A comprehensive ranking from someone who read them all in two months.
In March 2020, when New Zealand went into that first lockdown, hard and early, like Jack Reacher would enter an eight-against-one alley fight, I decided to read all of Lee Child’s (now 27) Reacher novels, plus the short stories, plus all the ephemera, in order of publication.
It started by accident when I found one – the jokey compendium Reacher’s Rules (not ranked) – in a “little library”, – but then I read them one after another after another.
I read them late into the night, every night, because (disclosure) I work in book publishing, for Penguin, which publishes Lee Child’s books around the world and released the latest one, No Plan B, this month. I read them all in as many days as there are books – or so I told Spinoff editor Madeleine Chapman when I pitched this retrospective Reacher Ranking. But she spotted that for the tragic exaggeration it was and deftly broke its neck. (“You might have to explain your methods there, for the sceptics.”)
Fair. Even Reacher-like. But I am a very, very fast reader and a geeky completist, and we all thought it was the end of days, and in my personal life it actually was, so I had reasons to lay awake late every night reading violent and improbable fiction. And so it’s true that – according to my e-reader – within two months, Read Every Reacher was Mission: Accomplished.
Nobody who thinks they’re clever and literary and cultured and also reads Helen Garner books for fun needs to explain why they love Reacher so hard (or Keyes or King) – but everyone does and has, from Malcolm Gladwell to David Remnick to Antonia Fraser to Margaret Drabble to our own genius Danyl Mclauchlan.
Nobody really needs to explain either how these brilliant, brutal, batshit books are so ludicrously successful, or why, but people keep doing it anyway, so here goes mine:
Even though he’s a man for our troubled times, Reacher is a timeless hero of legend. Reacher is Achilles, Samson, Cu’Cullaihnn. In Child’s words, he is that eternal wanderer, the Knight Errant. He is Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Barry Bloody Crump. He is Rambo, Arnie, a walking, talking Chuck Norris Fact. He is Bond, “Sherlock Homeless”, Little Bobby Zimmerman in a boxcar. He is all sorts of things. According to legendary New Zealand bookseller and distinguished Reacher scholar Tilly Lloyd of Unity Books Wellington, Reacher is a lesbian separatist feminist.
Reacher is bingeable, at a time when fewer and fewer of us can face book-length reading, and ex-TV writer/producer Child’s prose is famously “frictionless”. You don’t need to follow the impossible plots; Reacher follows them for you (at great length and in great detail). And like Lee says, he ingeniously writes “the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast”. Mostly this means the violent stuff, very slow indeed.
Reacher is reassuringly, poundingly repetitive and strafingly back-circling. As with any good god of legend – like wise Athena or Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga – there’s zero limit to the number of times we want to hear about him; his big hands, his huge hands, his dinner-plate hands, his frozen-chicken-sized hands.
And Reacher is – of course – about rough justice. Even monkeys hate injustice. (BTW it takes a double-dose of gorilla tranq in a dart-gun to bring Reacher down in Gone Tomorrow, and they also put him in a cage in that one.)
Above all, Reacher is about suppressed rage on a mass societal level. As these books are beloved by women more than anyone (upwards of 60% of his astronomically large readership is female), ipso facto – as much as they include great, complex, capable female characters, and as much as Child obviously likes/gets women – it is now exceedingly clear to me that they are very much about suppressed female rage.
So with all that in mind, on with the rankings… which contain innumerable unflagged spoilers, plenty of swearing and sex, and violent quotes.
28. Blue Moon (2019)
Comparatively blah and do-goody, with fatiguingly frequent deaths – in a series in which frequent deaths and do-goodery are the whole damn point. Has warring Albanian and Ukrainian gangsters. Tried to care. Couldn’t care.
27. The Sentinel (with Andrew Child) (2020)
The unremarkable first one co-written with Andrew Child, real-life brother of Lee, so Lee could get on with being massively rich, “kick back and read books for the rest of his life” while necessarily booting Tiny Tom (Cruise) off the film franchise and making good on that mistake over on Amazon Prime Video with brick shithouse Alan Ritchson.
