Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2) by James M. McPherson (1987)

In mid-19th century America there was a caste of people who were professional slave hunters. Hold that thought… People whose job it was to reclaim the lost ‘property’ of a southern slave owner.

1854 advert for a runaway slave

1854 advert for a runaway slave

In 1850 the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers (a short-lived political party which took part in the 1848 and 1852 presidential races with the sole aim of preventing slavery being expanded into the new western states).

The law required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Many northern states opposed the law and passed personal liberty laws which, in different ways, tried to block the act – by insisting that captured suspects get a fair trial, or by forbidding state authorities to collaborate with the federal agents tasked with recapturing runaway slaves.

Almost every case caused explosions of outrage on both sides of the argument. Many northern states took advantage of jury nullifications, where a jury refuses to convict because they believe the entire basis of a federal law is unjust. Northern cities set up Vigilance Committees which could mobilise lawyers to defend a captured runaway, and/or mobs to surround gaols where they were being held. On numerous occasions this resulted in fighting, with shots fired, as northern mobs stormed gaols to free slaves held by Federal authorities.

Southerners believed northerners wanted to abolish the entire notion of property, which was a founding concept of American freedom (in which freedom is defined as the ability to own property, and the ownership of property confers the independence from want which underlies the notion of personal liberty).

The clash between the proslavery Federal law and the anti-slavery steps and laws taken by various northern states made almost every case of a slave being captured into a show trial. Imagine being a black person, going about your business in Boston or New York, suddenly set upon by a gang of men and hussled along to a gaol. And then – if you’re lucky – standing in the dock while lawyers argue whether you are a human being or a piece of property.

The law had a noticeable cultural impact. For northerners, the country’s law for the first time made them accomplices in the institution of slavery – forced them at risk of a hefty fine or possible imprisonment, to aid federal marshals in arresting, imprisoning and returning runaway slaves to the south.

It was a flavour of slavery, and the slave state, forced right into northerners’ faces. And forced the more conscientious of them to choose between obeying an unjust law or their consciences. It created martyrs not only among the poor captured runaways, but among their white supporters, especially in the church. McPherson quotes a number of clergy who wrote publicly announcing that they were prepared to go to gaol to defend the liberty of runaway slaves.

The intrusion of slave violence into the free north inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe (‘daughter, sister and wife of Congregational churchmen’) to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was published in monthly serials in an antislavery magazine before being published in book form in 1852. It went on to become the most popular novel of the 19th century, second only to the Bible in book sales in the States and abroad. Extraordinarily, she wrote it in the evenings after completing all the household chores and putting her six children to bed. Wish I had that much energy.

Implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act reinforced the importance of the so-called Underground Railway, escape routes for blacks north through free states and on, ultimately, to Canada – a series of safe houses and sympathetic helpers – like the networks shot-down Allied airmen used in Nazi-occupied Europe a century later.

An estimated three thousand blacks fled to Canada in the last three months of 1850 alone. During the 1850s the black population of Ontario doubled.

There are records of slaves committing suicide rather than be caught. McPherson quotes the story of a runaway slave mother who tried to cut the throats of her own children as the slave catchers broke in, rather than let them be taken back to a lifetime of servitude and abuse.

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

And yet, during the entire decade of the 1850s, some 332 slaves were returned and only 11 declared free. Odd that such a relatively small number had such a seismic cultural impact on both north (disgusted) and south (outraged that the north tried to hide their ‘property’), compared to the fact that there were some four million slaves in the south.

Meditating on the stories McPherson prints, it’s hard to see how anyone brought up in these communities, and in this country, could recover. Easy to imagine the aftershock lasting down through generations and never, really, being healed…


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1) by James M. McPherson (1987)

‘Our political conflicts must be in future between slavery and freedom.’ Whig Congressman Joshua Giddings at the Free Soil convention in 1848 (quoted page 61)

This massive volume (900 pages) is just part of the Penguin History of America.

The civil war is far the most written-about event in American history, not least because more Americans died in it than in all other wars America has fought put together.

The civil war tore the young Republic apart, and the schism between north and southern states is in some ways still evident to this day. Certainly the bitterly divisive issue of race in America shows no signs of going away, ever.

Social background

McPherson gives a good run-up to the war with a fascinating profile of economic and social progress in America in the half century from 1800.

I was particularly struck by his interpretation of the movement of women from being cottage industry producers, to heads of nuclear households in which the male went out to earn a wage, as a big step up in power and autonomy for women. (Not what they’re teaching my daughter in her Sociology A-Level.) Also the importance of women in creating a market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century.

And in creating an enormous market for an explosion of magazines and papers dedicated to women and women’s issues (homes and beauty etc). The bestselling novel of the entire 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was written by a woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Women also established their dominance in the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female; the figure is 80% in the UK).

In 1848 a convention in New York state launched the modern women’s rights movement (pp. 33-36).

Inevitability

What comes over strongest is the inevitability of the war. Conflict – bitter and angry conflict – between slave and free states exists from the very start of his account. (McPherson doesn’t mention it, but reading Alan Taylor’s account of the drafting of the American Constitution, it’s clear that slavery caused problems even then, with the northern participants having to find loose and ambiguous forms of words to take into account problems raised by slavery – for example, what was the population of a slave state, should you include slaves as ‘people’ or not?).

It takes McPherson about 300 pages to cover the period from about 1820 to the outbreak of war. Almost every page features rancour and disagreement among the states caused by slavery.

The curse of slavery

In fact slavery comes over as a curse of Biblical proportions on America. There is no way round it, no way out of it, no way of escaping the fact that the wealth of half the country depended on whip and chains. It fatally undermines all the vaunting rhetoric about freedom and independence spouted by northerners and the rebels of 1775, and they knew it.

Jefferson’s Empire of Liberty had become mostly an empire for slavery. Territorial acquisitions since the Revolution had added the slave states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Texas to the republic, while only Iowa, admitted in 1846, increased the rank of free states. (p.51)

Slavery had been absolutely vital for the economic success of the southern states when the mainstay crops were rice and tobacco. As the nineteenth century progressed, cotton rose in importance, not least to be exported to feed the mechanised cotton looms of Manchester. Economically, slavery increased its importance in the southern economy and culture as the century progressed.

Whipping a slave

Whipping a slave while his family watch

As America expanded, should the new states be slave or free?

The most fundamental fact of American history in the 19th century was its relentless progress westwards, settling, staking out, defining and creating new states as it went. Every time this happened, there was virulent debate about whether the new state would be slave or free.

Northern states, roughly represented by the Whig party, campaigned for all new states admitted to the union to be slave free. Politicians, journalists, businessmen and activists all across the south saw this as:

  • a threat to their livelihood
  • a block to them expanding their economic model
  • in effect reserving each  new state for the northern economic model of free farming or industrialisation
  • and so an insult to the much-vaunted ‘honour’ of the South

Politicians and journalists were talking about a clash between the slave-owning southern states and the free northern states from the turn of the century. As early as 1820 a compromise had to be hammered out about just how much of the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase should be slave and free (free above latitude 36′ 30) and the accession of each new territory caused a repeat of the same arguments, except louder and more bitter each time.

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states

Map of America in 1854 showing free and slave states and the enormous contested area of Kansas-Nebraska

The Mexican-American War

The book gets going with the arguments in the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48. After American forces beat the Mexican army at a series of battles and then occupied Mexico City, the Mexican government was forced to cede California and New Mexico to America, and to give up hope of retrieving Texas which, for a while had been an independent state, before being absorbed in the USA. Mexico accepted the course of the Rio Grande river as its new border with America, losing a third of its territory to America.

But even as the war was being fought, politicians, lobbyists and so on were bitterly arguing whether the new states were to be slave or free. The crisis lasted from 1846 to 1851, with a series of political expedients and compromises in Congress under successive presidents. McPherson goes into very great detail about the centrality of the argument in the campaigns for party nominations, in the presidential campaigns and in various congressional and senate contests.

The American party system comes over as confusingly fragmented (with Conscience Whigs, Cotton Whigs, the Liberty Party, Barnburners, southern ‘fire-eaters’, the Free Soil convention and many more floridly-named splinter groups), but roughly there were:

  • northern Whigs, representing industrialisation and civil liberties
  • and southern Democrats representing slavery, the rights of property and the slave economy

Although a central thread of the book is how this rough grouping was torn apart and refashioned by the war.

Arguments for and against slavery

One of the most interesting aspects of history is the study of reasons or arguments which lost. Historians often skip over these, assuming that nowadays we all agree, that the values of the present are self-evident and eternal. But for me that’s precisely a major value of the study of history: to enter fully into the economic, social and political mindset of people in completely different times and circumstances, to fully understand what drove them to believe and fight for their cause.

McPherson usefully summarises the arguments for and against slavery, conceived in the broadest sense:

AGAINST SLAVERY

  • free labour was more efficient than slave labour because it was motivated by the inducement of wages and ambition for upward social mobility rather than coercion
  • slavery undermined free white labour wherever the two existed side by side
  • slavery inhibited education and social improvement, keeping not only blacks but poor whites in a state of low education
  • because it was best suited to a small number of labour-intensive crops, slave labour prevented the development of a diverse economy with innovation motivated by social improvement

Northerners thought these economic arguments explained why the northern free states were ahead of the South on almost all metrics, such as capital investment, literacy, industrialisation, innovation, and so on. And explained what was at stake in deciding whether new states should be slave or free: allowing slavery in them condemned them to being second class economies.

FOR SLAVERY

Intellectual southerners invoked the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson thought that freedom amounted to economic independence based on the possession of property. He envisioned a nation made up of independent farmers and artisans who defined their own work rate, hours and products. Followers of Jefferson strongly opposed the spread of industrialisation in the north. Industrialisation converted free farmers into ‘hands’ who worked regimented hours in large factories, losing all their skills except the handful necessary to fit into mass production. Hence the expression ‘wage slaves’. By the 1840s everyone knew that industrialised society was prey to periodic depressions when trade collapsed and factories laid off workers in droves, to beg in the streets.

Therefore, intellectual southerners could position themselves as principled opponents of capitalism, maintaining what they saw as older ideas of ‘liberty’ (for white people).

