Lee Child: the reading experience

Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels have two different beginnings. The first begins with a subdued normalcy. It’s just an ordinary day. But it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong. What? When? The second type of start is the running jump, which goes straight into the action.

The tension increases during the novel as Reacher learns more about his opponents. As he does, he realises that he has a bigger challenge on his hands.

At some point he will become aware that there are innocent people involved. He could take out the baddies but they might suffer. Or, the baddies get to an innocent person. And kill them before Reacher realises what they are up too. This is the sacrifice that motives Reacher to tackle the baddies.

The dramatic peaks are followed by lulls in the tension. These can encompass a romantic interlude, or meeting a character with useful information. The action sequences tend to slow time down, stretching it out like elastic. The chapters are relatively short and end with new information, a reversal, a threat, or plan — a change of situation.

The story usually has two main action sequences. In the first one Reacher makes his mark and shows his strength. This is when the story goes from a mystery into a thriller. This is when Reacher begins his offensive.The baddies reassemble, they use underhand tactics, brutality, or bring in more support for the main battle. The climactic battle is followed by a quick denouement that ends with Reacher leaving town (heading towards the next adventure).

The reader knows exactly what they’re getting when they read a Jack Reacher novel. But they don’t know when things will happen or how they happen — that’s how suspense works.

In terms of the style and language, the dialogue is really great because it feels like action. It feels like interrogation and conflict. It’s purposeful but entertaining. It often has a hint of hardboiled detective fiction about it.

The sense of detail is palpable in the Lee Child’s description. Sometimes it’s comprehensive, but much of it is suggested using a montage of simple statements. They are the writing equivalent to a succession of quick film edits.

The sentences are concise. They stick to one clear idea at a time. There’s a fair amount of repetition. Words and phrases are repeated for effect. The longer sentences tend to be repetitions, for emphasis, or virtual lists.

The narrative is basically a good old mystery story (sometimes with hints of Alfred Hitchcock). It’s carefully presented not to confuse the reader. The narrative goes from a mystery story — unanswered questions (the sleuth deciphering clues) — to an action adventure. In the action adventure phase, Reacher takes the initiative by confronting the baddies.

Lee Child writes in the past tense. Most of the stories are told as if they’re unfolding as we read them. Some are set in Reacher’s past and recounted with hindsight.

In the first person stories the reader gets to experience Reacher’s thoughts as he works things out for himself. We only know what he knows. We experience the discoveries as he uncovers them. The action has to always be where Reacher is. Things that happen away from him are either unknown or have to be reported back to him in some way, usually through the dialogue.

The third person stories provide more storytelling flexibility. They allow the reader an insight into what the baddies are doing covertly, behind the scenes. They can also link up different elements of the story, during it, rather than through some kind of wrap up at the end, through hindsight, or through an end-of-story confession by an antagonist.