Let us leave for another occasion the bedevilling question of whether Cruise has ever had his leg bones cosmetically lengthened, except to say: Not lengthened nearly enough to play Reacher, my little friend. So, not a disaster, but emphatically a not-fun, slightly shit read due to the considerable stress on the serious Reacher reader of whether this first bro-llab will work.
So: While The Sentinel is solid enough, a) solid is not the same as “good”, b) the baddie here is mass-scale cyber-criminal Russki election-tamperers which was/is just a bit too fresh, and c) there are teeny, detectible inconsistencies that anyone who has read Reacher’s Rules would see.
26. Echo Burning (2001)
A massive blond lunk of a streetfghting stranger blows into stinking hot Texas and agrees to avenge the wife-beating rancher of a lady who may or may not be telling the truth – after breaking some low-key bones in a saloon. (“For a military cop, walking into a bar is like a batter stepping to the plate…short of a shotgun, a pool cue is the best barroom weapon ever invented…”) It’s Reacher! Posing as a surly ranch-hand, in an endearingly classic film noir/porno setup. I dunno. It’s just too cute. (There’s a kid as well as a damsel, but there are better of both elsewhere in the Reacherverse.)
Ranked low. Controversially low. (It’s big on Goodreads.)
25. A Wanted Man (2012)
The sequel to 61 Hours and Worth Dying For and, story-wise, an energetic low-point, needed mainly for the series-within-the-series to get Reacher tf out of Nebraska. Starts tautly enough, with Reacher randomising his way into a(nother) kidnap/hostage scenario and – by nerdily decoding the victim’s system of blinks – a massive conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. Like the blurb says, “he soon discovers he has hitched more than a ride”. Notable for the gruesome descriptions of a burnt corpse in a car, but ultimately missable.
24. Nothing to Lose (2008)
This is an unpopular opinion, but I found Reacher’s misadventures as an unwelcome stranger in the twin towns of Hope and Despair, CO, hard to get too worked up about. The scale of the evil operation was pretty cool, though, under its pathetically slender ruse of a really well-guarded (and implausibly successful/lucrative) recycling plant employing sick locals. Imagining the bad guys’ outsized toys and speccy lair was at least as exciting as thinking about what’s going on with the City Rail Link.
23= Make Me (2015) and The Midnight Line (2017)
Reacher’s whole Chang period passed unmemorably for this reader. (Reacher – perpetually on the right side of the law vis: drug use and also racial slurs – merely partners up and falls lightly in love with an ex-FBI agent named Michelle Chang for a couple books.) I was going to blame the 22-book itch and my own befuddled, slumping, lockdown malaise for literally not recalling a single thing at all about either of these perfectly Reachey books, but that does not explain how actually awesome it was to read Night School in between them.
21. No Plan B (with Andrew Child) (2022)
This latest release (and the last of the promised 3-book Andrew-Lee collaboration, after which Andrew will be on his on) is plotty as all get-out and objectively just a damn good Jack Reacher book that stands up alongside the best. But this is a subjective ranking by a menopausal woman who’s in far, far too deep and wants to recapture the first giddy highs of Child rolling Reacher out in real time and almost – but never quite – parodying himself. So, onwards. Onwards.
20. Past Tense (2018)
Heh heh, “Laconia”, heh heh. Reacher goes back to his dad’s hometown. Laconia, NH.
The fact Child insisted on setting a book here after he heard its name tells you everything you need to know about these books, their author, their protagonist and the Venn diagram that links them in tone (basically a dry, dry, brown circle). Bonus backstory, a properly suspenseful woodland setting and a 4-pack of human game-hunting hicksters for Reacher to stalk and pick off, by night, using all his “close combat skills”, juice up this one and elevate it above the rest of the sometimes limpy later Lees.
Plus, great Reacher POV kills and, well, laconia: “Reacher let him fall. He landed on the bricks outside the bag shop, one arm right and the other arm wrong, like a swastika. He was breathing. A little bubbly, from the blood in his throat. His nose was badly busted. Cheekbones, too, maybe. Some of his teeth were out. Upper row, mostly. His dentist’s kid was going to be just fine for college.”
19. Worth Dying For (2010)
High body count, high corn and cheese content, virtually high camp, this one’s a Nebraskan conveyor belt of a farm machine supplying the by-now notionally 50-ish Reacher with endless opportunities for droll one-liners and endless adversaries.