  • slavery was a blessing to the slave and to the master
  • slavery had civilised African savages
  • slavery introduced heathen savages to Christianity
  • slavery provided slaves with a paternalistic cradle-to-grave care not available to northern ‘wage slaves’
  • it raised up white labourers by freeing them from the most menial tasks
  • slavery eliminated the spectre of class conflict among whites by eliminating class and caste differences between them, bringing whites closer together, unlike the widening gap between rich and poor in the industrialised north
  • slavery generated the wealth to create a leisured class of gentleman who create civilisation, culture and fine living – unlike the hustling hucksterism of northern capitalism
  • all previous great civilisations had been based on slavery – the Greeks, the Romans etc

These proslavery arguments are fascinating because you can see there is a grain of truth in some of them (in the virtues of an agricultural over an industrialised economy, for example). They were certainly enough to mobilise opinion right across the south, enough to produce a torrent of speeches and articles fulminating against northern arrogance and soulless industrial capitalism, enough to prompt endless threats that the south would secede or take up arms to protect her special interests – enough to drown out the simple, undeniable fact that slavery was an outrage against human decency, dignity and any ideas ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’.

To see how so many educated southerners – politicians, lawyers and journalists – managed to suppress this basic truth amid a flood of secondary arguments and justifications, is quite mind-boggling, and an education in human beings’ limitless ability to delude themselves when self-interest is at stake.

But it’s only if you make an imaginative attempt to understand, to internalise these arguments as much as their proponents, that you can hope to understand what came next. Thus McPherson quotes Senator John C. Calhoun as saying that slavery was:

the most safe and profitable basis for free institutions in the world (p.56)

Incomprehensible to us. But unless we make the effort to understand the almost unbelievable things people in the past have devotedly adhered to, we condemn ourselves to live in a world we don’t fully understand.


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

The War of 1812 by Carl Benn (2006)

‘Free trade and sailors’ rights’ (American rallying cry for the 1812 war)

In June 1812 the United States, under president James Madison, declared war on Great Britain. The war lasted three years and fighting took place along the America-Canada border, around the Great Lakes, off the American coast, and in the Deep South, in the region then called West Florida, now called Louisiana.

Why? Why did America attack Britain in 1812?

I borrowed the Osprey ‘Illustrated History’ of the war of 1812 from my local library, to find out.

Osprey Publishing produce a series titled ‘Essential Histories’, short (90 pages) lavishly illustrated texts describing the political and especially the military aspects of wars and conflicts, ancient and modern, ranging far and wide from the conflicts of Ancient Israel to Russia’s offensives in Chechnya.

The volume on the war of 1812 is a good example of the format.

Reasons

The reasons American politicians gave for declaring war were that:

  1. Royal Navy ships had been stopping and searching American vessels. They did this to retake fugitives and deserters from RN ships, since Britain was at war with Napoleon’s France. But they often went further and press ganged men who claimed to be citizens of the United States.
  2. The French and British had spent a decade or more imposing a complicated sequence of trade bans and embargos to which the Americans responded with their own. The British ones were more effective, because of the Royal Navy, and in 1811 bans on American salted fish bit particularly hard.

So the Americans went to war because:

  1. The British trade embargos seriously threatened their trade
  2. Because of the embargos, British America (i.e. Canada) threatened to replace America as a supplier of a number of staples to France and Britain
  3. Seizing the Great Lakes-St Lawrence Waterway system would cripple Canadian trade and greatly boost American

There were other reasons.

Native Americans Many colonists had fought the War of Independence because they wanted to expand westwards into ‘the Old Northwest’ (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana). But the native Algonkian-speaking Americans of the region weren’t happy about American expansion, and there was evidence that the British were arming and supporting them. American forces clashed with warriors of a western native confederacy at Tippecanoe in November 1811.

Manifest Destiny Driven by a dream of Manifest Destiny, hawkish expansionists hoped that a war would drive Britain from the North American mainland completely, vastly expanding American territory and economy. They thought God himself had set natural bounds to America, the Gulf of Mexico in the south, Arctic wastes in the north. Everything in between should be theirs. Hero of the independence struggle Thomas Jefferson, who had himself recently president (1801-1809), declared the Americans would capture Quebec in the first year, ready to march on Halifax in year two, and clear the Brits out of the continent.

Mississippi East and West Florida nominally belonged to Spain. President Madison had proclaimed the annexation West Florida in 1810. But the war party assumed that they could use to conflict to consolidate their control. The Florida theatre became most notable for the successful American defence of New Orleans, although the British took some other strategic points on the Gulf coast. In 1819 America bought both Floridas from Spain.

Re-election Madison had made mistakes in his negotiations with both France and Britain, prompting criticism even from inside his own party. He would have served one term as president and be up for re-election in 1812, so declaring war was a traditional way of rallying support and quelling domestic criticism. In the event he received his party’s nomination and was re-elected in November 1812.

The war

No-one expected the war to last three years. It is pretty amusing to read about the first few American attacks across the border into what was called ‘Upper Canada’, and how easily they were beaten back or defeated. But the Americans didn’t give up and there was a complex sequence of battles and skirmishes on land, a few naval engagements on the great lakes, many more at sea on the Atlantic, as well as a separate campaign fought down around New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico.

There is a long, detailed account on Wikipedia.

America’s main military aim was to seize Upper Canada i.e. Canada around the Great Lakes. They launched eight invasion attempts at different places, yet all but one failed, that one only secured a small part of south-west Ontario, and this was handed back at the 1815 peace treaty.

The outcome of 1812 invasion attempts at Detroit, Niagara and Montreal was that

The United States had lost every engagement of significance and had suffered huge losses in prestige, supplies, land and men.

Further losses followed in two major invasion attempts of 1813. However, the small American navy of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry (9 ships) won the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 against 6 British ships, compelling the British to fall back from Detroit. American General Harrison launched another invasion of Upper Canada, which culminated in the U.S. victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.

Up to now the British had relied for support on a confederation of native Americans led by the warrior Tecumseh. With his death the confederation collapsed and many native Americans withdrew west into America away from the war zone, or east alongside retreating Canadian citizens. Many had fought hoping that the British would guarantee them a territory of their own in the north-west. This dream was now dead.

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory in the War of 1812 against Great Britain, on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader Tecumseh

The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, a decisive American victory on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario, showing the death of native American leader, Tecumseh

Same in 1814. Despite some victories, and fiercely fought battles e.g. at Lundy’s Lane and around the besieged Fort Erie, the Americans failed in their twin objectives of retaking Macinac on the north shore of Lake Huron or breaking out of the mouth of the Niagara River and crossing Lake Ontario into Canada.

The 1814 American Macinac and Niagara campaigns had come to a failed end.

War on sea and land

There were quite a few encounters between Royal Navy and US navy ships, victory generally going to the larger ship or greater number. Both sides encouraged ‘privateers’ i.e. licensed pirates, to board and seize the opponent’s merchant vessels, where possible which led to a lot of inconvenience rising to combat and death.

The most important aspect of the war at sea was that the Royal Navy imposed an effective naval blockade, initially on the southern states then, once Napoleon was defeated in 1814, extending it to the entire seaboard. US import-export trade plummeted between 1811 and 1814 from $114 to $20 million.

The British also launched amphibious assaults on ports up and down the coast. In August 1814 they landed 4,000 men near Washington. Royal Marines and sailors destroyed a privateer, 17 gunboats, 13 merchant schooners and any dwellings which resisted. At the Battle of Blandenburg 2,600 British regulars whipped 6,000 American militia, sailors and regulars.

On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg (‘the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’), a British force led by Major General Robert Ross continued into Washington DC where they burned down the White House, the Capitol, Treasury and War Office, plus other military facilities. Another detachment of Brits took the port of Alexandria. Both forces seized vessels, arms and munitions as well as general loot, before falling back to the river, and so back to sea.

They tried something similar at Baltimore, the coastal base of America’s much-hated fleet of privateers, but were rebuffed by the strength of American defences.

Criticised by the opposition, British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool justified the burning as retaliation for a) December 1813 when withdrawing American forces turned the people of Niagara out of their houses into the snow then burned the town to the ground, the next day similarly burning Queenston to the ground b)  American destruction of the Parliament buildings and other public buildings in York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada, early in 1813 c) the Americans started the war.

In the south the British launched an amphibious attack on New Orleans which was skilfully defended by Major-General Andrew Jackson, winning the reputation which helped him twenty years later become president 1829-37.

War’s end

Diplomats in Europe had begun trying to end the war as soon as it started. The British made a concession on the trade embargos just before America declared war.

Both sides had many aims they were reluctant to abandon, but negotiations inched to a conclusion on Christmas Eve 1814, in the European city of Ghent.

The most fundamental war aim of America had been to seize ‘upper Canada’, hawks hoping to seize all of Canada. In this the war was what my kids call an epic fail. America gained no Canadian land whatsoever. Both sides agreed to set up a commission to finalise the border which has endured to this day.

The retention of British America – whose states came together to form the Dominion of Canada in 1867 – had two large consequences:

  1. It allowed the British Empire access to a wide range of North American goods – wheat, timber, furs – but within Imperial trade arrangements
  2. In 1914 and then in 1939 Canadian soldiers and resources played what this book calls a ‘vital’ role in reinforcing Britain as it entered the two world wars.

Despite having gained nothing that it set out to achieve – the British categorically refused to back down on the contentious issue of pressganging and the issue only went away because the war with Napoleon had ended – the American president, his party, and their supporters in the press all hailed the war as a great victory, with the handful of outright American victories, especially the defence of New Orleans, growing in legend and inaccuracy as the years passed.

The star-spangled banner

35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet Francis Scott Key had witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbour by Royal Navy ships during the Battle of Baltimore. He was inspired to write a poem about it, ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry” on September 14, 1814. It was quickly set to the tune of a song by a popular British writer, and became known as the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1931 it was recognised as the national anthem of America.

Summary

The Essential Histories lack much subtlety or nuance. There isn’t space. They’re only 90 or so pages long, and all of them have 2- or 3- or 4-page featurettes on quirky aspects of the conflict – here a section on the native American Black Hawk’s War, and another section profiling the experiences of the Anglican vicar of York (later to become Toronto) John Strachan, during the town’s siege and occupation by American forces (a fascinating account).

