Thursday, 30 March 2017

Being a Reacher-Creature

Jenny confesses to a guilty pleasure

When I tell people that I have recently discovered and have become hopelessly addicted to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, they cringe a little. What? Well, yes. I am hooked along with so many others. These books sell around 6 million copies a year. 
Make Me: (Jack Reacher 20) by [Child, Lee]
‘Lee Child’ is a fiction like his books. He was born Jim Grant in Coventry, lost his British TV job aged 40 and wrote his first book, Killing Floor, to immediate acclaim. He says he chose his pseudonym so that his books would appear on bookshop and library shelves before and near to Christie. Lee/Jim now lives in New York. Most readers would have no suspicion that he is not American. His syntax is entirely American English: people go to the hospital, things are gotten, people talk with others and use transportation.

Reacher is an ex-military cop and Lee/Jim has immersed himself in the intricacies of US Army uniforms, vocabulary, weaponry, language, systems and hierarchies. Yet for all his 21st century trappings, Reacher represents a familiar figure in storytelling. He is the knight errant of medieval tales, the lone ranger of cowboy films, the wildcard dysfunctional detective of TV drama: the classic outcast. He is at once preposterous and believable, a man who keeps his six foot five inch frame and impressive musculature in perfect shape despite getting no exercise and living exclusively on cheeseburgers and pie from greasy diners. He travels with a folding toothbrush as baggage, replaces his clothing from one dime store with more of the same by shoving the soiled clothing in the trash. More recently he has acquired a passport but he still has no home, no car, no money, no family. He hitchhikes. He does not carry a gun. He is a freelance vigilante looking for trouble and finding it. He never uses his first name and nor does anyone else.

Despite his long lineage in storytelling, the Reacher character is in some ways a modern figure. He has sex – and sorry, Lee/Jim but these are your least successful scenes and indeed a little embarrassing. The sex is with a companion figure, different in each book, a lone wolf like himself, a woman who is happy to have and be a great lover, though like him she avoids commitment and she is as independent, physically tough and ruthless as he is; a full partner in everything he does.

Night School: (Jack Reacher 21) by [Child, Lee]Reacher has magical powers of detection and problem solving, mostly implausible. In fact all of it is implausible. In real life Reacher’s cholesterol would be 12.5, he would be grossly fat and would be dead by 45. In real life any one of the hundreds of fights in which Reacher engages would end up with the hero arrested, in a wheelchair or dead. But this is thrillerland, so of course he always comes away with at the most a few bruises, or in one case, a broken nose.

What is it that is so very very satisfying about these books? First, they are revenge thrillers. Reacher dispenses rough justice, executing people without a qualm because they are obvious bad guys and the conventional system cannot deal with them. As readers we can discharge our own occasional thirst for violent revenge harmlessly by letting Reacher do it for us. The books are well written. There are no descriptions of lyrical landscape yet you get a keen sense of place, often of the flat expanse and tiny towns of all those fly-over states. The sentences are short, nouns have no overwrought adjectives attached to them. There is a lot of crisp dialogue. The plot moves along briskly and there is an unanticipatable twist at the end.

I believe that the real secret of their appeal is that these stories represent the universal fantasy about escape and a life without commitment. A life on the road, owning nothing, owing nothing, being untraceable, meeting nice people for mutually satisfying sex, delivering punishment for the unworthy without any fear of getting punished yourself: what’s not to like except perhaps that such a life is only for the emotionally immature?
I am in good company in my adoration. Worthy writers such as Margaret Drabble, Philip Pullman, Michael Holroyd and Frederick Forsyth have all expressed fulsome admiration for these books. Now I’m just off to the Oxfam bookshop to see if one of those lovely reviewers, ten a penny in Islington, has got round to donating their hardback copy of Lee/Jim’s latest book, Night School, because I can’t wait for the paperback to appear next month.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Joe's shorts 1: nuns & buns

What I'm thinking about Call the Midwife in 200 words

Yes, of course it’s a sugary concoction. And yes, its relentless subtext is that love conquers all. And yes, attitudes on race and class and, even sexual preference, are anachronistically adjusted so that those in the inner circle of huggable characters are not allowed to agitate us with archaic prejudices.

Call the Midwife

And yet it earns a far lower tosh-rating than the late unlamented Downton Abbey. At least it doesn’t promote the dangerous myth that illness among the working classes was once taken care of by benevolent aristocrats. It consistently credits the NHS with transforming healthcare for the poor, while not glossing over other unsolved problems of poverty.  And whereas Downton went through the Great War with only one life-changing injury, which turned out to be not so life-changing when the handsome paraplegic discovered he was only bruised and could walk after all, Call the Midwife has taken a straight look at babies effected by thalidomide, birth problems resulting from FGM, and mouthfuls of rotting teeth.  

It has also made space in its casting for actors with Downs Syndrome and, though the nuns and midwives are white, regularly employs actors of colour to portray ordinary law-abiding mothers and fathers in functional relationships.