Past Tense is the 23rd Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child. I’ve read all of them, starting with the original book, Killing Floor. Child follows a fairly simple storytelling formula, sticking closely to the Hero’s Journey as explained by Joseph Campbell.
I say explained rather than invented by Joseph Campbell because, as was the point made by Campbell, no one “invented” the Hero’s Journey, it has always been – it’s a storytelling formula that resonates emotionally in humans across time and cultures. If you’re interested in reading about Campbell’s ideas, the starting point is probably The Hero With a Thousand Faces, although there is nearly an infinite amount of background material on the Hero’s Journey, explaining how it’s been used from Greek, Roman, Hindu, Christian, Japanese, etc. myths for all of recorded history. Most Hitchcock scripts can be charted out as following the Hero’s Journey conventions, as can the original canonical Star Wars movies (now known as IV, V, and VI), Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, most Pixar movies, and virtually all Disney movies.
Probably no literature genre adheres more closely to the Hero’s Journey conventions than mystery/thriller books, especially hard-boiled mysteries starting with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which follow a subset of the Hero’s Journey stories often called knight-errant plots, where a lone figure protagonist wanders the earth (like Kane in Kung Fu), righting wrongs or rescuing (usually) women or children. [I’m skipping talking about the Dark Tower series by Stephen King and graphic novels.] I’ve never been able to find the original source for the definition of noir mysteries but it sounds like Chandler: “A flawed hero searches for some measure of justice in an unjust world.” Chandler’s extensive letter writing about literature in general and mystery stories in particular prompted academic reappraisals in the 1970s and 1980s of noir writing.
The zenith (or maybe the nadir, depending on your opinion of him) of knight-errant hard boiled mysteries may have been Mickey Spillane. Spillane was hugely successful (measure by sales) in the 1950s and 1960s and he’s one of the best-selling authors of all time. I’ll confess that I’m a Spillane fan and, at one point, had a copy of every one of his books. While contemporaneous reviews of his books almost universally savaged his work, his work is being reevaluated as a work of a particular political and cultural era.
Circling back to Lee Child – stories don’t get much more knight-errant-y than Jack Reacher. Like Kafka’s Odradek, Reacher has no fixed abode, although Reacher’s homelessness is by choice. Homeless, without assets other than a toothbrush, Reacher hitchhikes himself from one trouble spot to another.
I haven’t (and am probably too lazy to) gone back and read the early Reacher novels, but my impression is that the more recent ones aren’t as good as the earlier ones. That may be because the storyline was fresher then – it’s possible that I’m misremembering how good the first ones were. That said, Child’s fall off in quality is much less than Patricia Cornwell; I found her books starting with Point of Origin getting weirder and weirder and finally stopped reading her all together after the execrable Predator, her literary decline roughly coinciding with the start of the dumpster fires of her personal life.
Anyway, in this installment, Reacher ends up in New Hampshire, stopping for a few days to research some of the oral history he was told about his family. Coincidentally, a young couple from Canada on their way to a new life in Florida ends up in a motel nearby, only too late finding out that it’s like Hotel California– “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.” The two plot lines merge as the story continues, but not smoothly – too much of the plot seems contrived and a little clumsy, especially the ending where one plot line is resolved in only a couple of pages with a (to my mind) unsatisfactory explanation.
Child depends a lot on the Reacher as a caricature and I think over the last ten books or so, Reacher has become more comic book hero than literary protagonist. He’s virtually indestructible, rarely personally in danger – basically a hitchhiking Superman clone in cheap clothes. Another not-completely-believable indestructible thriller protagonist is Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series, which was interesting for the first few books and has now gotten to be too much like a knockoff of Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series.
All that said, my main criticism of the more recent Reacher books is that Child doesn’t plot out stories in advance. Like, not at all. There’s an interesting article here about the writing of a book about Lee Child writing a book – a sort of recursive navel gazing exercise – but the article is interesting. Some authors who claim not to do detailed plots in advance at least start with an idea of what the story will be about and then develop a plot along the way. Lee Child however proudly claims to only do a single draft.
My current favorite thriller and mystery writers, Michael Connelly and Mark Dawson, clearly obsessively plot their books and in reading Past Tense it’s obvious that Child does not. What Child does amazingly well is control the pacing of the stories – for all my criticism of his lack of plotting, he makes up for it in the pacing of the stories. All of his books are fast and satisfying reads.
The publishing business has changed enormously in the last half century – best-selling authors can (and have) become billionaires. Besides an Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, Child owns a mansion in the south of France. Although the business aspects of publishing have changed since Spillane’s day, is Reacher really the literary descendant of Mike Hammer?