Given that there has to be an introduction, half a dozen pages on the background, and a similar amount on the outcome, and given that the Osprey books are generously illustrated with – wherever possible – contemporary pictures and full-page maps, there isn’t much room left for anything except a bald recital of the facts, namely a steady series of skirmishes and battles – on land, on the Great Lakes, on the Atlantic and around New Orleans – spaced over three fighting seasons, none of which led to a decisive knock-out victory.

It’s a handy introduction, but at some stage I’ll probably want to read a more in-depth account, probably the prize-winning one by the great Alan Taylor.


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery by Adam Hochschild (2005)

In all of human experience there was no precedent for such a campaign. (p.97)

Executive summary

Abolition was in two parts: abolishing the slave trade and abolishing slavery itself.

1. Abolishing the slave trade 

After decades when anybody suggesting that slavery be banned was considered a mad eccentric, the issue suddenly exploded into public consciousness in the years 1788 to 1793 when there was an extraordinary eruption of pamphlets, articles, petitions from every town and city in the kingdom, plays and polemics and debates in parliament, so that Hochschild is able to quote plenty of diarists and letter writers saying how heartily sick they are of every single dinner party or coffee house conversation being about nothing but abolitionism.

And then, just is it seemed poised to succeed in Parliament, the French Revolution broke out which led to two major events which set back abolition a decade:

  1. The outbreak of the largest slave rebellion anywhere, in the French sugar colony of St Domingue, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, in November 1791. This is a long story, in which both the French and the British sent armies which were eventually defeated, more accurately abandoned the war in the face of deaths from tropical sickness and the slave’s guerrilla tactics. But reports of the brutality on both sides undermined the image abolitionists had created of slaves as helpless, saintly victims.
  2. The French revolutionaries executed Louis XVI in January 1793 and declared war on Britain in February 1793. War always halts reforms. A nationwide burst of patriotism was accompanied by repressive laws banning seditious writings and political meetings. Not only that but abolitionism became ‘tainted’ by association with some of the wilder English Jacobins, who included it in calls to overthrow the monarchy, the House of Lords, universal male suffrage and so on.

The movement which might have led to the end of the slave trade in just 4 or five years from its inception in 1788, because of the interruption of the French revolutionary wars, ended up taking nearer to 20 years.

The movements’s representative in parliament, the small, correct and conservative MP William Wilberforce, introduced an abolition bill into each new sitting of parliament, but they were always swamped by the pressing urgency of measures to deal with the war and crises throughout the British Empire.

It was only after the Peace of Amiens of 1802 led to a pause in the war, that the abolitionists were able to rally. Although war with France resumed in 1803, a new burst of activity led to the final abolition of the slave trade in 1807. It became forbidden for British ships to carry slaves. Soon the Royal Navy was instructed to stop all ships carrying slaves of whatever nation, and confiscate them.

2. Abolishing slavery

There was then a long lull as Britain focused its energies on defeating Napoleon, first in 1814, then all over again in 1815 after he escaped from St Helena. The period 1815 to 1820 was characterised by immense social unrest in Britain caused by the mass unemployment of huge numbers of men who’d been serving in the army and navy simply being dumped back on the market, and also the social disruption of the industrial revolution.

The government responded with a whole series of repressive measures. Paul Foot’s biography of the poet Percy Shelley is a surprisingly thorough source of the repressive laws and the many working class activists who were arrested, convicted and generally shipped off to the new penal colony in Australia.

It was only in the 1820s with a new government, with better harvests, with working people finding more work, that the sense of crisis eased, and a new wave of young abolitionists took up the struggle, this time to abolish slavery altogether. In 1823, the Anti-Slavery Society was founded in London, members including Joseph Sturge, Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, Henry Brougham, Thomas Fowell Buxton with the women Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Jane Smeal, Elizabeth Pease, and Anne Knight.

The most interesting aspect of the story, in Hochschild’s telling, is that most of the running was made by these women. William Wilberforce was still there in Parliament. Thomas Clarkson was still the great collector of facts and information. The Quaker networks provided the basis of publicity and campaigning. But they took a cautious, gradualist approach. By contrast, a number of women and women’s groups pressed for immediate abolition. Most notable was Elizabeth Heyrick.

During the 1790s the first generation of abolitionists had organised a sugar boycott i.e. they stopped buying and using sugar. Heyrick went one further and went to grocers shops asking them not to stock it at all.

Again the story becomes entangled with a much bigger issue, which was the titanic struggle to pass the Reform Act of 1832 to reform Britain’s ludicrously out-of-date electoral system. Abolitionists put their energy into this struggle, and it was only after a reformed parliament had been elected in 1833, that direct campaigning for abolition continued and almost immediately was a success.

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery throughout the British Empire BUT it was in two phases: only slaves below the age of six were freed, all adult slaves had to continue working for their masters as ‘apprentices’.

Full and complete abolition – i.e. full and complete emancipation of British slaves – took place at midnight on 1 August 1838. Hochschild amply describes the celebrations.


Bury the Chains

This is a long, detailed, very readable and profoundly moving account of the movement to abolish slavery in Britain.

Some of Hochschild’s most interesting points are made in the introduction, namely:

  • in the 1780s, when the abolition movement got going, not just African slaves but maybe as many as three quarters of the world’s population was unfree
  • the abolition movement was the first mass civil society movement, not the product of a particular class or particular special interest group or trade – it joined all classes, all genders, all ages and all occupations across all the regions of Britain (‘Something new and subversive was making its first appearance: the systematic mobilisation of ublic opinion across the class spectrum.’ p.138)
  • it was the first such campaign in human history that was not motivated by self-interest; none of the campaigners stood to gain anything and they, and the British population as a whole, stood to lose out economically – but nonetheless the righteousness of the cause outweighed self-interest
  • the abolition movement invented, or brought to perfection, a whole range of campaigning tactics which are still used around the world

An unfree world

The first stirrings of the abolitionist movement occur during the American war of Independence (1775-1783), around 1780. This is where Hochschild begins his narrative (although some strands require stepping back a bit in time to explain the background and development of slavery, and of specific elements in the story, such as a brief history of the Quakers.)

Anyway, I found it riveting that the first few pages are devoted to explaining that most human beings in the world at that age, in 1780, were not free. Of the three groups of people in the Americas – natives, European immigrants, African slaves – most were slaves, in north America, the West Indies colonies of Britain, France, Spain and Holland, and in Spanish and Portuguese South America.

When native Americans fought each other they often took captives prisoner as slaves. the Aztec and Inca empires had seized conquered peoples as slaves. then the Spanish turned the entire population into peons to work for their European masters. but slavery was widespread in African kingdoms, too, and existed long before the Europeans touched the coast in the late 1400s. For centuries before that there had been a) a slave trade taking African slaves north to serve in Muslim countries of the Mediterranean and the heart of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East, and b) victorious African rulers routinely enslaved their defeated enemies. The condition of slavery, selling of slaves, slave trails and slave entrepots were established before the Europeans arrived.

Meanwhile, many peasants in Europe, especially in the East, were little more than serfs tied to the land and at the whim of their rich landowners. The enormous landmass of Russia was characterised by serfhood where illiterate peasants were tied to land, and bought and sold along with it. India and other parts of Asia, tens of millions of people were in outright slavery (‘tens of millions’, p.2), while tens of millions more lived in a form of debt bondage which tied them to specific owners. Hochschild doesn’t mention China, but I understand hundreds of millions of peasants lived in various forms of servitude.

Even in the most ‘civilised’ parts of Western Europe and north America, there was a deeply engrained social hierarchy, by which everyone deferred to those above them, and the aristocracy and landowners could use, whip, beat, punish and abuse their servants and staff.

18th century violence

Not only were most people either not-free, or lower down the pecking order of deferentiality, but the 18th century world was one of quite stupefying brutality. When you don’t know much you sort of think that the disgusting brutality meted out to slaves was uniquely bestial. But violence of every sort existed quite freely outwith the slave world. Ordinary men and women could be punished for simple misdemeanours, with the death penalty, or public whipping. As James Walvin’s book highlighted and as Hochschild, deaths among the crew members of slave ships were, proportionately higher than deaths among the slaves.

Any halfway fit man walking the streets of London, Portsmouth, Bristol and any other major port city was liable to be bought drinks till he was legless, or simply held up and seized by the notorious press gangs, then carted off to serve on a slave or Royal Navy ship.

Alan Taylor, in  American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, describes some atrocity happening in the 1700s and ironically remarks, ‘all this in the supposed “Age of Enlightenment”‘. But the whole point of the Age of the Enlightenment is that it was a movement to try and reform a fundamentally brutal, backward, obscurantist and reactionary society. It was light amid darkness. Of course the Age of Enlightenment was often brutal; that’s precisely what the relatively small number of philosophers, thinkers, poets, writers, artists and enlightened citizens were struggling against.

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789)

Execrable Human Traffick, or The Affectionate Slaves by George Morland (1789), according to Hochschild the first painting depicting the slave trade

The Quakers

This makes Britain’s 20,000 Quakers stand out all the more remarkably from all the social and belief systems of the Western world. For the Quakers believed that all people are equal – and put it into practice. They didn’t use any linguistic forms of deference, refused to say Mr or Sir or Your worship, insisted on only saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ since these were the non-deferential versions. They refused to fight in wars. They refused to take vows to any monarch or magistrate. They insisted their only allegiance was to God the Creator of All. (p.107)

And they believed not only that all men, but that all people are equal. Thus, with ramrod logic, Quakers were the only one of the countless religious denominations anywhere in the New World who spoke out against slavery in the 18th century. They refused to own slaves. If they came into possession of slaves through land deals, they promptly liberated their slaves and, in some cases, Hochschild says, paid them compensation.

Not only did the Anglican church fail in its duty to speak out against slavery, but the Church of England, was in fact a large owner of slaves through various companies and committees, notably the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Among others they owned the Codrington estate, the second largest slave estate on Jamaica. On the governing board, and therefore aware of their slave profits, were the Regius Professors of Divinity at Oxford and Cambridge and the Archbishop of Canterbury. All slaves working for the Society had the word SOCIETY branded into their chests with a red hot brand.

It was in 1783 that a group of Quakers set up the first committee to lobby for the end of slavery. They got nowhere because they were ignored as cranks. it was only when Anglican luminaries came on board that the powers that be were inclined to listen. The most important was the 25-year-old Divinity student Thomas Clarkson, who underwent what amounted to a religious conversion, deciding to devote his life to the abolitionist cause. Still it was symptomatic that when a new committee was formed in 1787, nine of the twelve members were Quakers.