Is Reacher ever more himself than when he’s outrunning treacherous vehicles? Also: Reacher purposely punches someone once in the chest and gives them an instant heart attack and they die. Also: Reacher sustains his first ever broken nose and fixes it with his hand and a piece of duct tape. For fans of duct tape, and of the OTT violence of Persuader and Tripwire.
18. Better off Dead (with Andrew Child) (2021)
Ah, sweet relief. Reacher’s his wise-crackin’, man-huntin’, mother-lovin’ self again – especially when he’s a-posin’ in a morgue as his own, shot-up, buff corpse with a secret supply of bloodbags – in this second Lee-n-Andrew co-write, set sizzlingly on the Mexican border. With Nazis. I do not share the opinion of kingofthemullets who complained, on Reddit, “They fucked the magic formula up… It’s just not hitting right… It’s like Tony Hawk retiring from skateboarding and handing his legacy to his brother… Tony Hawk’s brother actually got him into skateboarding in the first place, but still, Tony Hawk’s brother is not the guy that made the whole world realise that skateboarding is awesome.” That’s a great analogy. But this one actually hits right.
17. Die Trying (1998)
Within pages, Reacher ends up in a kidnap scenario that – you know it – goes right to the tippy-top of the U.S. military industrial thingo and sees him imprisoned by a separatist mountain militia with massive plans to ruin the 4th of July. Stink one! Many of R’s peculiar powers are established in this early novel, including his magic “internal clock” that always knows the time and his Rainman-level math skills. It also intros his oft-times offsider, the hard-case Frances Neagley. (Important fact: she hates human touch – it’s called haphephobia – which conveniently means she and Reacher can keep it platonic, indefinitely.) Also introed is his scruples vis-a-vis violence against dogs. (“Dogs were different. No free will. Easily misled. It raised an ethical problem. Shooting a dog because it had been induced to do something unwise was not the sort of thing Reacher wanted to do.”)
While too many early pages languish all too realistically in the back of a van driving out of Chicago, Die Trying does have minimum one cigarette to the eye and some sick hand-to-hand killing and the singular and clammily brilliant claustrophobia sequence, in which Reacher (who normally has to go through doors sideways, remember) is stuck in a tiny underground tunnel. Child has said it was one of his favourites to write and – speaking both as a clinical-grade claustrophobe and as someone who was trapped in both level four lockdown and a collapsing tunnel of a marriage at the time of reading – it’s … accurate.
16. The Affair (2011)
In which Reacher comes like a train, at the exact same time as a train is coming, in Mississippi, back in the day. The day being 1997. In which we also learn that Reacher likes to go down. Sold! To heterosexual women everywhere. Perhaps needless to add, this is the raunchiest Reacher. Normally Child pans away and keeps it PG as Reacher reliably gets laid approx halfway through any given book. It is also the one that occasioned for its author a Bad Sex in Fiction award in 2011. Said Child: “Writing sex scenes is, by far, the hardest and most ridiculous thing a writer can ever do. It’s virtually impossible to get it done with any plausibility.” You decide:
“‘OK,’ she said, ‘OK. Now. Now. Now!’
Faster and harder.
Faster, harder, faster, harder.
The room began to shake.
Just faintly at first, like a mild constant tremor, like the edge of a far distant earthquake. The French door trembled in its frame. A glass rattled on the bathroom shelf. The floor quivered. The hall door creaked and shuttered. My shoes hopped and moved. The bedhead hammered against the wall. The floor shook hard. The walls boomed. Coins in my abandoned pocket tinkled. The bed shook and bounced and walked tiny fractions across the moving floor.
Then the midnight train was gone, and so were we.”
15. 61 Hours (2010)
What’s the time, Mr Lone Wolf, what’s the time? Time for the “cerebral” Reacher. No fights, no sex. Yet a standout on the suspense and action fronts, with the supporting cast including crooked prison people, bikies for hire and the merciless crime boss Plato. Stranded in small-town Dakota in bitterest winter with – yes – 61 hours till certain destruction, Reacher’s at his most hokey and heartland, morals-wise.
