First things first: This novel is co-authored by Lee Child and Andrew Child. And in case you look at their surnames, their photo on the cover, and consider the flawlessly cohesive writing style, and think, ‘Are they related?’, the answer is yes. James Dover Grant CBE (born 29 October 1954), known by his pen name Lee Child, is a British author; and Andrew Child, whose name is in smaller letters, below his, on the cover, is his younger brother, Andrew Grant. Andrew Grant is himself a successful British author who is also known by the pen name Andrew Child. He is the author of several books including the David Trevellyan series and the Paul McGrath series. So much for that complication.

Better Off Dead – A Jack Reacher Novel, by Lee Child and Andrew Child (Military Thriller, Adventure Fiction, Military Action & Adventure; Publisher: ‎Dell; April 26 2022; paperback; 384 pages)

Why does this matter? Because I have until now been wary – and aware – of the differences in writing style when two writers co-author a book. It is difficult for the authors to fit all the elements together seamlessly if one does one bit, and the other does another. I cannot help but notice the differences. But there is no split here, no detectable point where you can say: ‘Ah, the voice of the author has changed, this must be the other Child’s work’.

I also thought, that since Andrew Child lives in Wyoming, according to the authors’ blurbs in the book, that he might be the person responsible for the flawless Americanization of the narrative. No, they both are, British-born or not.

Lee Child, 67 (left), and his brother Andrew (right), in 2022. (Photo: Lee Child and his brother, Andrew Grant, on keeping Jack Reacher in the family, in The Sunday Times Magazine, The Sunday Times UK)

Simple pleasures are the best?

I knew none of this when I bought it. I just wanted the very latest Jack Reacher novel, which is Better Off Dead. The next novel, No Plan B, the 27th Jack Reacher novel, is due out some time in 2022. The last three Jack Reacher novels, The Sentinel (2020), Better Off Dead and No Plan B, are co-authored by Lee Child and Andrew Child.

I’m a late convert to this series, and I wanted to read the novel after watching the first Reacher streaming television series that premiered on Amazon Prime Video in February 2022.

Readers of my blog will know that I favour succinct writing, and that I think that writing short and sharp passages requires a great deal of skill and self-discipline. Writing that does not demonstrate the author’s love of Personal Purple Passioned Prose is a lot easier and faster to consume than writing that does show this indulgence. And Reacher, the televised version, showed extreme conciseness and crispness in the dialogue, while ensuring that the viewer could still follow the plot and the twists. (Lee Child is credited as one of the eight writers of the first series – that might had had something to do with it.)

It is, I think, a suitable role for the 6′ 2″ tall, muscled Alan Ritchson, who could indicate a lot with a mere sneering curl of his lip, and an eyebrow raised over a perfect green-blue eye.

Poster for the Reacher TV show, starring Alan Ritchson, who is undeniably hunky.

Fans of the Jack Reacher books and of the Child author team appreciate the concise, direct and clear writing. It does not mean it is simplistic. The plots are complicated with many twists, the characters are fully described, the character of Reacher is often depicted in 1st person with detailed train of thought and civilized, literate ideas (he likes music that is an acquired taste), and the many fight scenes are described in exact, choreographed detail.

So, each short sentence counts. And they are short, really short, and mostly declamatory (pronoun, verb, noun, present tense) for example:

“The car showed up at 11:02. Its lights were on bright so I couldn’t tell the make or model, but I could see enough to know it wasn’t a Jeep. Not what I was expecting Fenton to be driving. If Fenton was driving. I couldn’t see inside, either. A moment later the front doors opened. Both of them. Two men climbed out.
Not what we’d agreed.
Both the car’s back doors opened. Two more men climbed out.
Definitely not what we’d agreed.”

Jack Reacher – Better Off Dead, by Lee Child with Andrew Child, p. 99

The passage quoted is quite typical. What is also to be expected is the delicious anticipation in the reader that Reacher will make piles of dead and mangled bodies from his attackers, which will be described in highly satisfying detail. I never knew there were so many ways to fatally kick, hit and elbow someone. It just has to be in the exact right spot, helped along by the correct leverage. While Reacher, blank-faced, handles his attackers, in his head he is calmly and mathematically determining what to do and when – like a fighting machine. It’s very gratifying to read.

If Reacher says to you, ‘Don’t do whatever you are thinking of doing because your buddy is lying there out cold’ then it would be a dumb criminal who goes ahead and does it. And ends up also lying there out cold.

What makes a Reacher novel?

Other noteworthy aspects to this novel are: Reacher’s motivation for helping out a stranger that he encounters is that he does not want one more Army veteran to die from the effects of PTSD. It is adequate in terms of characterization, but also typical since this is classified as a Military Thriller. Also, the story does not contain sex scenes. And, the actual fulcrum on which the plot balances is a very fine point, a small but significant, clever detail, that I totally missed when I first read it.

And lastly, usually Reacher walks into a situation, usually along a lonely road (like the one in the photograph on the title page of the book), and at the end of the book he walks out again. No ties, no possessions, no complications, no idealism, no virtue signalling. Messrs. Child describe him like this:

“The body was naked. If Michelangelo’s David was made to embody masculine beauty, this guy could have been another in the series. But at the opposite end of the spectrum. There was nothing elegant. Nothing delicate. This one was all about power and brutality. Pure and simple.”

Jack Reacher – Better Off Dead, by Lee Child with Andrew Child, p. 13

It was a very satisfying read: “…power and brutality. Pure and simple.” It’s brutal, in other words the writers describe violence in a cool, direct, detached manner, but it’s not gruesome. There are no scenes that will make your stomach churn, not even those set in a morgue. I finished it at 02:45 in the morning, having kept going past midnight to see how the plot would be resolved. I really enjoyed it and will be buying others in the series.

At the moment, working on other complicated projects, I need new books that have simple but hard-hitting narratives, stories that don’t require me to figure things out or deal with obscure references or ideas. This meets the criteria. (After all, just how many times can you re-read you old familiar favourites? You’ve got to move on at some point.)

I recommend the Jack Reacher series – both the novels and the TV show (that kept closely to the characterization and writing style). There cannot be many Thriller writers whose books are so enjoyably and unapologetically savage.

About the featured image

Image adapted from the black-and-white photograph on the title pages of Better Off Dead – A Jack Reacher Novel, by Lee Child and Andrew Child

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