Analysis, inspiration, Reading, Reviews

Review: A Wanted Man

TLDR: The first Jack Reacher novel I read impressed me and it’s a great example of how much story can be told without dialogue or action, just description.

A Wanted Man is the first Jack Reacher novel I’ve read and I have to admit, I can see why these things fly off the shelves and wallpaper airport bookstores. The descriptive, detailed style, with minimal emotion, heightens the suspense. It feels like the book itself is holding its breath at times.

My only criticism is that Reacher himself doesn’t seem to suffer any consequences of his actions and seems a bit superhuman at points. When I see a character admit to himself that he’s making a bad decision, going against the odds (when the odds are already stacked high against him) I expect there to be some negative consequence for Reacher. When there wasn’t, I felt let down.

Setting that aside, let’s talk about the writing style, which is what drew me in and makes me want to read more. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The eyewitness said he didn’t actually see it happen. But how else could it have gone down? Not long after midnight a man in a green winter coat had gone into a small concrete bunker through its only door. Two men in black suits had followed him in. There had been a short pause. The two men in the black suits had come out again.

At first glance, this prose is bone dry, akin to stage direction in its lack of emotion and simile. The words used are short and simple. The sentences are direct and declarative. But it opens with a great hook. The eyewitness said he didn’t actually see it happen. What didn’t he see? The reader is primed to look for clues. Then clues are exactly what is presented to us.

This is a detective novel at heart. The short sentences are our clues and they work marvelously.

It is not that the author, Lee Child, never uses metaphor. It’s not that he always obeys “show don’t tell.” Consider this paragraph, shortly after the previous one:

The county sheriff had shown up and gotten the story. He was good at hustling folk along while looking patient. It was one of his many talents. Eventually the eyewitness had finished up. Then the county sheriff had thought for a long moment. He was in a part of the nation where in every direction there were hundreds of square miles of emptiness just over the dark horizon. Where roads were long lonely ribbons.

“long lonely ribbons” is a lovely metaphor. It shows, rather than tells the difficulty the sheriff faces. Every other sentence in the above paragraph is telling rather than showing, but that’s ok, it’s good even when it serves a purpose and here it serves the purpose of, like the sheriff, hustling folk along.

Sometimes you want to shove the reader’s nose in it. Sometimes you want to move things along. Child’s economical use of language is used to do both.

Reviews for A Wanted Man on Goodreads are mixed. Long time fans claim this is one of the worst Reacher books. One person writes: “No exaggeration, Reacher is in a car on the world’s most boring car ride for the first 30 chapters of the book.”

I disagree with the assessment of boring. The story is a slow build of gradually unfolding mystery from clues expertly dropped. I was engaged because I wasn’t reading about Reacher sitting in a car, I was reading about Reacher unraveling a mystery.

Here is the second paragraph in Chapter 2:

There were three people in the car. Two men in the front, and a woman in the back. The two men were twisted around in their seats, like there was a big three-way discussion going on. Like a democracy. Should we pick this guy up or not? Which suggested to Reacher that the three people didn’t know each other very well. Such decisions among good friends were usually instinctive. These three were business colleagues, maybe, a team of equals, thrown together for the duration, exaggeratedly respectful of each other’s positions, especially the outnumbered woman’s.

Again we are presented with simple sentences full of simple words. These are clues, mere observations. To someone like me reading their first Reacher novel, I am shown without being told that Reacher is highly observant. Also that he can put himself in other people’s shoes, imagine what they are thinking and feeling. He’s an excellent character for a detective story. We are presented with Reacher’s conclusions, but if we remember the novels opening, we will be primed to question those conclusion and try to reach our own:

The eyewitness said he didn’t actually see it happen. But how else could it have gone down?

I found A Wanted Man to be a thrilling page turner with excellent lessons in style for aspiring writers. Keep writing and keep wondering about your own stories and others’, how else could it have gone down?

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