61 Hours also delivers us this concentrated elixir of Jack Reacher gospel: “Never forgive, never forget. Do it once and do it right. You reap what you sow. Plans go to hell as soon as the first shot is fired. Protect and serve. Never off duty.” And it serves up the ginormous-est fireball to “ignite” this “explosive” “franchise”. We know Reacher will live like we know he’ll annihilate every opponent he comes up against, ever – but how? Actually, fucking, how? Real-time readers would’ve had to wait a whole twelve months back in 2011 for Child to pump out Worth Dying For to find out. I myself can’t remember, but it’s both technical and not technically possible.
14. Running Blind (aka The Visitor) (2000)
This is edge-case, nutso, baroque JR and – thanks to its unforgettable novelty and insidery military setup – pushes it up, up, up into the top 15, where it so rightly belongs. A serial killer of evil Lecterian brilliance (that’s a clue) but velly, velly low charm is somehow killing their female victims – all known to Reacher from his Military Police investigations – sans bruises, marks or injuries. Then marinating their corpses in bathtubs filled with affordable army-issue camouflage paint.
Fucking, fucking ridiculous. (Jack Reacher: “I like it when you curse. You should do that more often.”) Fucking ridiculous!
13. One Shot (2005)
This is a great Reacher for starters and stans alike, and it’s easy to see why it worked for Tom Cruise on screen – Holmes-y Reacher rather than Big Brute Reacher is on fine display here, out-thinking and out-manoeuvring his ever-more-evil opponents.
12. The Hard Way (2006)
Ah, God, this fine, fine Reacher. Starting with its crisply-rendered New York locations, it’s not too much to call it a love letter. (“Reacher liked New York more than most places. He liked the casual indifference of it all and the frantic hustle and the total anonymity. He liked the electric darkness and the hot dirty air and the blasts of noise and traffic and the manic barking sirens and the crush of people. It helped a lonely man feel connected and isolated both at the same time.”) Anyway. After loads of false leads and intense gumshoeing, Reacher faces off against a private army of ex-special servicemen, recruited for maximum murderousness by some guy called Lane, and eventually the whole cast goes cross-Atlantic and Reach walls up in a farm in deepest Norfolk for a – highly unrelaxing – showdown.
11. Night School (2016)
Neagley, neo-Nazis, an excellent mission and a worthy nuclear payload.
10. Without Fail (2002)
Solid, rock solid. Reacher cat-and-mouses like a really logical, vengeful, ex-military cat that’s unusually good at maths and telling the time and likes to say what it’s thinking as it takes down various unfortunate but deserving criminal mice with its outsized paws. The ghost of Reacher’s brother Joe haunts the story and its various personnel, the save-the-Veep/security stress-test plot is tight as, and the stakeout scene, so memorable and vividly rendered I keep thinking I saw it first in a movie.
9. Gone Tomorrow (2009)
Widely and rightly praised for its “ingenious” suicide-bomber-on-the-subway opener and switchy, satisfying plot full of Russian oligarchs, Soviet snipers, Mujahideen fighters, Al Qaeda terrorists and a cameo from Osama Bin Laden himself, all in a redolently NYC setting. Gone Tomorrow is high karat Reacher gold, studded with double-crosses, deductions and very much duct tape. And dart guns! (This is the gorilla-tranq/cage one.)
8. Persuader (2003)
Due to the Bondian setting (our hero is trapped in a Monopoly mansion with a Cluedo cast of ersatz carpet importers on the Maine coast, helmed by a villain REACHER THOUGHT HE ALREADY KILLED by shooting many, many times and chucking off something), Persuader is a modest number 8 in this ranking but a contender for #1 most utterly, anatomically-detailed-at-length, quote-worthy violence.
Very intriguingly, Reacher is actually almost bested, physically, in this book – by Paulie, a 7-foot dancing maniac with a meth addiction only surpassed by his weightlifting habit – but then his luck shifts.
“The first rule of street fighting is when you get your guy on the ground you finish him, no hesitation, no pause, no inhibition, no gentlemanly conduct. You finish him. Paulie had ignored that rule. I didn’t.”
Reacher pulps Paulie in an orthopedically devastating 1,000 words and returns for his boss.
