“Make me,” a schoolyard taunt, is the title of Lee Child’s 20th and possibly final Jack Reacher novel. The first one, “Killing Floor” came out a decade ago (1997) and the series has been on the top of the sales charts ever since. I wanted to figure out what the magic is. There has to be a secret sauce. But I found “Make Me” so bad as to be unintentionally funny, as if it were a deliberate parody of the tough-guy crime novel. But I don’t think it’s supposed to be a parody. I think it’s straight up.
Protagonist Jack Reacher is an ex-mil Ramboesque drifter who annoys people with his arrogance, they sass him, so he kills them. I lost track of the body count in “Make Me,” but I think it’s over a dozen. In fairness, the victims do something to provoke Reacher, like insult him, look at him the wrong way, or threaten a fair damsel he feels obliged to protect. He’s a hair trigger and he kills without remorse.
Reacher is a fantasy figure, a Superman, though he eats only junk food and drinks only gallons of coffee. But he’s invincible. Bullets can’t find him and he knows everything there is to know about guns, ammunition, knives, and ropes. Not that he needs them. He can easily defeat four armed assailants sneaking up behind him in a dark alley. It’s just a matter of knowing the correct moves, and Child describes the fantastic calculations that Reacher does before or while fighting. Reacher knows everything there is to know about human anatomy and kinesiology so one strategic palm chop or poke of the elbow will cripple a bad guy. What a man!
Reacher is also worldly-wise and inexplicably erudite. He’s been everywhere, seen everything, seems to know many languages, has read the canonical literature and can quote Shakespeare or Bertrand Russell. It hardly needs mentioning that he is a woman-magnet, though he never ever forms attachments. He’s a free-spirit, owns nothing, has no address, and wants no commitments. He’s also clairvoyant. He often deduces, from “evidence” thinner than a hunch, exactly who the bad guy is, where he is, what he’s up to, and what he’ll do next. And he’s never wrong. These omniscient feats of cognition are presented as reasonable deductions that any smart person might make, if only they had the vast experience and knowledge that Reacher had.
For example, in one scene, Reacher finds out where an unknown subject lives in a strange town, merely because a guy in the library said the subject was frail and unhealthy-looking. Reacher says:
“This is a man who looks terrible because he doesn’t take care of himself. Probably doesn’t eat right, maybe doesn’t sleep right…Pharmacies are not on his radar. Therefore he had no particular reason to buy his phone from this particular pharmacy. So why did he? Because he walks past it twice a day, to and from the library. How else would he even notice? They had one phone in the window, all covered in dust. So I think we can conclude he walks home in this direction. Out the library door, turn left, past the pharmacy and onward.”
So having ascertained the direction to the guy’s house, Reacher begins walking, and based on his vast knowledge of architecture and real-estate values, deduces which neighborhood the subject would choose to live in, and sure enough, walks directly up to the subject’s front door. What a man!
It’s sort of fun, if silly and utterly unbelievable, but that kind of riff gives the Reacher character a slightly tongue-in-cheek quality. He’s almost a comic character but not quite, because he is presented very seriously. He’s no Inspector Clouseau. The presentation is not quite a Chandler parody, but close. Since Reacher doesn’t care about anything, the character never has anything at stake. He’s just a nonchalant killing machine but the reader is supposed to take the nonsense in a serious way.
Reacher is not interested in money, fame, glory, power, women, recognition. He doesn’t drink (bar the odd beer) or smoke or do drugs. He stays in cheap motels and hitchhikes. He has no job, no career aspirations. He’s not working toward anything or going anywhere. He is unmotivated. Except when somebody does something he thinks is rude, unfair, or unjust – then watch out. He knows a bad guy when he sees one. He has instincts for it. He don’t need no stinkin’ judicial system. If somebody’s bad, he kills them. Simple as that. Amazingly, he never gets caught, never leaves any clues or DNA and plentiful witnesses never say anything. Cops have no interest in him and he’s never interrogated or arrested. What happens to the dead bodies he leaves in his wake is unknown.
I read this book hoping to gain insight into why the franchise is one of the top-selling series in the world. What makes it golden? Should I try to write something like that? But I was mystified. Who reads this nonsense?
The book, the character, and the whole series apparently appeal to people frustrated with the subtleties and slow pace of the judicial system; people who are enraged when perceived criminals avoid immediate and certain punishment, according to their own primitive morality. Those readers would revel in Reacher’s vigilantism, oblivious of the law and of the Constitution. Reacher delivers the swift and brutal punishment of a schoolyard bully, the punishment readers wish they could visit upon the “bad guys” in their own ineffectual lives. It has to be that.
The “Reacher Creatures,” as dedicated readers of the series call themselves, would like to be that Superman who can visit such pain upon bad guys. These readers must be helpless, downtrodden people who fantasize in a childish way about being all-powerful. Maybe it’s an Oedipal thing – they seek revenge on their mean parents? Or mean boss? I can hardly imagine who would enjoy twenty of these Reacher novels let alone one. Whatever motivates Child’s avid readers, and there are millions of them, Reacher scratches the itch.
I struggled to finish the book but amused myself with marginal notations of “DXM” which noted numerous instances of “Deus Ex Machina” plot developments and “Phone” for instances of the author’s inexplicable obsession with telephones in this novel. I also underlined sentences that approached word salad, syntax with no clear meaning, like the famous line, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” It’s a sentence, but you’d be challenged to make any sense of it.
Getting back to the main question though. What makes this series such a phenomenal success? I think it’s important that Reacher is not a “superhero,” just a regular hero. He would eschew anything “super.” He’s just a humble ordinary guy, but tougher than you and me. Readers seem to accept the magical realism that makes Reacher faster than a speeding bullet and stronger than a locomotive, because he likes to eats ham and eggs in diners. And he doesn’t wear tights. He’s not ostensibly magical, just wonderful. He’s just magical enough to facilitate childish social fantasy for those who would love to say to a bully: “Make me!”
Child, Lee (2015). Make Me. New York: Dell. (491 pp.).