By Larry Kahaner
Is Jack Reacher dead?
This was the last question in a recent panel discussion sponsored by Mystery Writers of America’s Mid-Atlantic Chapter and probably designed to be the most provocative. I didn’t ask moderator Ed Aymar (The Unrepentant) if he meant it figuratively or literally as fans have often wondered if Lee Child’s character is dead or alive considering the hell this guy endures on a regular basis.
The panelists – John Copenhaver (Dodging and Burning), LynDee Walker (Front Page Fatality), Alan Orloff, (Pray for the Innocent) and Aimee Hix (Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs) – weighed in. One indicated that the old-style male protagonists – the Sam Spade and Mike Hammer types – who drank hard, didn’t take prisoners, didn’t suffer fools, led with their fists, accomplished their goals in a heavy-handed manner, that this type of hero was indeed over and done. (The term ‘toxic masculinity’ came up. Ouch!) Others said that the tough guy is still a viable character but perhaps may be changing, more introspective, more willing to admit that they’re damaged goods. And let’s face it, these characters have some heavy interpersonal baggage albeit it’s usually blamed on other people, the rigged system or whatever else you got. Some self-analysis would certainly be welcome.
My hand went up and I proffered that the tough guy protagonist is alive and thriving – and needed more than ever. Where our country is today, a hero who keeps his promises, acts in the name of justice, believes that bad actors should be punished and has what I’ll just call ‘old-fashioned values’ is a tonic. Sadly, our institutions are often led by liars, those who’ve stepped on others to achieve their positions, people (mostly men, I admit with some sadness) who can’t distinguish between lies and facts, and downright cheaters. They move whichever way the wind blows thinking nothing of the greater good but only their own gain. I’m not just talking about politicians but business and social leaders, too.
I wince at how old-school fictional characters solve problems with violence, but they are at least consistent, honest and think beyond themselves. How many times have we heard one of these tough guys say: “The world will be a better place without…” before pulling the trigger? As readers, we want heroes with a solid moral compass even if it doesn’t point to everyone’s true north. That’s Jack Reacher to a ‘T.’
(For those of you who really want to feel like waffling, watch the Magnificent Seven – the first one, damn it, not the remake – and then let’s talk moral compass.)
In a world full of compromises – usually ones that chip away at our best intentions – guys like Reacher suggest a simple, uncomplicated and value-rich way of life. He and his brethren give us hope that such an existence can be achieved even though it isn’t an easy path.
Whew, I was glad to get that off my chest not only about literature but about social issues, which was, oh, yeah, the topic of the event titled Crime Fiction as Social Commentary. It was held at George Mason University’s Fall for the Book annual event.