Thomas Clarkson

For Hochschild the central character of the entire story is Thomas Clarkson, 6 feet tall, red haired, who was converted to the evils of slavery aged 25 and became an indefatigable campaigner and investigator. It was the investigations that mattered. In London, Bristol and Liverpool Clarkson spent months befriending slave ships captains, crews and merchants (where possible; many became firm enemies; on more than one occasion his life was threatened), gathering eye witness accounts of the brutality of the trade.

Using figures freely available from the authorities of the slave ports, Clarkson assembled statistics showing the appalling loss of life among the white crews of slave ships. As a proportion, more white sailors died on a slave journey, than slaves.

His aim was to refute one of the central the proslavery arguments, that the crews of slave ships provided a kind of rough apprenticeship for the Royal Navy. On the contrary, Thompson proved that most slave ship crews were press ganged, desperate to flee the ships, and only kept in place by punishments every bit as savage as those meted out to the slaves. He assembled copious testimony to white sailors being flogged, sometimes to death, put in chains, tied to the deck or thrown into tiny spaces belowships, and dying like flies.

He aimed to assemble the broadest possible case, showing that the slave trade degraded and brutalised everyone who came in touch with it. When he came across ship’s chandlers in Bristol or Liverpool openly selling chains, shackles and thumbscrews – implements of torture – he bought them as exhibits to show on his lecture tours, he sent accounts of them to the Times and to Parliament.

Not only did they use negative arguments against slavery, but tried to formulate positive arguments emphasising the positive results that would stem from ending it.

One of these was the attempt to prove that free trade with African nations and peoples would yield larger profit that the not only brutal, but also ruinously wasteful slave trade.

In his visits to the slave ports, Clarkson came across products from Africa and began collecting them into what became known as Clarkson’s box. These included carved ivory and woven cloth, along with produce such as beeswax, palm oil and peppers.

Clarkson could see the craftsmanship and skill that went to produce many of the items and used them to refute the notion that blacks were savages, little more than animals – quite clearly they were not, they were craftsmen and women of great skill. The idea that their creators could be enslaved was horrifying.

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society (1795) by Josiah Wedgwood and William Hackwood

Campaign tactics

How did the abolitionists achieve this? It’s a long story which first of all requires a good sense of the nature of British society in the 1770s and 1780s, which is why it takes a book to tell. But Hochschild also points out how the abolitionists pioneered loads of techniques which have endured to this day:

  • posters
  • pamphlets
  • lecture tours
  • investigative journalism designed to stir people to action
  • books and book tours
  • mass petitions
  • targeting individual MPs
  • lobbying parliament
  • organising boycotts of sugar

Hochschild devotes a couple of pages to the origin of one of the most powerful icons of the movement and what he calls ‘one of the most widely reproduced political graphics of all time’. The chairman of an abolitionist branch Clarkson had set up in Plymouth sent Clarkson a diagram of the slave ship Brooks. Clarkson seized on its importance and worked with the committee’s publisher and designer to expand and fine tune it.

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

Diagram of the slave ship Brooks (1814 version)

The diagram quickly began appearing in newspapers, magazines, books and pamphlets. The abolitionists and thousands of other supporters around the country hung it on their walls as a constant reminder.

Morality trumped self interest

The British decision to abolish slavery was taken against the economic interest of Britain.

Not only this but many communities and economic sectors which stood to be specifically damaged by the decision, nonetheless supported abolition. It was, therefore, a decision taken on moral and religious principles, and these trumped economic self interest.

Scholars estimate that abolishing the slave trade and then slavery cost the British people 1.8 per cent of their annual national income over more than a century, many times the percentage most wealthy countries today give in foreign aid. (p.5)

Why 1788?

Precursors, events leading up, personal conversions to anti-slavery of key personnel. But why did it suddenly catch fire, and become a country-wide phenomenon in 1788-89? In 1780, if you had suggested banning slavery, everyone would have thought you were mad. Nobody discussed it, it didn’t appear in newspapers, magazines, parliamentary debates or coffee house conversations.

By 1788 Britain was aflood with a tsunami of anti-slavery propaganda,: petitions flooded parliament as never before, thirteen thousand signed one in Glasgow, 20,000 one in Manchester, books, pamphlets, lectures, sermons, newspaper and magazine articles – it was everywhere, the burning topic of conversation it was like the Brexit of its day.

But why? Why did the campaign to abolish slavery spread like wildfire and unite all classes, regions, towns and cities so suddenly? And why in Britain and Britain only? After all, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Holland and Sweden all owned colonies in north or south America which employed large numbers of slaves. There was no movement to abolish slavery in any of those six other European nations. Why not?

Hochschild gives quite a list of secondary causes, before he unleashes what he thinks is the prime and main cause (pp.213-225) The secondary causes amount to a thorough profile of British late-eighteenth century society and its economic, technological, social and political advancement beyond all its European neighbours.

  • massive investment in well-kept toll roads which made widespread travel easier in Britain than anywhere else in Europe
  • the world’s best postal service
  • more newspapers than any other country, and more provincial newspapers which passed on developments and debates in the capital to the remotest provinces
  • the coffeehouse, a British institution in every city and town, which had up to date copies of all the magazines and newspapers, and where news and issues of the day could be debated
  • more than half the population of Britain was literate because Protestantism insists that each individual can read the Bible in their own language
  • libraries in every town and city, with over a hundred in London alone
  • well over a thousand bookstores, which often offered hsopitality while you sat and read
  • no censorship; anyone could set up a printing press and publish what they liked compare with, for example, the 178 censors who censored everything written in France before it was published
  • debating societies which became widespread during the 1770s

So although fewer than 5% of the population could vote, an extraordinary number of people knew what was being debated and discussed by parliament, read and understood the issues of the day.

  • The rule of law: unlike most continental nations, Britain had age-old common law which had been continually influenced by trial by a jury. Obviously the law was weighted towards the rich, towards aristocrats and landowners. But in theory at least, a labourer could take a lord to court and win. After the Somerset case of 1772, the leading abolitionist Granville Sharp helped a number of slaves take their masters to court and won.

These are all mighty fine aspects of British society circa 1790, but none of these buy themselves amount to a sufficient cause.

The primary cause, Hochschild thinks, is the uniquely British institution of press-ganging. He gives four or five pages describing in some detail the mind-blowing examples of the powers of the press gang to kidnap any man whatsoever between about 14 and 40 and whisk them off to a life of brutally hard work and vicious discipline aboard the Royal Navy’s vast fleet. Grooms could be kidnapped at the altar, in front of bride, vicar and congregation, and whisked off. Some gangs were so large they fought pitched battles with customs officials or soldiers. The pages he devotes to pressganging are quite an eye-opener.

But his point is that many Britons had experienced, or knew of, a form of slavery themselves; knew an institution whereby perfectly free young men could be kidnapped and sold into a life little better than slavery, subject to appallingly brutal punishments, with a fair certainty of death from disease, rotten food or combat.

Alongside all its positive aspects, British society also contained this brutal institution which created a widespread sense of grievance and resentment. It was this feeling (among others) which the abolitionists were able to tap into.

Personally, I find this theory a bit far-fetched. I would have thought there were several other social trends which he mentions elsewhere but not in his list of causes, leading which was the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards which led to the rise of non-conformist sects, chief among them the Methodists. This movement converted people rich and poor to the belief that society at large only paid lip service to Christian values, and that individuals really had to experience the grace of God to be born again.

And then to live pure and upright and pious lives. It was to these newly awakened consciences that much abolitionist propaganda appealed, and it is notable that non-conformists – building on the heroic work of the Quakers – were at the forefront of disseminating and spreading the movement. Fascinating and eminently readable though his book is, I don’t think Hochschild quite drills down into the immense spirituality and religiosity of the era, and how that influence every thought and feeling of millions and millions of Brits.

Summary

This is an absolutely vast subject, because the campaign, in total, stretched across fifty years, and was hugely affected by two great historical events, the French Revolution and the twenty years war it led to, and the immense struggle to pass the 1832 Reform Act – not to mention acknowledging the huge social changes caused by the industrial revolution which was trundling along in the background.

This is a really brilliant book which probably comes as close to doing the subject justice as one volume can.

Despite the horror of much of the subject matter, it manages to remain a humane and inspiring story, because it shows how evil can be conquered, and it shows how even when a wicked system or institution is in place, millions and millions of good-hearted people can rise above their own self interest to organise and work for its overthrow.


Related links

Related reviews

Black Ivory (2) by James Walvin (1992)

Without the slaves there would have been no sugar and without sugar there would have been no national addiction to coffee and, later, to tea. (p.4)

I bought Walvin’s book 20 years ago, read and found it as unsatisfactory then as I do now. He uses a thematic approach to grouping the material in order to loosely follow the slave experience. Thus the opening chapters describe the ways slaves were seized in Africa – in war or expressly for slavery – marched to the coast, he describes the coastal slaving forts, the Atlantic crossing, the slave auctions in America or the Caribbean, and then life and death on the different types of plantation.

It’s a valid approach but the downside is it is very bitty. It creates a kind of magpie effect, picking out dazzling facts and incidents from Barbados in 1723 or Georgia in 1805 or Jamaica in 1671, fragmenting your understanding.

Not only is there little sense of chronological development and change, but some of the incidents he chooses are in reverse chronological order, so that the chapter about slave rebellions opens with the massive slave rebellion in Haiti in the 1790s, treating it at some length. But a) to do so he has bent his own rules since Haiti – then called Saint Domingue – was a French colony and everywhere else Walvin restricts himself strictly to British colonies.

And b) he then works backwards from the Haiti revolt, to describe far earlier uprisings from the 1600s onwards, for example the Stono uprising in South Carolina in 1739, or jumps forward to uprisings near the end of the period – Nat Turner’s revolt in Virginia, 1831, or the 1822 Charleston uprising, and then back to Tacky’s Revolt in Jamaica in 1760, then forward to the Baptist Uprising on Jamaica in 1831. It all ends up being quite confusing. Much more sensible would have been to try and show what the slaves cumulatively learned about organising uprisings, and what the authorities learned about suppressing them.