“‘I can’t swim,’ he said. He slurred his words. I had broken some of his teeth, and hit him hard in the throat. The wind howled around him. It lifted his hair and added another inch to his height. Spray blew past him, right at me.
‘No swimming involved,’ I replied.
I shot him twelve times in the chest. All twelve bullets passed straight through him. Big chunks of flesh and muscle followed them out over the ocean. One guy, two guns, twelve loud explosions, eleven dollars and forty cents in ammunition. He went down backward into the water. Made a hell of a splash.”
7. Personal (2014)
Was it not Jack Reacher who once said, “Keeping your mouth shut is a devastating weapon”? So briefly, this is just a really good one. Like One Shot for the quality of its sniper/ballistics/firearms geekery, but in Paris and with regrets and grudges.
6. The Enemy (2004)
Narratively the first Jack Reacher book, so a Winds of Change-era prequel to all the rootless drifting that follows and – at last – the catalyst for our man’s departure from the US military. Like he says in One Shot.: “I was in the machine. My whole life. Then the machine coughed and spat me out. So I thought, OK, if I’m out, I’m out. All the way out…”
Just like Breaking Bad did for dudes whose wives just don’t get the bullshit they have to deal with at the office, Reacher’s OTT reaction to downsizing, middle-management cleanouts, modernisation and loss of values in the army chimes loud for C21st workaday everypeople everywhere. (We just don’t all have to bust knees, solve mysteries feat. 5-star generals dying under prostitutes in seedy motels, expose ugly homophobic hate crimes, foil dirty drug deals, survive a shootout by tanks in the Mojave desert, offset the threat to world order and imperial power posed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and also deal with the devastating deaths of our mothers in Paris and the many revelations that occasions, before chucking in the towel.)
5. Killing Floor (1997)
If you know any Reacher, you know this one, because it keeps getting adapted for screen. The one that started it all – not least here in Aotearoa, first place in the world to make Child a bestseller, and according to the author, “the world capital of Reacher madness”.
Straight out of the gate, we have what will become classic Reacherana. There’s impossibly random coincidence (Reacher randomly gets off a bus in Margate, Georgia and randomly finds himself at the scene of his own brother’s brutal murder and is randomly framed for it.) There’s The Blues. (Reacher is in search of Blind Blake’s grave and, throughout the book, plays in his head various numbers by Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker and sings “every version he knows” of Born Under a Bad Sign. Side note: Reacher never needs what he calls a “stereo” for much the same reason he never needs a calculator or a camera or a watch.) There’s some sick, twisted torture killings. (Innocent people are forced to eat their own genitals while crucified with nailguns upon their own living room walls.) There’s some sick prison violence. (Reacher takes on a gang of white supremacists and slowly narrates his own baddassery.) There’s mucho ballistic weaponry and a huge warehouse showdown with dirty counterfeiters that ends in a ball of fire – but by no means the series’ last.
The original and, if not the very best, then at least the best at being first at being Reacher. So probably, maybe, the one you “should” read first. Get on board, traitors to Kiwidom.
4. Second Son (2011) – short story
Look, origin stories always rule. If this was a Harry Potter ranking, Second Son would be Half Blood Prince. It’s full of Reacher genesis gold: military daddy issues, bros-in-arms, early base-brat/bikini-babe fumblings, big beats for bully boys, and a bit of burning institutional injustice. The latter is Child’s leitmotif (he was restructured out of Granada Television and all of his subsequent success is kind of a giant, stateside bird-flip to that bureaucracy), as well as being Reacher’s kind-of “why”. (He was restructured out of the army and all of his subsequent vigilantism stems from that.) Bonus: it’s only 32 pages long cos it’s an actual short story! But read it after a few of the big novels and before High Heat and Deep Down because it’s just more hilarious that way.
The spoilers: The juvenile Reacher (even his chère Maman calls him simply “Reacher”) is, at 13, amply bigger than his big brother Joe and already freakishly evolved for aggression and reaction time. We learn this because once when he was five, he lunged at a movie screen with his pocket knife to gut a ’50s creature feature blob-monster during a creepy mid-century psych experiment on Army brats at the base where he lived. Cool.
