense novels sell almost as well as they always have. A few months ago Dave suggested that I might want to visit Bouchercon, a mystery-related fan convention in LA, where the guest of honor was a popular suspense novelist named Lee Child, who I wasn’t familiar with. I never got to Bouchercon — these fan conventions can be kind of expensive, especially if you sign up at the last minute — but I became curious about Lee Child. He’s been writing novels since the mid-90s and all of them are still in print and lining the fiction shelves at my local Barnes & Noble in an attractive set of uniform editions. In a time when much of the publishing industry is collapsing and genre fiction seems to be gradually on its way out, what was keeping Mr. Child going?

Child writes mostly about a character named Jack Reacher, a former military policeman who grew up as an army brat at various foreign military bases, then signed on as an Army cop. He found himself stationed  at various international hotspots before getting himself an honorable discharge at around age 36, moving to the States, where he became a self-described “hobo,” drifting homelessly from state-to-state using his severance pay in an attempt to find out what the U.S. is really like. It’s the country of his citizenship, the country of his ancestry, and the home country of most of the people he’s worked and grown up with, yet he’s barely ever lived in it.

This isn’t a bad premise for a series of novels — an American in name-only gradually getting to know the country he wants to call his own. Unfortunately, this isn’t the series that Child wants to write. In fact, on the evidence of the first two books of the series (from 1997 and 1998 respectively), Child is merely using this background as an excuse for putting Reacher, over and over again, in the wrong place at the wrong time. (At the time these two books were written, Child was a Brit who for all I know had never been in the U.S. himself. Now he lives here.) Both books start out with Reacher stumbling into murder, mayhem and major conspiracies essentially just by walking down the street looking for blues clubs. (Reacher’s an obsessive blues fanatic.) Fortunately, his military training, quick mind and years of experience as an MP make him the ideal man for precisely these kinds of situations and after several hundred pages of being bashed by bad guys and bashing the bad guys back, Reacher emerges triumphant and goes back to being a drifter.

Why do these books have such enduring popularity? I’m not entirely sure. Child’s writing style is functional but flat, the kind of stripped down tough guy action prose where a lot of sentences omit the subject and more than a few don’t even  bother with verbs. (“Reacher grabbed for the gun. Fired it. Felt the recoil. Loud noise. Chaos.” Okay, I made that sentence up, but it captures Child’s basic style.) The characters are defined largely by quirks. The plots, despite the occasional unexpected twist, are cliched. And Reacher himself is so ultra-competent that it’s difficult to believe he could really exist. He always thinks faster than the bad guys and is rarely intimidated by having multiple guns pointed at him with malicious intent. Beautiful women fall in love with him almost on sight.

The truth is, this sort of thing works a lot better in the movies. What reads on the page as improbable or even unbelievable becomes oddly acceptable when you see it on screen. I think I could accept Reacher if I were watching him played by a young Clint Eastwood or maybe Daniel Craig with an American accent, actors who by sheer force of charisma and will could convince me that their ultra-competence and irresistible attractiveness to the opposite sex was simply a matter of good genes and a hell of a lot of time spent at the gym. And while I don’t know if anything by Child has ever been filmed, it’s clear that the resemblance between the titles Die Tryingand Die Hard is no coincidence. Reacher is in many ways John McClane without the smirk, fighting impossible odds all alone and taking the bad guys out one (or three) at a time while waiting vainly for the cavalry to arrive, though McClane somehow seems more human.

Okay, I’ll give Child this much credit: There’s a long suspense set piece in the second half of Die Trying that really did keep me turning the electronic pages almost despite myself. No, I didn’t really believe that Reacher could perform some of the superhero feats he was performing or that the cartoonish villains were anything resembling real people, but I actually did care how it turned out. So Child was obviously doing something right.

In the end, though, I think what keeps people reading books like this are what you learn from them. In The Killing Floor I got a pretty good lesson on the economics of counterfeiting and why the U.S. government is so desperate to prevent it. In Die Trying I learned more than anyone but a professional sniper will ever need to know about how to blow somebody’s head off from 1,200 feet away with an M-16. Child, who wrote for British television before he became a novelist, has clearly done a lot of research. This is surprisingly educational stuff.

I had thought about reading more of the books in the series, just to see how Child’s style and characters evolve over time (he seems to turn out one of these books every year or so and the second is more confidently written than the first), but his toneless prose is starting to grate on me. So for now I think I’m going to turn back to a reliable novelist whose writing style never disappoints. Those of you who have been following these book reports of mine can probably guess who it is and I’ve already got the novel loaded into my Nook. Be back soon.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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