Review: The Jack Reacher Series

This summer at a wedding, I found myself seated next to an editor at a top national press. We began discussing our reading lists, and after putting in my mandatory plug for Jhumpa Lahiri and NK Jemisin, I half-sheepishly admitted that I love the Jack Reacher books. Her response? “I love those too!” We then began discussing how excited we were for the new Jack Reacher novel, Never Go Back.

At first I was surprised to find another literature-loving woman who had read and liked these books, but after thinking about it for a bit, I realized that the only other Reacher fan I know is a woman who’s a tenured professor at a top-five university. There’s something about these semi-cheesy airplane thrillers that appeals to devout readers — and particularly to women. So what makes us love Jack Reacher? I’ve got some ideas.

1. The female characters don’t suck. Although Reacher goes through a series of one-book love interests, Lee Child has a knack for writing strong, competent women — they’re characters in their own right, not sex objects who are only in the books to prove that Reacher gets laid regularly. In fact, the Reacher series even has several interesting female characters who don’t sleep with Reacher. I know! Amazing!

2. Reacher isn’t just a punching and shooting machine. Sure, he’s a huge muscular guy who’s used to winning five-on-one fights without breaking a sweat, but he’s also the kind of guy who will remember a briefing he was once given on how to spot suicide bombers in minute detail. He’s scary in a fight but he’s also a dogged investigator who excels at putting together puzzles and is constitutionally incapable of leaving a question unanswered. It’s interesting to spend time with him even when he’s not punching bad guys.

3. Lee Child is a pretty darn good writer. No, he’s not going to win a set-the-scene prose contest with Jhumpa Lahiri, at least not if you ask him to describe a Cambridge kitchen. But boy does he know how to create suspense. Child also manages to convince the reader of Reacher’s intelligence without ever using the word “smart” to describe Reacher, either directly or indirectly. That kind of show-don’t-tell writing is harder to pull off than you might think! Furthermore, Reacher’s height (six-foot-five) and muscular build aren’t just cosmetic details described at the beginning of the book and then forgotten; the Reacher books have an incredible physicality to them. Reacher’s size matters. In almost every novel, Reacher’s size plays a role in how he handles a confrontation or a chase. Reacher also looks threatening and he knows it, which determines a lot of how Reacher interacts with the people around him.

Interested in the Reacher series and wondering where to start? They can pretty much be read in any order, so don’t worry about picking the “wrong” entry point. That said, I have some favorites and less-favorites in the series. Since I’m still on the waiting list for Never Go Back, I’ve written bite-sized reviews of each and every one of the Jack Reacher books and ranked them in order of quality, with 1 being my very favorite Reacher novel. Ready? Begin!

1.  61 Hours

A tense thriller that finds Reacher in a small South Dakota town working to protect an elderly witness. It’s less action-heavy than many of the Reacher novels, but it’s amazing how Lee Child can keep you on the edge of your seat when Reacher is sitting in a retired professor’s parlor having coffee.

2. The Hard Way

Lots of action, lots of Reacher detective work, and a compelling mystery with a thoroughly loathsome villain. Also happens to feature my favorite Reacher love interest, former FBI agent Lauren Pauling.

3. Gone Tomorrow

Late at night, Reacher spots a woman on a New York City subway car exhibiting all of the outward signs of being a suicide bomber. He attempts to speak with her but can’t prevent the evening from ending in tragedy. In the aftermath, Reacher tries to piece together the woman’s story. Smart but grisly.

4. Echo Burning

Reacher, an experienced hitchhiker, knows that women driving nice cars don’t stop for guys like him — until Carmen Greer pulls over and offers him a ride. Is Carmen a victim who needs Reacher’s help, or a cold-hearted con woman looking for someone to take the fall for her? An intriguing mystery with a thrilling conclusion.

5. One Shot

Could a man whose fingerprints were found on the bullet casings at a crime scene possibly be innocent? Reacher’s about to find out. The mystery is well-crafted and will keep you turning pages, but I find myself sort of resenting it because it was the source material for “Reacher.”

6.  Tripwire

A private investigator comes looking for Reacher in Florida. Reacher tells him to get lost — and a day later the man is dead. Naturally, Reacher wants to know why. Features the series’ scariest villain.

7. The Persuader

See Reacher spot Bad Guy who is supposed to be dead. See Reacher work with FBI to track down and trap Bad Guy. See Reacher take matters into his own hands when things go south. It’s a basic revenge plot and it’s pretty formulaic, but it’s still entertaining as hell.

8. Without Fail

The Secret Service asks Reacher to test the Vice-President’s security — and it turns out they have a good reason for wanting the test. The motivations of the bad guys are totally lame, but the book gets bonus points for introducing us to Reacher’s friend Frances Neagley, arguably the series’ best female character.

9. Bad Luck and Trouble

If you ignore the somewhat-irritating retcon of giving the loner Reacher a bunch of former BFFs, this is a fun one. It’s great to see Reacher working as part of a team and it brings back the awesome Frances Neagley.

10. A Wanted Man

Once again, Reacher’s adventure starts with hitchhiking, as he’s picked up by two men and a woman driving down a remote highway in the middle of the night. Reacher’s intuitive brilliance is stretched beyond believability in this book, and the mystery is weighed down with too many complications, but it’s another solid entry in the series.

11. Running Blind

One of the more action-light Reacher mysteries. This one centers on sexual harassment and assault cases that Reacher investigated in the army. Someone is killing the women who made the complaints, and the FBI recruits Reacher to find out why. Does a surprisingly decent job with the sensitive issue of sexual assault in the military, although I spotted the killer about halfway through the book.

12. The Affair

Basically the Jack Reacher origin story. It explains how Reacher went from being a highly decorated military policeman to being a drifter who is loath to even own his own toothbrush. The mystery’s a bit weak — I could spot the predictable “local cop” errors from a mile away — but the glimpse into Reacher’s background is fun.

13. Killing Floor

Reviewed here. Short version: grisly, a few too many coincidences, but a solid debut for a memorable character.

14. Die Trying

Reacher stops to help a woman on crutches retrieve her dropped dry cleaning — and suddenly finds himself with a gun to his back, being thrown into the back of a car right along with the injured woman. The second Reacher book takes us from first-person to second-person narration, and Lee Child hadn’t quite mastered the art of writing as not-Reacher. He does a good job with Reacher’s fellow kidnapee Holly, but the other POV characters are pretty boring. I had to skim the non-Reacher bits.

15.  The Enemy

Set during Reacher’s time as a military policeman, the book starts out strong but the plot of the mystery quickly dissolves into a mess. Notable mostly for its glimpse into Reacher’s family background.

16. Worth Dying For

Very grisly, and at times emotionally manipulative — domestic violence and sexual assault are major players in this book. It’s satisfying to see Reacher beat up the bad guys here, but suffice it to say this one wasn’t my favorite.

17. Nothing to Lose

Lame plot that focuses on towns with the ridiculously unlikely names of Hope and Despair, and Reacher’s least interesting love interest. Readable but not memorable.

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