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Whether Lee Child’s Jack Reader novels fall under the “Noir” in my blog title or the “Etc” might be difficult to determine precisely. Some book critics call them noir and some don’t.

The Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “noir” doesn’t help much: “A genre of crime film or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity.” The Jack Reacher books are definitely dark, which fits the word “noir” of course, but I wouldn’t say they are all that cynical, fatalistic, or even morally ambiguous, from the author’s perspective at least. Child draws many characters that are basically good, even though some have been put in difficult circumstances that cause them to do bad things. This reflects another definition of “noir” that I’ve heard, which I would combine with the Oxford one for my own usage of the term. Even in pervasive darkness there’s always some light somewhere.

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Jack Reacher himself is an example of this dynamic, of course. Much of his lifestyle and behavior could legitimately be criticized as sociopathic or pathological in some other way (no job, no possessions, very temporary romantic relationships, a penchant for gravitating to violent confrontations, etc.). But he definitely has a moral code that he lives by with almost perfect consistency. It’s a neo-noir variation of the “honor among thieves” theme.

Reacher’s “temporary romantic relationships” in The Midnight Line are an example of his moral code. He resists the temptation of a one-night stand with one beautiful female character, apparently because she’s married, but then unhesitatingly partakes in one with a much less attractive one to make a point about real beauty (and perhaps to make her feel better about herself?). “Prudish” religious people, though appreciating Reacher’s self-restraint in the first case, would have a problem with the latter, of course, but they’re not the only ones. Even much more “open-minded” people might have an issue with what appears to be a form of “mercy sex.” But to Reacher (and Child, I presume) it all arises from good intentions and is consistent with his non-traditional (but still somehow semi-traditional) moral code.

That second woman (the “unattractive” one, not to give away too much of the plot), is also an example of the “good person doing bad things” dynamic. She is heavily addicted to opiates (an understatement), but this is a result of something that’s happened to her, rather than simply an illicit desire. Who she really is is a war hero that has such quality “behind her eyes” that Reacher is attracted to her despite her physical deformities (assuming that it’s not meant to be “mercy sex”).

I mention the women as an example mostly because it’s fresh in my mind from the end of the book, but Reacher’s relationship with them is really only a footnote in the story. The bulk of it is the kind of page-turning “modern western” mystery that Child excels at. I mention the “western” aspect because the Reacher books seem to be especially effective when he’s in remote areas of the country–in this case mostly Wyoming. I’m not exactly sure why this is; maybe because places like that are still a kind of “frontier” and therefore are more interesting to explore. Or maybe it helps us readers with our willing suspension of disbelief when the plot happens in a place that’s foreign to most of us.

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One of Child’s best features as a writer is his dialogue, and particularly how he communicates a lot about the characters through it (a good example of the “show don’t tell” rule for writers). Watch how he does this early on in the book (so no spoilers) when Reacher sees a West Point class ring in a pawn shop window and questions the proprietor about where it came from…

“You a cop?”

“No,” Reacher said.

“Everything in here is legal.”

“I don’t care. All I want is the name of the woman who brought you this ring.”


“We went to the same school.”

“Where is that? Upstate?”

“East of here,” Reacher said.

“You can’t be a classmate. Not from 2005. No offense.”

“None taken. I was from an earlier generation. But the place doesn’t change much. Which means I know how hard she worked for this ring. So now I’m wondering what kind of unlucky circumstance made her give it up.”

The guy said, “What kind of a school was it?”

“They teach you practical things.”

“Like a trade school?”

“More or less.”

“Maybe she died in an accident.”

“Maybe she did,” Reacher said. Or not in an accident, he thought. There had been Iraq, and there had been Afghanistan: 2005 had been a tough year to graduate. He said, “But I would like to know for sure.”

“Why?” the guy said again.

“I can’t tell you exactly.”

“Is it an honor thing?”

“I guess it could be.”

“Trade schools have that?”

“Some of them.”

Notice how much we learn about Reacher in that brief exchange: his background, his guardedness about it, his values, his single-minded preoccupation with what he’s doing, and his attitude that he doesn’t owe anything to anybody, even if it’s insignificant information.

I liked this novel a lot, except for the uncomfortable sex scene I mentioned, and I would rank it up there with other Reacher favorites of mine like Gone Tomorrow and 61 Hours. It reminded me of the book No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, but without McCarthy’s interesting metaphysical ruminations (so it was more like the movie by the Coen Brothers, which also left them out).

Finally, speaking of movies, a word about the Jack Reacher ones, and specifically the casting of Tom Cruise as Jack. I agree wholeheartedly with  criticisms like this of the physical and image/personality disparities between Cruise and the character, but the thing that bothers me the most is the actor’s voice. I won’t go so far to say that it’s wimpy, but it definitely doesn’t sound nearly as tough as I imagine Reacher’s to be, and just doesn’t fit the kind of dialogue that Child gives to his hero. But you can decide for yourself…