07 March 2022

I Didn't Get Reacher, and Now I Do

Let me start by saying that I'm very fond of Lee Child. He lives about a block and a half from me on the Upper West Side. The first time we met, at a party at the legendary Black Orchid bookstore, I was a mystery writer so green that I asked him who he was.

(I wasn't being disingenuous. I really didn't know.)

We graduated to such collegial contacts as sharing a taxi uptown after an MWA event (he paid) and me standing on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek in the bar at Bouchercon, back when we did such things. Lee is as tall as Reacher, though only half as wide.

So between my warm feelings for this very nice man and the high regard in which both readers and fellow writers hold his books, of course I gave Reacher a try. Several tries. It's evidence of how they failed to stick with me that I can't tell you which ones, except I remember one of them was the one in which he calls on several old colleagues to help him with the case. I gather this wasn't typical. I guess the writing was smooth and the story told expertly at just the right pace with suspense and twists and whatever thriller readers look for. But what makes a story stick to me is character. I understood that Reacher had it, or he wouldn't have screaming fans like the Beatles and Sherlock Holmes—okay, Holmes fans don't scream, but they're dedicated and enthusiastic, and so are Reacher Creatures. But all I could remember about the guy is that he never washes his underwear. He throws it in the motel trash and buys a new pair at what in my distant youth would have been Woolworth's. Where do you find men's underpants these days? Walmart? K-Mart? Does he need a Big and Tall men's store?

I like characters who have relationships. I gather Reacher usually finds a woman (don't get me started on "the girl" in fiction as a stereotyped place holder, however cunningly disguised as a character with depth). But at the end, he always leaves the woman and anyone else who's become attached to him behind. Like Shane, he rides into town at the beginning and rides off into the sunset at the end. For all I know, Shane never changed his underwear either, but 1950s Westerns didn't share that kind of detail with the audience. In short, Reacher left me cold.

When Tom Cruise optioned the books for the movies, I thought maybe that would help me get a better handle on the character. I heard all the arguments pro and con having an actor so physically unlike the Reacher of the series play the part. Lee Child, the person with the best right to an opinion, was very clear on the subject: one, who was he to turn down a hundred million in box office dollars or whatever the figure was; and two, he saw the books as one artistic entity, the movies as another, created not by him but by the movie makers. I was prepared to like the movie. Sometimes movies illuminate books for me. (Example: Merchant/Ivory's Henry James.) I found the beginning noisy and gratuitously violent. I didn't make it all the way through. So I can't tell if it stuck to the books. I don't know if Cruise developed Reacher's character or kept him a mere action figure.

So that's where I stood on the matter: Lee Child, a sweetheart. Jack Reacher, not for me. And then along came Amazon Prime's TV series, Reacher. This calm giant of a guy walks into a diner, orders a piece of peach pie, is just about to take a bite when the cops come blazing in. Reacher doesn't say a word. He doesn't take a bite. He doesn't run. He doesn't push over the table and assault the cops. He doesn't run his mouth. He sits there maintaining the most eloquent silence I've seen on TV since...hmm, what springs to mind is Jack Benny, a very long time ago, thinking over his options when the bandit says, "Your money or your life!" And I'm in love. Just like that, I finally get Reacher.

For Reacher, violence is the last resort. He never starts it. Well, almost never, unless getting the drop on the very bad guy is absolutely essential. There's been a lot of talk about the violence in the Reacher TV show. There is a very high body count, and bones get cracked both ante and post mortem. But I'd rather watch Reacher gouge and head butt and break bullies and conscienceless killers in pieces than watch serial killers slit the throats of women, which happened twice on the Swedish show Modus on high-minded PBS in the first episode (or maybe two), after which I stopped watching it, but I didn't hear anybody complain about that. Reacher knows how to wait. He cares about the details, using his encyclopedic knowledge, keen observation, and reasoning powers to work a case. He even has a sense of humor, though you have to watch closely to see that little quirk at the corner of the perfectly cast Alan Ritchson's mouth.

I can't wait for Season 2 of Amazon's Reacher. And Lee Child is an executive producer on the show. So I won't feel guilty if I never get back to the books. And kudos to Lee Child for Reacher's success, whatever form it takes.


  1. Interesting take, Liz. I haven't seen the TV version, but you do make it enticing (despite the warning I got from others that it's bloody). By the way, as of two weeks ago, there are only four K-Marts left. Two are in NJ, one on Long Island, and the fourth is in Miami, so if you want to go and see if it is indeed where Reacher buys his underwear, the time is now, it seems!

  2. I remember my son encouraged me to give the original Pirates of the Caribbean a try by telling me he thought I'd like it because it was "cute violence." I can't explain why this Reacher's violence makes me chuckle, but I'm not alone. An article in the Daily Beast called it "comically brutal."

  3. I agree, Liz. I've watched the new series, and the new Reacher is perfect. I saw both Cruise movies, and they weren't bad, they just didn't fit the hero I had come to know in the books.

    I've met Child only once, at a Bouchercon (Cleveland, I think), and found him to be as kind and friendly as you did. And I had a story in the 2021 Best Myst. Stories of the Year edition he guest-edited for Otto, so I'll always like him for having chosen my story for inclusion.

    I buy every one of the Reacher novels as soon as it comes out, and I have 'em all right here on the shelf.

  4. John, I bet you didn't have to stand on tiptoes to look Lee in the eye. ;)

    1. You're right, we were the same height. Our talent level is another matter . . .

  5. Liz, I'll try the TV show. Like you, the books left me cold, and Tom Cruise has never done much for me personally.

    1. Do, Eve. I was very pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was.

  6. >Where do you find men's underpants these days?
    >Does he need a Big and Tall men's store?

    Oh, you are sly, Liz! You are wicked. (in awe) I’ve never seen that side before.

    Liz, I agree with your analysis. The opening of the first Tom Cruise movie and the first Alan Ritchson episode are remarkable similar. Cruise struts like a bantam rooster whilst Ritchson leans back and relaxes, crushing the scene.

    As for love ’em and leave ’em, I expect an entire field of psychology could be devoted to that study. Or perhaps sensible protagonists ride out of town before the girl realizes who he really is.

    Because jock itch is not pleasant, most men would answer the underwear question: Barney’s, Men’s Warehouse, Spiegle’s, Beall’s, T.J. Max, Marshall’s, Army/Navy store. I can’t see Reacher buying at Brooks Brothers or Paul Stuart, so I’m guessing Reacher’s more likely to buy his at Harbor Freight or Sears, perhaps K-Mart or Guns Galore.

    By the way, in the last or next-to-last episode Reacher re-enters the diner, and there’s an awkward moment when a disreputable character almost bumps into him on his way out. My writerly flag went up and I didn’t know what it meant because it remained unresolved.

    Turns out it’s a major Easter egg and you, Liz, probably recognized it.

    Enjoyable article, Liz. See you in Season 2.

  7. Now I’ll have to go back and look, Leigh, but off the top of my head, I’d guess that was the Lee Child cameo. I was more interested in whether Reacher would ever get to taste that peach pie!

  8. Abso-fuckin'-lutely! Thank you, Lizzie.

  9. Hi Liz, I haven't seen any of the Reacher movies or TV shows nor read the books. I buy my husband's underwear from Hanes through their Ebay store. It's good quality & not expensive.


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