Last year, the Telegraph ran an interview with Lee Child, a former British television executive who had been laid off by Grenada in 1995, at which time he wrote a thriller, inventing a hero named Jack Reacher. As of a year and a half ago Mr. Child had published 11 Reacher novels, and achieved startling success: in 2007, it has been asserted, not a minute passed without someone on the planet buying a copy of one of them. Mr. Child has just published Nothing To Lose, his 12th. What is Jack Reacher like? And what has now become of him?
Jack Reacher novels are cross-over genre fiction, and to understand why they were so original, and initially so successful, it is worth remembering the history of the genre Lee Child has reworked. Thrillers have sub-genres: spy stories, private eye novels and police procedurals are categories known to most of us. The heroes of many, perhaps most thrillers, and of most detective novels, tend to be competent at administering violence and good at the intellectual work of solving mysteries, although they will display these gifts in different proportions: some of the greatest figures of detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolf), for example, are almost never violent. When the thriller hero is skilled at violence, he is either exhibiting a professional competence (the policeman or former policeman, the agent of an intelligence service, etc.), or in one sub-genre is a naturally talented or simply lucky amateur. There are also various genres of military and naval fiction, where the intense violence administered and suffered is that of war, and the point of the fiction is to explore the workings of a world radically different from the one most of us inhabit, and consequently profoundly interesting.
There is occasionally some overlap between the protagonist of the war novel and the hero of the thriller-the latter has often learned violence during his wartime military service, and recalls his long-dormant skills during a crisis some years on. There is often something very satisfying about such plots-in fiction, as in some memorable episodes of fact, law-abiding citizens turn out to be a deal more deadly than the amoral specialists in violence. There is in such plots a small echo of the fate of the German and Japanese officer corps at the hands of British, American and Russian civilians, who when sufficiently provoked turned out to be staggeringly more effective at violence than their professional opponents had ever imagined they would be. People with a longer memory may also recall the fate of cocky Virginian gentleman-duellists at the hands of normally peaceable farm boys from Illinois and Vermont. And those plots often seemed plausible: for many decades of the 20th century; after all, a large number of people had served in the vast armies of the industrial age, participating in either of the world wars, or in one of the smaller wars that followed. Some of Elmore Leonard's heroes are former soldiers, Travis McGee, the hero of John D. MacDonald's thrillers, had served in the Second World War (in the later novels, this had become the Korean War), and Roberts Crais' heroes Elvis Cole and Joe Pike both served in Vietnam, as did Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch. Nowadays, such heroes seem rare, almost certainly because relatively fewer Britons or Americans have recently served in wars, which means that the modern military is more alien to modern readers than 20th century armies were to readers a generation ago.