Review: Killing Floor and Die Trying by Lee Child

Is Jack Reacher the anti-Parker?

One problem with spending my limited reading time exploring the past is that I often have no clue what’s being published in the present. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Jack Reacher, Lee Child’s protagonist in a trailer-load of thrillers beginning with 1997’s Killing Floor, until he was brought to my attention a couple of years back by Kenneth Turan’s review of #13, Gone Tomorrow. In that piece, Turan takes the opportunity of reviewing a guaranteed best-seller to promote the University of Chicago Parker reprints and to compare Reacher to Parker:

As the ad copy on the back of the early paperbacks put it, “Parker Steals. Parker Kills. It’s A Living.” A laconic, impeccably professional, almost indestructible stoic who never went down for the count, Parker was too much of a nihilistic career criminal to be anything but an antihero, but without him the more conventionally heroic Jack Reacher might not have existed.

I can’t speak for Child’s influences, but Turan hit on the biggest similarity between Reacher and Parker–professionalism. Both will do whatever job is at hand, and do it right.

Turan continues:

Reacher shares numerous traits with Parker, including living by a code of honor civilians can’t comprehend, but unlike Stark’s character he wants to do the right thing and invariably does. He’s got a more human appeal than ice-cold Parker, and he cares a lot more about women than his predecessor ever managed to.

All true. Jack Reacher keeps telling himself that he’s a loner only looking out for himself, but his overwhelming decency always kicks in. Parker relentlessly going after his money is in many ways similar to Reacher always going after what is good and just.

Both Killing Floor (#1) and Die Trying (#2) get their plots rolling with ridiculous coincidences. It’s not so bad with Killing Floor, which has a pretty clever setup, but with Die Trying, Child puts us on notice that Jack Reacher is the Jessica Fletcher of action heroes. He’s going to get involved in big, important, white-knuckle stuff just because he happens to be around.

And I’m completely fine with that. That Reacher (in Die Trying) just happens to be helping an injured woman carry her dry-cleaning at the precise moment when said woman (who turns out to be a super-hot badass FBI agent) gets kidnapped by white supremacist militia members spares us fifty pages of Child trying to set up a more likely scenario that leads to the exact same situation. These things just happen to Jack Reacher. Accept it.

Reacher may or may not be an heir to Parker, but he’s definitely an heir to the men’s adventure heroes of the ’70s and ’80s. He’s in some ways the bastard child of Mack Bolan and Remo Williams–he’s got Bolan’s sense that injustice must be righted, plus Remo’s “I don’t really care” attitude fronted by someone who is going to do the right thing anyway. He lacks Remo’s chronic depression, but he does, in Die Trying, have a half-Chiun in his former commanding officer, General Garber.

And he almost has Remo’s superhuman powers. Jack Reacher can put a bullet up your left nostril from a mile away, or beat your ass to a pulp even if you’re Mike Tyson or the Undertaker. And his IQ is something like three million. He just thinks about stuff real hard, and the right answers come to him. Child runs us through Reacher’s thought process to the point where we go, “Oh, yeah! That makes complete sense!” It doesn’t always make sense–in Killing Floor, Reacher tracks down one character by making crazy deductions based on the guy’s taste in music. But mostly it does, or at least seems to at the time.

Killing Floor is a hell of a debut. Some rookie mistakes (if there’s a Richard Stark influence it’s not obvious, but the Andrew Vachss influence sure is) are not a big deal. The whole thing is ridiculous, but I didn’t care about that.

What I did care about was the characters. Child makes you love the good guys. Other than that a lot of them are hotter and smarter than you, they could be your neighbors (if you like your neighbors). They’re good, decent people who shouldn’t have to go through this bullshit, and you want the best for them.

That’s not quite as true with Die Trying, not due to a failure on Child’s part, but due to the requirements of a different plot. But you will love super-hot badass FBI agent Holly Johnson, and, to a lesser extent, half-Chiun General Gardner. And you will hate the ripped-from-the-headlines (1998) militia leader like you hate the happily late Timothy McVeigh.

I’m often not right when I try to put myself in other readers’ heads, but I wonder if some of you who like your crime fiction short and tight might not get annoyed at Child’s style. He can, and does, spend more time focused on a single bullet than John Woo. Both Killing Floor and Die Trying are over 500 pages; not the Richard Stark style at all. But I didn’t mind spending a lot of time learning about Jack Reacher, hoping things work out for the good guys, and praying the bad guys received a very violent dose of justice. Killing Floor and Die Trying are good, fun reads. I’ll be back for number three.

Blind Blake – “Police Dog Blues”

(Blink Blake is part of the ridiculous coincidence that kicks off Killing Floor.)

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Review: Killing Floor and Die Trying by Lee Child (this post)

Review: Tripwire by Lee Child