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Character is King

“I was arrested in Eno’s diner.”

Good novelists know that one of the important “rules” of writing is to produce an opening sentence that grabs the attention of readers. The above sentence is a good example. It is the first sentence of Killing Floor, the first of Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher novels. That sentence is emphatically short and raises many questions that the reader will want to keep reading to find the answers to.

The whole first chapter of that first book is equally compelling. That chapter ends as well as it starts:

“Should I be worried? I was under arrest…But I knew two things. First, they couldn’t prove something had happened if it hadn’t happened. And second, I hadn’t killed anybody.

“Not in their town, and not for a long time, anyway.”

It is no wonder that Childs has had 19 (and counting) Jack Reacher novels published and is very successful. His books are well-written fast-paced, action-filled, and interesting to read.

Childs has said that his lead character, Jack Reacher, is unique. Reacher is an ex-military policeman who is now homeless by choice. As he wanders around the United States, he continually gets dragged into combat against various criminal organizations. Reacher is huge (six-foot-five, 250 pounds) and a very skilled killer who can overcome these criminal organizations almost single-handed. As Childs says, “Reacher always wins.”

In another sense, Reacher is a typical American hero, a self-sufficient loner who defeats the villains by violence. This is remarkable because Childs is British, and English heroes tend to overcome criminals by intelligence rather than brute force.

It is largely the character of Jack Reacher that makes Childs’s books so compelling. In an Introduction to a paperback version of Killing Floor, Childs stated, “Character is king.” His argument is that books are remembered more for their characters than their storylines. I am not sure that is always so. In murder mysteries, plots are crucial. But that statement is certainly true of Childs’s books. Reacher is a fascinating character, but Killing Floor has holes in the plot big enough to drive a bus through. Fortunately for Childs, the character of Reacher is compelling enough to overcome the deficiencies in the plot.


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