He repeatedly refers to the differences between plantation culture in the West Indies and on the American mainland, but never makes them as clear as Alan Taylor does in  his outstanding book American Colonies: The Settlement of North America to 1800 (sugar grew best in the West Indies, tobacco in the Chespeake Bay area (Virginia, Georgia) and Europe-style agriculture from New York north into New England). It was entirely these agricultural facts which gave rise to the intensive slave labour of huge sugar plantations in the Indies, to large but not quite so vast tobacco slave plantations in the South, and to the relatively slave-free, family-run farms of the middle and northern states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, New England).

Most irritating of all, he has a fondness for rhetorical questions, which just seem lame. It’s as if a historian of the Holocaust kept stopping every few pages to sigh, ‘But where are the memorials to all the Jews that died at Belsen?’ or ‘How can we imagine the feelings of the Jews of Jewish mothers as they carried their babies into the gas chambers?’

The facts are quite horrifying enough. They don’t need lachrymose embellishments, such as:

When Lord Mansfield died, in March 1793, he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey… But where are the memorials to those thousands whose lives were touched by the career of England’s Chief Justice? (p.22)

But how many watery miles would always remain between the slaves he had sold in Antigua and their loved ones in Africa? (p.43)

Nuggets

Nonetheless, the book does have loads of nuggets of information tucked away in it, and I thought I’d extract and list ones which stood out for me, as an aide-memoire:

Drinks The new fashionable drinks of the late 1600s and early 1700s – coffee, tea and chocolate – are all naturally bitter. They need sweetener. Sugar. Grown by slaves. What a paradox that a product from China (later imported into India and Ceylon), sweetened by tea from the West Indies, grown by slaves imported from Africa, became an addiction in cold northern Europe.

Puddings During the 18th century the British became famous for their puddings which required prodigious amounts of sugar: hot puddings, cold puddings, steamed puddings, baked puddings, pies, tarts, creams, charlottes and bettys, trifles and fools, syllabubs and tansys, junkets and ices, milk pudding, suet pudding, custards and cakes, rice pudding (rice grown by slaves in Georgia and Carolina, sugar grown by slaves in the Indies).

Somerset v Stewart (1772) Slavery had never been authorized by statute in England and Wales, and Lord Mansfield decided that it was also unsupported in common law. Lord Mansfield narrowly limited his judgment to the issue of whether a person, regardless of being a slave, could be removed from England against their will, and said they could not.

Nonetheless, the case is one of the most significant milestones in the abolitionist campaign.

It aroused enormous interest and political controversy. (p.305)

Mansfield had in his own household a black slave, Elizabeth Dido, born to a slave woman captured aboard a Spanish ship by a British pirate, who got her pregnant and passed the baby on to his relative Mansfield, who brought her up. In his will Mansfield specified that Dido be freed and given an annuity for life.

The Zong case (1781) The Zong was a Liverpool-based slave ship. In September 1780 it departed the coast of Africa for Jamaica with 470 slaves on board. 60 Africans and seven crew had died from disease on the crossing when, on November 29, Captain Luke Collingwood called a meeting of his officers to decide whether to throw the sick Africans overboard in order to preserve the others and save drinking water. 131 live slaves were thrown overboard. the owners of the Zong, Gregson, claimed the loss of their slaves (£30 each) from their insurers, Gilbert. The insurers refused to pay, The case was taken to court and provoked a storm of outrage. Another milestone towards abolition.

A depiction of the Zong massacre, November 1781

A depiction of the Zong massacre, November 1781

John Newton John Newton, later in life an ardent abolitionist and author of the hymn Amazing Grace was, early in life, captain of a slave ship and responsible for punishing and reprimanding uppity slaves.

The Middle Passage It surprised me that, as a proportion, more of the white crews died in the Atlantic crossing, than the slaves. I have seen the diagrams of the slaves packed tight below decks hundreds of times, and they have been recycled in numerous works of art as symbols of unprecedented suffering. Who knew, that as a proportion, more whites died than blacks!

All Souls Barbados was the most densely planted and cultivated sugar island in the West Indies. The largest slave owner was Chistopher Codrington. It was his land which funded the establishment of the Codrington Library at All Souls College, Oxford. It comes as no surprise to learn that in our slave-conscious times, the College is setting up a scholarship to help West Indian students.

West Indian output Between the 1660s and the abolition of slavery the African population of the West Indian sugar islands rose to 1 million. During that period over 10 million tonnes of sugar were produced.

Task work Slaves were set tasks and, once these were complete, were free to tend their own gardens, practice artisan skills and so on. In fact, one of the biggest learnings from Walvin is that many many slaves had a surprising amount of freedom and agency.

Many were trained in a very wide range of skills, from artisan work such as coopers, carpenters and smiths, to work gang overseers, to book keepers and accountants, while off to one side of field work was an entire hierarchy of domestic servants from lowliest char to senior butler and household supervisor.

I thought the chapter about ‘runaways’ would be about desperate conspiracies to break shackles, get through the barbed wire fence and escape but this is completely wrong. Turns out many, many slaves had jobs which naturally took them far afield, taking all kinds of goods to local markets, fetching and carrying form towns or neighbouring plantations, and even operating boats and ships to carry plantation produce down river to collection centres and big towns.

Slaves were much more mobile than we might imagine. (p.165)

Some slaves’ jobs required them to be absent from the plantation for weeks on end, and so it turns out that the definition of ‘runaway’ is ragged round the edges. Many slaves didn’t ‘run away’ so much as stay away longer than a job warranted – for all kinds of human reasons, because they had a sweetheart to visit (or distant spouses and children they’d been separated from), to gamble and get drunk.

Free blacks Similarly, it is startling to have it brought home how many free Africans lived in the slave areas, specially of the Deep South, but also sailed the seas as free sailors, alongside white sailors, ending up in ports wherever European ships anchored – which is to say, right round the world. Striking that Olaudah Equiano, who left a detailed account of his life, worked aboard a British ship which made an expedition to the Arctic in 1773.

If there is one really pervasive message to Walvin’s book, it is the counter-intuitive one that slaves – captured enslaved Africans and their descendants – were emphatically not passive helpless victims, but adapted to their appalling new circumstances, spread into all walks of life available, acquired skills, saved up and earned their freedom, set up businesses and schools, and sailed the seven seas alongside their European one-time captors.

As Walvin puts it, everywhere historians look, they see

the growth of an independent slave culture, linked to the world of plantation slavery but operating and thriving at an economically autonomous level. (p.115)

The black African element not only underpinned the wealth of the British Empire in the 1700s, but was everywhere visible in that empire.

It’s news to me that there was a black drummer in the Scottish court in 1507, that Henry VII and Henry VIII employed a black trumpeter, that Elizabeth I had black musicians and dancers. At a celebration ball in London in 1764 all the musicians were black.

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Pierre Mignard (1682)

Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth by Pierre Mignard (1682)

The majority of slaves were imported into the West Indies but they dropped like flies, because of poor food, appalling conditions, and being worked to death by the brutal requirements of sugar production. Fewer slaves were imported onto the American continent, but more of them survived because working tobacco was relatively less onerous, food and conditions and, above all, disease, was better.

Music Apparently, it’s racist to say that Africans have a special feel for music and rhythm, but the testimony of slave owners and visitors to plantations is full of evidence for the slaves’ fondness for music of all sorts, from chanted and sung words alone, to the accompaniment of instruments made from whatever came to hand, through to full proficiency on European instruments like the violin.

Christianity I’ve met no end of progressives, especially feminists, who think that Christianity’s influence was and is and can only ever be calamitous. In some respects this may be true, but Walvin has a chapter ramming home the fact that it was the Great Religious Awakening from the 1750s onwards, and the spread of Protestant missionaries throughout the slave colonies, the conversion of many slaves to Christianity, and then the widespread dissemination of Christian anti-slavery pamphlets, sermons and so on, from the 1770s onwards, which played a huge role in creating widespread support for abolition. The role of Christianity in freeing the slaves was ‘seismic’ (p.194).

Phases of abolition Anyone familiar with the subject knows this, but it’s worth emphasising that abolition came in waves. In the 1780s there were attempts to rein in what were becoming the well-publicised excesses of plantation owners in the colonies. Parliament passed laws restricting the types of punishment (for example the number of lashes) they could dole out.

Phase one was the campaign from the end of the American War of Independence (1783) to abolition in 1807. This first abolition was the abolition of the slave trading by ship. From this date no British ship was allowed to carry slaves. Parliament and the campaigners expected that  this would result in an improvement in the conditions of slaves in the West Indies, and set up a demographic register to monitor change.

In the event, the evidence came in that it improved nothing. The condition of slaves in the Indies remained as miserable as ever. After the Wars with France ended in 1815, there was a period of intense political repression in Britain. But this slackened in the 1820s and a new generation called for further reform and not just of slavery.

The new generation chafed against the domination of the landed gentry under the old franchise. The industrialists of the north chafed against having no political power to match their new wealth. Apologists for capitalism insisted that Free Trade was the great panacea which would drive the British economy. Christian missionaries provided a ceaseless supply of literature describing the appalling conditions and sufferings of the ongoing slave colonies.

This was the second wave of abolitionism, led by a new generation, which called for the abolition of slavery on moral, Christian, but also economic and political grounds. Free market economists insisted that slavery distorted markets, businesses and wages, thus hampering the growth of trade.

The Parliament which eventually abolished the condition of slavery throughout the British Empire was the reformed parliament which resulted from the Great reform Act of 1832, the struggles for which brought the country to the brink of armed insurrection.

On 1 August 1834 all slaves under 6 were freed. Adults became ‘apprentices’ and were still forced to work for their owners for 40 hours a week, for nothing, for a period of 6 years. Some islands decided to free their slaves entirely instead. Many of the colonies had reacted to the unrelenting pressure from the church and the mother country against slavery, by steadily releasing slaves already, especially if they were old, ill or unable to work. Slavery was always first and foremost an economic consideration.

Full abolition only came at midnight on 31 July 1838. Freed slaves across the West Indies held marches and parades, made speeches, attended church, decked their houses and towns with flags and bunting.

The British enforce the slave trade Having seen the light, the British became enthusiastic opponents of the slave trade wherever it remained. It became a standing order of the Royal Navy to confiscate slave ships. Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.

American slavery But we no longer had jurisdiction over the United States. By 1860 there were some 4 million slaves in the USA, far more than had been liberated from the British colonies. Their struggle for liberation, and the epic civil war it prompted, is another story.


