You’re on a plane. You’re on a train. You’re wheeling through American space, and you’re feeling it: the hum of the void, the up-for-grabs-ness of it all. Out here there’s no protection. Good customer service, if you’re lucky, but no protection. Out here there is only the crackling feral mind: dominance, appetite, predation, pitiless allegiance to the pack. Who are you going to read, in this condition? Henry James? No. You’re going to read Lee Child.
Someone, somewhere, buys one of Child’s Jack Reacher crime thrillers every 13 seconds. This is a celebrated factoid, and I believe it. An atmosphere of pullulating need surrounds these productions. At transportation hubs across the country, they are clutched and consumed by Americans in motion. Child, the pusher, bangs out a book a year. Born James Grant and raised in Birmingham, England, he went to J. R. R. Tolkien’s old school, and has seen Waiting for Godot at least 39 times. He has an industrial caffeine habit, and he smokes like a chimney. Heavy schedule, heavy fuel. Andy Martin’s fascinating Reacher Said Nothing, in which he literally sits in a room and watches Child write a Reacher novel, is also an account of him sitting in a room and watching Child go through coffee and cigarettes: 20-ish cups, a pack a day. And then, as the word count—and the pace—increases, sugar: Snickers bars and bowls of Sugar Smacks.
I read my first Reacher book along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, between New York and Boston, and I remember nothing about it except a sensation of empty velocity (with just a hint of train-clatter). It ran through me, leaving a clean and brilliant hole. Jack Reacher is a former military policeman turned super-drifter who roams America with only a toothbrush and the clothes he’s standing up in. Bus station to bus station, diner to diner. Nothing slows him down except a plot, because Reacher is a man for whom the phrase moral compass was invented: His code determines his direction. Where dwells unrighteousness, where redress is demanded, there goes Reacher. In The Midnight Line, it’s the glint of a West Point class ring in a pawnshop window, on “the sad side of a small town,” that detains him. The ring is sized for a woman. What proud West Pointer, wonders Reacher (who went there himself), would pawn her class ring if she didn’t have to? Is there a woman in distress, under duress, somewhere nearby? He must look into it. Something might need to be straightened out. And so, like children going into the Black Forest, we enter the realm of story, holding Reacher’s huge and dangerous hand.