I have been having a dilemma with respect to one of the “heroes” of fiction I have been reading about lately. As you know, amongst my top 10 books last year was a book by Lee Child involving the character Jack Reacher. Reacher has appeared in 17 novels and I am slowly making my way through them based upon the suggestion of a good friend of mine. I am 9 novels into the series, just past halfway, and while I am enjoying them immensely, I am struggling with Reacher as the hero.
The allure of a character like Reacher is his nomadic lifestyle; a former Military Policeman who left the army on good terms and has since then basically walked the earth a la “Kung Fu,” helping those in need and using his mind and military training to save the day. I think that we all would love to be able to travel from place to place with a toothbrush and some money, buying clothes for a few days and disposing of them when time to buy new, helping damsels in distress, finding trouble when we aren’t looking for it, but having the confidence to know that the good guys will win because we are involved.
And with all of that, there is a humanity to Reacher that is appealing, his focus on justice, his fight for the little guy, his sensitivity to the helpless. All of these are commendable attributes that make him a hero to root for, to passionately follow down every foxhole; the kind of guy you would want right in front of you when walking into a dark alley.
The reason I read is pure escapism, the power to be anyplace and anyone. The chance to vicariously live through the bulletproof specimen of a 6’5” super-man takes me out of my 5’9” body and transports me to the level of the invincible. Reacher is not only a hero with brawn and power, but he is an intellect who uses his mind just as much as his fists. He is proof that you must use your mind to think through the problem or else your fists will fail you. One might call him a Sherlock Holmes for 21st century, if Holmes had been 250 pounds and was a master marksman from 1000 yards away. And as you know, I am huge fan of Master Holmes…
But unlike Holmes, who always caught the bad guy and turned him over to Inspector Lestrade, Reacher deviates from Holmes sometimes in a brutal and hard to swallow way: Reacher is not above practicing vigilante justice. While I am sure all of us would love to exact our own form of retribution without concern for laws, would any of us actually do so if we had the freedom?
In one of the novels, Reacher infiltrates a potential criminal family, going undercover as a henchman to get to the bottom of a criminal enterprise. When he learns the truth, and the bad guys learn the truth about him, the action takes off with a shootout at the bad guy’s mansion and many attempts on Reacher’s life. Yet Reacher manages to escape and notifies the law that the cavalry can storm the mansion. But just when you think he is going to ride off into the sunset as always… he goes back to the mansion and takes matters into his own hands, killing the bad guy in cold blood and then vanishing.
For some reason, this just doesn’t sit well with me. Call me old fashioned, say I am a purist for law and order (even though I have no delusions that it always works), but taking the law into his own hands and acting as judge, jury and executioner is upsetting to me. I have read many books and certainly those in which the hero ends up killing the bad guy; but in so many of those situations it feels to the reader as if the hero was justified in doing so—the killing was part of a large scale effort, some “heat of passion” or “self defense” scenario.
But with Reacher that is not always the case. In another book, after Reacher has solved the mystery and the bad guys have been dealt with, Reacher discovers an accomplice to the crime and summarily disposes of him in the kitchen of his own home (even though the bad guy was an officer in the military).
Look, I’m not saying that I am not going to continue to read the novels, far from it. The stories are intriguing, the mysteries are multi-layered and Reacher is certainly a character who men want to be and women want to be with. But I feel a loss of innocence when Reacher has to resort to his own brand of justice to get just that.
HA! Would you believe that I just figured out why this bothers me so much? I am not kidding, while writing this I just had the epiphany as to why Reacher’s vigilante actions sometimes bother me: it is the feeling that only through vigilante acts can justice truly be accomplished. That’s what rankles me about it! As an attorney, and maybe even as a human being with what I would like to think are strong morals, it bothers me because I do not believe that justice may only be accomplished by taking matters into your own hands. Call me a boy scout, but I still believe that the police get the right man, that justice will prevail, and that good will win out over bad.
Whew, glad to finally have that mystery solved… Now on to the next Reacher!