Related links

Reviews of other books on American history

The Hard Way by Lee Child (2006)

‘Very tall, heavily built, like a real brawler. He’s in his late thirties or early forties. Short fair hair, blue eyes.’ (Patti Joseph’s description of Reacher, p.91)

You remember the way episodes of Friends were titled ‘The one with…’ and then specified the core element of that week’s show. You can do the same with the 22 Jack Reacher novels. This is the one where Jack is hired to solve a kidnapping, which turns out to be much more than it seems.

The cafe He is sitting at a street cafe in New York when he sees a guy cross the street, get into a Merc and drive off. Nothing special in that. Next morning he’s at the same cafe when he’s approached by a tough looking man and persuaded to come with him to meet his boss, Mr Lane. Turns out Mr Lane’s wife has been kidnapped, the kidnappers demanded a million in cash to be left in a car at that location. Lane agreed, had one of his people fill a bag with a million, put it in the boot of the car and drive it to the arranged drop zone. This was the car which Reacher watched the kidnapper cross the street, get into and drive away. Without knowing it or intending to be, Reacher is a key witness.

The mercenaries Reacher tells them what he knows. ‘Them’? Yes, Lane runs a group of mercenaries (‘a private military corporation, p.450, very tough ex-Army, ex-Marines, U.S. Navy SEALs, British SAS etc. In fact, he analyses their plight so logically and compellingly that Lane hires him on the spot to be a consultant to help manage the situation.

But there is, of course, more to the situation than meets the eye. It takes about 450 pages for Reacher to nail the real story. Pages during which he, as usual:

  • acquires a small circle of helpers and supporters
  • who themselves have privileged access to FBI/Army/Homeland Security sources
  • and manages to wangle financial backing to pay for his taxis and trains and planes

Not the first time Firstly, it turns out this is the second time a Lane wife has been kidnapped. His first wife, Anne, was kidnapped five years earlier and, although Lane paid the ransom, was found shot dead in New Jersey.

The Dakota Building Reacher quickly discovers that some people suspect the first kidnap was a front, a put-up job. Lane’s base is the famous Dakota Building, next to Central Park, where John Lennon lived and outside which he was shot (Yoko Ono and bodyguards makes a small appearance in the book, walking by Reacher in the lobby).

Patti Joseph Outside the building he is approached by the first wife’s sister, Patti. She is convinced the first kidnap was a sham, and that Lane had her sister murdered. As the book progresses Reacher uncovers the evidence to prove this is true. Lane instructed the member of his inner circle, Knight, who usually drove her around, to return to base and tell everyone he’d dropped her off shopping as usual, but in fact to take her out to New Jersey and shoot her. Then paid someone to fake the ransom calls.

Lane had his first wife mudered Why? The first Mrs Lane had come to realise Lane was a psychopath, and had told him she wanted to leave him. Which hurt his ego so much he had her eliminated. Although Knight – who knew all this – was loyal to his boss, on the mercenaries’ next job – to defend the government of Burkina Faso from rebels – Lane contrived a situation whereby he ordered Knight and his best friend among the mercenaries, Hobart, to hold a forward post against the advancing army, Lane then ordered his main force to retreat, abandoning Knight and Hobart to the African rebel soldiers. The aim was to ensure Knight was killed. Hobart was just collateral damage.

Detective Brewer The first wife’s sister, Patti Joseph, tells Reacher all this. She has been closing a close watch on the Dakota Building for years, photographing who goes in and out, keeping a log of the movements of all of Lane’s central circle of mercs, for years. Is that obsessive or is she onto something? She phones in her results to a NYPD detective named Brewer. When Reacher meets Brewer the latter admits he humours Patti, partly because something might come of her efforts, mostly because she’s a pretty chick.

FBI agent Pauling Turns out Brewer passes on Patti’s observations to a third party, Lauren Pauling, an ex FBI agent who was part of the original FBI investigation of the kidnapping of Lane’s first wife and has felt oppressed by guilt for five years that her and her colleagues screwed up the investigation and allowed the first wife to be killed. She is still interested in the case because she hopes evidence will surface to prove it was Lane who killed the wife, and not the kidnappers who did it because the FBI and the cops made their involvement too obvious.

So who is carrying out the current kidnapping, five years later, of the second Mrs Lane, Kate Lane, a tall, slender, blonde, beautiful model, and her daughter by a previous marriage, Jade (also ‘a truly beautiful child’, p.4240?

Pauling becomes Reacher’s sidekick Reacher develops a close working relationship with Pauling, now a freelance investigator. She has a useful contact in the Homeland Security administration. Together they develop a close working relationship and respect for each other, Pauling becoming the person Reacher bounces his theories and ideas off, and who accompanies him on his investigations around New York.

Investigations They investigate the house where the kidnapper insisted the keys to each of the cars containing ransom money be dropped through the letterbox. it is empty. After clever detective work the pair track down the apartment the kidnapper used to oversee the dropping off place for the ransoms. They then manage to locate the apartment where Kate and Jade were kept hostage, though it’s now empty.

The man who doesn’t speak For a long middle stretch of the book, based on eye witness accounts of neighbours and people who sold the kidnapper bits of furniture, they establish his appearance (non-descript white male) but the standout fact is that he never talks. From several hints they develop the theory that he can’t talk and from descriptions of what’s happened to other white mercenaries captures in Africa, that this may be because his tongue was cut out by the rebels.

Africa They think it was one of the two men Lane abandoned in Burkina Faso, Hobart or Knight. Using Pauling’s contacts in Homeland Security to identify people who’ve flown back from Africa recently, and then another contact with access to all kinds of databases, they track down the apartment of Hobart’s sister, which turns out to be conveniently close to the cafe, and random-money-dropping-off point in Downtown Manhattan.

There’s a very tense moment when they crack their way into the shabby apartment building and climb the squeaking stairs, at pains to be silent in case the kidnapper they’re seeking hears them, and has time to harm or shoot his hostages, Kate and Jade.

Hobart So the reader is surprised and shocked when they kick open the apartment door and find …. a washed-out shabby woman, Hobart’s sister, making soup, and that Hobart himself is a limbless cripple propped up on the sofa. It is Hobart, he was a member of Lane’s mercenary gang, he was abandoned by Lane, he was captured by the rebel African soldiers, and held captive for five long years during which he barely survived the starvation and disease and, once a year, they brought him and other prisoners out of their cells into an arena of baying warriors, and asked whether he wanted his left hand, right hand, left foot, or right foot hacked off with a machete – and whether he then wanted it seared in boiling tar, or left to bleed out.

Hobart is in a pitiful state. He is clearly not the kidnapper, or the man who rented the apartments or who Reacher saw drive away the ransom car right at the start.

But he does confirm that his fellow merc and prisoner, Knight, did carry out the execution of Lane’s first wife, under Lane’s instructions, then helped the fiction that it was a kidnap.

Reacher and Pauling have sex Later that night, Pauling expresses to Reacher what a vast relief it is to her, to have confirmed that it was not her professional screw-up which had led to the first wife’s death. She was dead before the FBI was even contacted. To celebrate, she and Reacher have his usual athletic, fighting-with-a-bear, championship sex.

She is now his lover and his close associate in the investigation.

The Taylor theory There are more dead ends and deliberate false trails, but the main focus of attention now shifts to Taylor. This man was in Lane’s inner circle of mercenaries, and was the guy who drove Kate Lane to Bloomingdale’s on the day of the kidnapping.  The assumption was that he was iced almost immediately by someone getting into the stationary car and pointing a gun at the women. He’ll have forced Taylor to drive wherever they wanted him to go and then killed him.

Child has planted this false version of events in our minds by having Reacher ask not one but two of Lane’s mercs to speculate how they think the kidnapping went down, and both think it happened like that. This version of events had also been confirmed when Pauling’s cop contact, Brewer, told her the body of a white man had been found floating off a dock in mid-town Manhattan.

Now Pauling and Reacher revisit this story and the first thing they establish is that the ‘floater’ is not Taylor. Wrong height to begin with. Taylor is still alive.

So now Pauling and Reacher develop the theory that Kate and Jade were kidnapped by a disgruntled member of Lane’s inner circle, Taylor, the very driver entrusted with her safety. He pulled out a gun, told her and Jade to shut up, drove them to a safe house, tied them up, made the ransom phone calls and pick ups. He’ll have needed an associate so they spend a lot of time thinking through who that could be.

Reacher and Lane In case I haven’t made it clear, all this time – throughout this entire process – Reacher is nominally under contract to Lane to find the kidnappers. From that first meeting in the Dakota Building, Lane offered Reacher first a payment of $25,000 to find Kate and the kidnapper. Reacher is free to go off and roam the city, make his own investigations, contact whoever he likes, but periodically he has to go back to Lane’s apartment, filled with half a dozen surly mercs, and update him on progress.

Reacher sits with the others when the ransom demands come through. He sits with the others when the second call comes through asking for confirmation that Lane has the cash, and then giving details of the pickup. And then he sits in suspense with the others waiting for a confirmation call that the money was received, and – hopefully – that Kate is going to be released.

The character of Lane and the mercs Since the kidnapper ends up calling for three separate payments, each of these scenes is very tense. It also gives Reacher plenty of time to get to know Lane, to witness his psychotic rages, and to see the hold he has over the other mercs who are strong trained men but each of them, in fact, failures in the military, in various ways in need to being led, and prepared to do anything for The Boss.

When there is no call back after the third and final payment is made, Reacher along with the others begins to fear the worst. That the kidnapper has killed the girls and fled. Child reiterates this idea again and again, having Reacher emphasise that the majority of kidnappings end in murder of the victims, and that the first 24 hours are key. Every hour after that increases the likelihood of failure.

A bounty on Taylor As the truth sinks in that the girls are probably dead, Lane increases the bounty he will pay Reacher to $1 million. Since he has kept Lane informed of his investigations, Lane, Reacher, Pauling and the reader all now think the kidnapping was carried out by Taylor the driver, who faked his own death, held the women hostage in Downtown Manhattan, collected the money three times, killed them, and has absconded.

Reacher now clicks into Revenge Mode. He knows Lane is a louse, a psychopath who probably had  his first wife murdered and abandoned his men to terrible fates in Africa. So he’s not doing it for Lane at all. He vows to track down Taylor for the sake of the women, for Kate and Jade. In the apartment they have now identified as Taylors, which they found empty and abandoned, Reacher noticed one of the speed dial phone numbers was to a number in Britain. He guesses it’s of a close relative.