Bonus mention: High Heat (2013) – short story
All spoilers: Teen Reach (age 16) does NYC in the sweltering summer of ’77 in this Reacher-in-Miniature. Reach doles out some adolescent rough justice. Reach gets caught in the brownouts and fires and some vague race stuff. Reach wears bellbottoms. Reach goes to CBGB! Reach meets the Son of Sam! (While doing what SOS’s victims were usually doing, with a college girl, that little horndog.) Not making any of this up. Is it silly? Yes. Is it awesome? Damn straight it is. Read after Second Son.
3. Never Go Back (2013)
In which Reacher finally reaches DC and the home of his beloved old unit, the 110th MP, only to discover ROT that goes all the way to … the top. Everything else plot-wise is manically surprising, and there are even fewer surprises, yet plenty of satisfaction, to be had in Child’s familiar recitation of Reacher’s various foibles and quirks and sheer physicality. “Puberty had brought him many things unbidden, including height and weight and an extreme mesomorph physique, with a six-pack like a cobbled city street, and a chest like a suit of N.F.L. armor, and biceps like basketballs, and subcutaneous fat like a Kleenex tissue.” Janet Maslin, in the NYT, called the book “positively Bunyanesque in its admiring contributions to Reacher lore.” Amen.
2. Tripwire (1999)
This one has it all. A steamy Floridian opener, with our hero bouncing bar by night and, by day, digging out pools by spade and hand (frozen bird-sized/dinner plate-sized hand, of course). A villainous, scarred, identity-thieving madman baddie with a hook for a hand. Vietnam War helicopter action flashbacks. Some to-and-fro to the 50th state to exhume soldier remains and dust off a cover-up, and – critically – the introduction of the closest thing to a gf that Reacher ever gets, the Amal to his George, brilliant barrister Jodie Garbey.
Tripwire white-knuckles it to the very last page, with Reacher shot at close range in the chest while bleeding lavishly from the giant nail stuck in his head, but – as is revealed in a tasty epilogue – is himself saved by the superhuman thickness of his chest muscle.
“OK, try this,’ the doctor said. ‘Imagine a big Cray supercomputer humming away. We feed it everything we know about human physiology and everything we know about gunshot wounds and then we ask it to design us a male person best equipped to survive a thirty-eight in the chest. Suppose it hums away for a week. What does it come up with?’
Reacher shrugged again. ‘I don’t know.’
‘A picture of you, my friend,’ the doctor said. ‘That’s what. The damn bullet didn’t even make it into your chest. Your pectoral muscle is so thick and so dense it stopped it dead. Like a three-inch kevlar vest.’ [Followed by:] ‘Frontal lobe, my friend, bad place to have a nail. If I had to have a nail in my skull, the frontal lobe would definitely not be my first choice. But if I had to see a nail in anybody else’s frontal lobe I’d pick yours, I guess, because you’ve got a skull thicker than Neanderthal man’s. Anybody normal, that nail would have been all the way in, and that would have been thank you and good night.’”
Good night, and thank you, indeed. I laughed long and loud and happy into the lockdown gloom that evening.
1. Bad Luck and Trouble (2007)
In a cheering endorsement of this entire ranking, the next title adapted for the Amazon Prime Video series is going to be this one, my number one.
Strangely (given that it all started with Reacher spontaneously getting framed for his own brother’s brutal death and post-mortal beating. And given that the really personal one is literally called Personal. And that he takes pretty much everything pretty goddamned personally, including people being mildly rude to strangers), strangely, this time it’s personal.
Fellow maths geek Neagley contacts hard-to-reach Reacher in Portland using a complicated bank statement deposit code to warn him that someone’s killing off the members of their old team, the Special Investigators, death flight style. And as their motto goes, you do not fuck with the Special Investigators. (“We investigate, we prepare, we execute. We find them, we take them down, and then we piss on their ancestors’ graves.”) 10 years on from their disbanding, after 10 years of Reachy roaming, the gang’s reunited and, you know, it feels so good.
Just – primo, primo Reacher, then. Pacy, high stakes, Holmesian hijinks, properly scary terrorist connections, and just a little triste interiority as Reacher compares his lonesome path to those his closest peers have chosen.
And thus it ends, like it began. “Reacher took a hundred dollars from the machine and headed on inside the depot and bought a ticket for the first bus he saw. He had no idea where it was going…”