Writing Lean and Mean
Notes on Lee Child's Jack Reacher, The Midnight Line
This novel is a wonderful example of the power in a purity of intent. Jack Reacher is a West Point graduate and a retired military MP who had a reputation for breaking the rules to get to justice.
After leaving the military, Jack has taken up a solitary life, going from place to place until something engages his interest. In this novel, it is a pawned West Point graduation ring. He's determined to find out what happened to the owner and whether the ring was stolen or pawned. If pawned, why would the owner do that?
Jack is a large man, physically imposing, and capable of handling himself in dangerous situations. But there is a suggestion that Jack is, on some level, a wounded warrior. A trucker who picks up Jack mentions that his wife would say that Jack lives a nomadic life because of a deep wound, and Jack considers that point later in the novel. It raises a question about Jack that this novel doesn't answer, but it adds a dimension to Jack.
Jack is a force of nature, not to be denied no matter the odds.
Characters in the novel are organized around how they deal with authority. Jack is a rule breaker. He allies himself with a P.I., Terry Bramall, a retired F.B.I. agent, who can bend some rules but feels others cannot be broken. Gloria Naknamura, a detective in Rapid City, is much more bound by rules and must maneuver to get her boss to approve her surveillance of a local all-around bad guy drug dealer who operates out of a laundromat.
Much of the dramatic dialogue in the novels revolves around Jack asking others to follow his lead, even if it means breaking rules, and how others respond, like Gloria maneuvering her boss to do what she thinks is right. Others think they can ignore Jack's requests for information and the dialogue in those scenes is tightly written and generally ends with Jack dealing out punishing mayhem.
This organization means readers can assign meaning to the actions of the characters, even if the story is written in a way that doesn't call attention to its structure.
As the story progresses, Jack learns that the retired military officer he seeks is a woman with a face destroyed by an IAD explosion in Afghanistan. She has hidden away in a cabin in the Wyoming wilderness where she treats her facial wounds and organizes her life around buying a large amount of opioids from the local drug distribution network to deal with her chronic pain.
The laser focus on finding the owner of the ring means readers can track and assign meaning to the action and how Jack deals with those who refuse to answer his simple questions.
When the officer is found, a more powerful question revolves around whether she can return to some kind of life in the world and still have a supply of opioids to deal with her pain. This gives the novel a look at the contemporary world of law enforcement and how wounded warriors and ordinary people deal with chronic pain and addiction.
The Midnight Line is a wonderful example of how a novel that advances through action can have a subtle, thoughtful organization.
Copyright 2018 Bill Johnson