The novel moves to England

All this has taken about 350 pages. For the last 150 pages the setting switches to England, for 20 or so pages to London, but then to Norfolk, where Pauling and Reacher track Taylor down to his sister’s farm.

We know that Child – real name James Grant – is himself English. We know that he lives in New York, so we can guess that the extremely detailed descriptions of Reacher and Pauling’s investigative walks around Downtown Manhattan reflect Child’s own detailed knowledge of the area.

It adds a different, not exactly literary but psychological element – maybe a hint of tongue-in-cheek – to the English section of the book, to know that Child is himself English, but pretending to write as an American. So every description in this section is written by an Englishman masquerading as an American writing about a fictional American trying to pretend to fit in with the local Brits.

Thus Child’s description of Reacher walking into a rural pub in Norfolk is layered with ironies, as the Englishman Child imagines what it would be like for an American like Reacher to walk into a pub, and then to try and remember his own (Reacher’s own) days in the U.S. Army when he was stationed in England. All this results in Reacher ordering ‘a pint of best’ while his New York colleague and lover, Pauling, is used to point out all the quaint quirks and oddities of English life.

(The two most notable of these are that a) all the streets are absolutely festooned with signs and painted symbols giving instructions about every element of your driving, ‘the nanny state in action’ and b) London is a vast octopus extending its tendrils into the country for miles and miles, making it impossible to get into or out of at any speed.)

Reacher has been promised $1 million if he can deliver Taylor to Lane. Through British police contacts they track down Taylor, confirming he took a flight from New York JFK, arrived at Heathrow and then using a different tack to establish the whereabouts of his sister. How? Using the speed dial phone number Reacher noticed in Taylor’s New York apartment. This locates Taylor’s sister to a farm in Norfolk. Reacher and Pauling hire a car and drive there, locate the village, and the farm and park in the early morning with binoculars, waiting for Taylor, his sister, her husband and little girl to exit the farmhouse, which they conveniently do a few hours later.

They had already alerted Lane that Taylor was in England, and Lane and his crew are en route on a transatlantic flight. Sighting and identity confirmed, Reacher and Pauling drive back to London to meet Lane and his goons in the Park Lane hotel.

Lane doesn’t just want to kill Taylor. He explains how he is going to torture him slowly to death. Reacher is revolted as ever. A few seats away in the lobby of the hotel, a mother is trying to quiet down her restless squabbling kids. One of them throws an old doll at her brother, which misses and skids across the floor hitting Reacher’s foot. he looks down at it and has a blinding revelation.

In a flash he realises what has been wrong with the investigation all along. In a blinding moment he realises he has made a seismic error of judgement and that his entire understanding of the case is not only wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Why? What vital clues have he and Pauling (and the reader) missed in the last 400 pages? What can it be which totally transforms the situation? Why does he excuse himself from Lane for a moment, walk as if to the toilets, but instead hurtle down into the underground car park, call Pauling to meet him, jump into the hire car, and then drive like a maniac back to Norfolk?

What is the real secret behind the kidnapping of Kate and Jade Lane?

That would be telling. It’s an expertly constructed book with many twists and false trails, tense moments, and sudden surprises. I read it in a day. Take it on your next long train or plane trip or to read by a pool. Very entertaining.


Elements of a Jack Reacher novel

Violence

Each Jack Reacher novel contains what you could call workaday American cop thriller violence – fighting, shootouts and so on. But each one also contains an element which pushes it to the next level of psychopathic cruelty. Hannibal Lector with his advanced and cynical sadism, made his debut appearance in 1986, instantly raising the stakes for any thriller writer who wanted to make an impact. Maybe pulp fiction has always been needlessly cruel, but it’s certainly a key element in the Reacher mix.

In this novel there are two sadistic element:

  1. Hobart’s own account of being held for five years in an African prison and, after the initial beatings and tortures, being selected once a year, on his birthday, to have one of his hands or feet amputated by machete and then the stump dipped in bubbling hot tar.
  2. Lane’s threats to his wives. We learn that he had threatened the second wife, Kate, that if she ever tried to leave him, he would break little Jade’s hymen… with a potato peeler. The idea is to put him beyond the pale, to establish him as not just a bad man, but a monster.

Reacher’s revenge

I’ve read interviews where Child makes it quite clear that Reacher’s motivaiton in every book is always revenge. This means that, from the author’s point of view, he always has to construct a plot in which someone reasonable innocent has been wronged, damaged or killed. That’s the trigger Reacher needs to go into obsessive Search and Destroy mode i.e. the mode which most entertains the hunter-killer in all of us.

In the first book in the series, Killing Floor, Reacher’s brother is brutally killed by the counterfeiting ring he is investigating. That’s all it takes. Reacher is then on a mission to identify and kill them all, and the fact that one of them turns out to be psychopathically cruel, only bolsters the righteousness of Reacher’s cause.

In this, the tenth novel in the series, the Person To Be Avenged feels a little more forced. The ostensible kidnappees are Lane’s second wife and child, Kate and Jade Allen. When the kidnappers fail to return them after receiving payment, everyone assumes they’re dead and Reacher makes a point of telling several people on his team, several times, that he’s doing all this for them.

‘Kate and Jade are probably already dead.’
‘Then I’ll make someone pay.’ (p.169)

‘They’re dead. You said so yourself.’
‘Then they need a story. An explanation. The who, the where, the why. Everyone ought to know what happened to them. They shouldn’t be allowed to just go, quietly. Someone needs to stand up for them.’
‘And that’s you?’
‘I play the hand I’m dealt. No use whining about it.’
‘And?’
‘And they need to be avenged.’ (p.211)

Two hundred pages later, Edward Lane’s second wife spells out the morality, or the psychological logic of the plots, even more clearly, describing her husband, Edward Lane, who we, by now, have read ample testimony that he is a twisted sadist.

‘He deserves whatever he gets, Mr Reacher. He’s truly a monster.’ (p.439)

That is the sentiment which gives completely free rein to Reacher to use whatever force and violence is necessary, to abandon all scruples, the premise that justifies the fiercest Old Testament unflinching vengeance. It is the sentiment which provides the underpinning to all the books in the series.

The bad guys are not just crooks pulling a caper, ho ho, like in Ocean’s 11. They always include psychopaths and sadists whose extreme cruelty, in return, justifies Reacher’s use of unforgiving, maximum force.

Expertise

Reacher is master of all forms of combat and weaponry. But also capable in all elements of strategic and tactical awareness. In this book he is working alongside some very well-trained mercenaries and we are continually reminded of their army training in terms of strategy and combat training.

This rises to a climax in the final bloody shootout of the book, where a wealth of army training is invoked by Reacher and his antagonists. At some points Reacher novels almost become army textbooks in unarmed and/or armed combat, and you wonder how closely Child refers to such source books. At other moments they sound like almost cliches from a collection titled How To Be a Hard Man.

He never sat any other way than with his back to a wall. (p.179)

His knowledge of the street layout, and traffic patterns, of Downtown and Mid-Town Manhattan is demonstrated in great, dazzling detail. You can’t help feeling that Child himself walked every inch of the routes Reacher follows, and that all the buildings, shops and street furniture would be exactly as he describes. The building where Lane is told by the kidnapper to drop off the keys to the cars which contain the bags of ransom money, is next to a chocolatier. Reacher and Pauling go through this shop and out into the back where the chocolate is made and moulded, several times. it is described in detail. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t exist.

In this book more than the others I’ve read, it becomes a leitmotif that he always knows the time without consulting a clock or watch. It becomes a running joke between him and this book’s Reacher Girl, Pauling.

‘I always know what time it is.’ (p.42)

Of course he does. Repeatedly he is demonstrated knowing the precise time better than watches or clocks, which turn out to be fast or slow or broken. Reacher is never broken.

Cars and guns

If you’re a real man you know guns and cars inside out. The car the ransom money is dropped off in is a Mercedes Benz.

‘Silver, four-door sedan, an S-420, New York vanity plates starting OSC, a lot of city miles on it. Dirty paint, scuffed tyres, dinged rims, dents and scrapes on both bumpers.’ (p.15)

And the guns?

After they finished their tea Jackson took Reacher into a small mudroom off the back of the kitchen and opened a double-door wall cupboard above a washing machine. In it were racked four Heckler & Koch G36 automatic rifles. The G36 was a very modern design that had shown up in service just before Reacher’s military career had ended…. It had a nineteen-inch barrel and an open folding stock and was basically fairly conventional apart from a huge superstructure that carried a bulky optical sight integrated into an oversized carrying handle. It was chambered for the standard 5.56mm NATO round and like most German weapons it looked very expensive and beautifully engineered.’ (p.440)

In the final firefight, more guns, knives, explosives and night vision goggles are used. Lots of kit. Boys and their toys.

Expert vocabulary

Child, and his hero, don’t make a big deal of it, they just know the correct terminology for everything. They are never at a loss for knowledge.

  • charging cradle – for a mobile phone
  • crosswalk – American term for pedestrian crossing
  • frost heave – uplift on a road surface caused by expansion of groundwater on freezing

Especially kidnap situations:

  • demand call – from the kidnappers, specifying the amount
  • destination figure – final demand in a ransom
  • instruction call – from the kidnappers, specifying payment details

Reacher knows the name for everything because his author does. Child and his books impress with their confident familiarity with technical terms, military practice, arms and cars, and all aspects of common American phraseology.

  • squawk box – loudspeaker part of an intercom box, especially of a front door buzzer

Humour

I don’t think Reacher says anything funny in books 1 and 3. Numbers 9 and 10 are noticeable for a couple of bits of snappy repartee.

‘You got a name?’
‘Most people do.’ (p.18)

‘Tell me about your career,’ Lane said.
‘It’s been over a long time. That’s its main feature.’ (p.25)

On the move

Do you know the French comic strip Lucky Luke books? Luke rambles from town to town with his loyal horse, in each book getting tangled up in a new adventure, defeating the bad guys, tipping his hat to the lady and moving on.

Each book ends with a pic of Luke riding off into the sunset singing his theme song, ‘I’m a poor lonesome cowboy and a long way from home.’

