This is what thrillers have always been good at: they have their finger on the pulse of the times in a way their literary counterparts often fail to do. If you want to know what it is like living in Washington today, George Pelecanos is the man to tell you; Ian Rankin is as good on the state of Scotland as any living author.
It was this ability of popular fiction to reflect society's soul that lay behind George Orwell's essay Raffles and Miss Blandish. In it, he bemoaned the "cruelty and corruption" found in American "lowbrow fiction", which he saw as part of the debased moral atmosphere of an age in which "such things as mass bombings of civilians, the use of hostages, torture to obtain confessions, secret prisons, execution without trial, floggings with rubber truncheons, drownings in cesspools, systematic falsification of records and statistics, treachery, bribery and quislingism are normal and morally neutral, even admirable when they are done in a large and bold way." In contrast he pointed to the world of Raffles, where the hero is morally equivocal, but there is a clear line between right and wrong, good and evil.
The Reacher books combine the two genres. The novels are full of the sadistic violence of the type Orwell despised, and Child consciously describes an ethically uncertain society, where good things are done for the wrong reasons and bad ones for the right. Reacher, in adopting the role of a vigilante, sets himself on the side of right – but against the rule of law. On the other hand, because he is alone he is also the little man taking on the wrongful powers of the unwieldy state; he doesn't triumph because he is strong but because he is resourceful, gallant and good.
In this he is a new version of the righteous avenger, a Robin Hood for our troubled times, a man who protects the weak by being smarter than the strong. "In an adventure story," Orwell wrote "one can think of oneself as being at the centre of events." In a confusing world, we all want to be Jack Reacher.
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Photo (c) 2009 Ali Karim with Lee Child at the Jack Reacher Party 2010 at The Slippery Noodle Indianapolis, Indiana, USA