It’s one of the central American myths, the mysterious, super-capable stranger who rides into town, gets tangled in other people’s troubles, helps out women and children, shoots the bad guys (after enough provocation to be ‘morally’ justified in doing so), then disappears as mysteriously as he appeared.

It goes back at least as far as James Fenimore Cooper’s novels about the tough capable frontiersman, Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking, The Pathfinder, Deerslayer, Long Rifle and Hawkeye.

Got nothing against women
But I wave them all goodbye…
My horse and me keep riding
We don’t like being tied.

This hoary trope is central to the Reacher stories. Almost every one commences with our hero stepping off a train, bus or plane into a new town, getting drawn into a 500-page action adventure, then, when the last shot has finished echoing around the corral, tipping his hat to the ladies (particularly the one he has seduced and slept with for the course of the adventure) then ridin’ on out.

Child continually reminds us of this aspect of Reacher’s character, thus plugging him into a deep psychological and cultural archetype.

Reacher always arranged the smallest details in his life so he could move on at a split second’s notice. It was an obsessive habit. He owned nothing and carried nothing. Physically he was a big man, but he cast a small shadow and left very little in his wake. (p.12)

The Reacher Girl

Like a Bond girl, there’s one in every novel. Here it’s Private Investigator Lauren Pauling, Ex-Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation. She was on the original FBI investigation of the kidnapping of Lane’s first wife and has felt oppressed by guilt for five years that her and her colleagues screwed up the investigation and allowed the first wife to be killed.

Once he’s been introduced to her, Reacher and Pauling spend a lot of time together pounding the streets, finding Hobart and his sister, then sharing the stress when Lane and his goons show up at the apartment and Pauling, Hobart and sister hide in the bathroom while Reacher faces the others down and tries to throw them off the scent.

They spend a long night working through theories, Pauling using her contacts at the Pentagon. They become a very tight team. And then they go to bed. Inevitable.

Pauling had changed. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She looked good. (p.284)

He stopped talking and watched her, silent. She looked great in the candlelight. Liquid eyes, soft skin… He could smell her fragrance. Subtle perfume, soap, clear skin, clean cotton. The shoulder-seams on her T-shirt stood up a little and made enticing shadowy tunnels. She was slim and toned, except where she shouldn’t be… (p306)

Pauling came out of the bedroom looking spectacular. Shoes, stockings, tight skirt, silk blouse, all in black. Brushed hair, light make-up. Great eyes, open, frank, intelligent. (p.320)

She’s older than Reacher but, as she herself puts it, older women are ‘worth it’ (p.308)

The title

‘I’m going to have to do it the hard way,’ Reacher said.
‘What way is that?’
‘It’s what we call it in the service when we didn’t catch a break. When we actually had to work for a living. You know, start over at square one, re-examine everything, sweat the details, work the clues.’ (p.169)

‘What exactly is going on?’
‘We’re sweating the details and we’re working the clues. That’s what’s going on here. We’re doing it the hard way. One step at a time…’ (p.322)

So the title refers to Reacher’s modus operandi, which is the thorough, systematic application of logic and experience to work out complicated problems and situations.

At the same time, it also refers to the inevitable bursts of violence, particularly towards the end of each story. There are always points where the sidekick says, ‘Shouldn’t we call the police or the FBI or someone?’ to which Reacher always replies, in effect, ‘No, they’d let the bad guys get away – the investigation would be long and drawn out – we know they’re psychopaths – we’re going to do this my way. the hard way.’

Epilogue

Unlike the other four Reacher books I’ve read, this one has an epilogue. A page and a half shows us how all the characters we’ve met are faring a year later. The surviving bad guys get killed in Iraq. Patti, who had held a torch for her murdered sister for so long, now has a good job and a boyfriend. Investigator Pauling is thriving. Hobart and his sister are benefiting from the money Reacher ended up getting from Lane, and giving them, to get proper hospital treatment and decent prosthetic limbs. The good guys are thriving. the bad guys got their just desserts.

And Reacher? Like the poor, lonesome cowboy, Reacher has disappeared into the sunset.

Until the next time…


Credit

All quotes from the 2011 paperback edition of The Hard Way by Lee Child, first published in 2006 by Bantam Press.

Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

One Shot by Lee Child (2005)

‘True randomness is impossible for a human to achieve. There are always patterns.’ (p.382)

How to sound American

1. Vocabulary

the air = air conditioning in a car or building e.g. ‘The air was set very cold and smelled of sharp chemical flavours’ (p.166)

black-and-white = police patrol car

blacktop = anything covered in asphalt e.g. a highway, parking lot, drive

boardwalk = a constructed pedestrian walkway, often alongside a beach

done deal = an irrevocable agreement

duct work = external pipes and ventilators

dumpster = big metal container for rubbish; a skip

hardscrabble = adjective denoting hard work and poverty

heartland = term for the states which don’t touch water, denotes down-home, traditional values

in back = at the back of something, especially a building

a laugher = a sporting match or competition which is so easily won by one team or competitor that it seems absurd

a lube shop = garage which spealises in changing the oil and checking lubrication of all moving parts on a car

mirandise = to read a suspect their Miranda rights i.e. you have the right to remain silent…

porch glider = a type of rocking chair that moves as a swing seat, where the entire frame consists of a seat attached to the base by means of a double-rocker four-bar linkage

prowl car = police patrol car

sidewalk = pavement

slam dunk = a type of basketball shot that is performed when a player jumps in the air, controls the ball above the horizontal plane of the rim, and scores by putting the ball directly through the basket with one or both hands; used to mean a dead certainty

squared away = American military term meaning above satisfactory level for a sustained period: good

a turnout = the triangular shaped junction of a country road with a bigger road

window reveal = recess surrounding a window, of which the bottom forms the ledge, on which people often set items like vases or books

2. Know your weapons

Americans love guns. Not all Americans, just enough to provide a steady supply of mass shootings. And, after all, this novel is about a mass shooter. This is the weapon James Barr uses to execute five rush hour commuters.

It was a Springfield M1A Super Match autoloader, American walnut stock, heavy premium barrel, ten shot box magazine, chambered for the .308. It was the exact commercial equivalent of the M14 self-loading sniper rifle that the American military had used during his long-ago years in the service. It was a fine weapon. Maybe not quite as accurate as a top-of-the-line bolt gun, but it would do. It would do just fine…. It was loaded with Lake City M852s. His favourite custom cartridges. Special Lake City Match brass, Federal powder, Sierra Matchking 168-grain hollow point boat tail bullets. The load was better than the gun, probably. (p.14)

This is the gun ex-Marine sergeant Cash offers Reacher to test how well the latter can shoot on his firing range.

It was a Remington M24, with a Leopold Ultra scope and a front bipod. A standard-issue Marine sniper’s weapon. It looked to be well used but in excellent condition…
‘One shot,’ said Cash. He took a single cartridge from his pocket. Held it up. It was a .300 Winchester round. Match grade. (p.344)

And at the climax Reacher faces off with the Russian shooter, Chenko, who is armed with a shotgun.

It had been a Benelli Nova Pump. The stock had been cut off behind the pistol grip. The barrel had been hacked off behind the pistol grip. The barrel had been hacked off ahead of the slide. Twelve-gauge. Four-shot magazine. A handsome weapon, butchered. (p.492)

A man’s world

Reacher operates in the world of the police and army, against violent criminals. It is an unremittingly violent and generally very male world.

Intelligent women exist in it – lawyers, pilots, cops – in fact, Child takes a small but noticeable pleasure in upsetting sexist expectations and mentioning minor characters like a pilot or a lawyer or a doctor, letting you assume they’re men – and then revealing that they’re women (like Dr McBannerman in Tripwire, who Child assumes to be a grizzled old Scotsman but turns out to be a trim professional woman doctor).

But they are all, by definition, smaller and weaker than Reacher, who always ends up defending them.

Examples of hyper-violence include:

  • the sniper shooting five civilians, which kick starts the plot
  • the sniper, James Barr, is then beaten and stabbed in prison by an extremely hard Mexican gang
  • we hear a retrospective account of Barr’s shooting of four unarmed men in Kuwait City
  • five rednecks, led by Jeb Oliver, take on Reacher in a bar fight
  • the Russians murder Jeb Oliver, cut off his hands and head and bury the body parts in different places
  • the Russians murder Sandy the dolly bird by getting big Vladimir to punch her once on the side of the head
  • the finale in which Reacher:
    • stabs one Russian in the neck
    • squeezes another to death
    • throws Chenko out a third floor window

Jokes

Reacher has a rare but nice way with ironic asides.

‘You know much about head injuries?’
‘Only the ones I cause.’ (p.113)

‘You’re new in town,’ she said.
‘Usually,’ he said. (p.128)

‘I know who you are,’ she said.
‘So do I,’ he said. (p.326)

Reacher’s diet

For breakfast Reacher has the full monty, always including fried eggs and black coffee. For lunch and dinner, cheeseburgers and onion rings, washed down by beer. For another breakfast a ham and egg muffin followed by two slices of lemon pie (p.234). For lunch, a grilled cheese sandwich (p.254). Later, a big sirloin steak in Hutton’s hotel room.

How does he keep in any kind of shape?

Jack Reacher’s rules for bar fighting

Rule one – Be on your feet and ready
Rule two – Show them what they’re messing with
Rule three – Identify the ringleader
Rule four – The ringleader is the one who moves first
Rule five – Never back off
Rule six – Don’t break the furniture
Rule seven – Act, don’t react
Rule eight – Assess and evaluate
Rule nine – Don’t run head-on into Jack Reacher (pp.129-132)

The plot

James Barr, a soldier Reacher knew from back his army days, is conclusively proven to have parked in a multi-story car park in an unnamed city in Indiana, waited for rush hour workers to leave their offices at 5pm, and then calmly executed five of them using a long-range sniper rifle, packed up and driven home, where he is tracked down and arrested by the police a few hours later.

Call Reacher He refuses to say anything to the investigators except, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy’ and ‘Get Jack Reacher’. In fact, Reacher has seen the story of the massacre on TV news in a bar and as soon as he hears the culprit’s name, catches a sequence of buses to the (unnamed) city (buses because Jack has no ID therefore can’t hire cars).

Dramatis personae Here he encounters the cluster of characters surrounding the killer:

  • Barr’s sister, Rosemary, convinced her brother is innocent
  • Barr’s lawyer, Helen Rodin who happens to be the daughter of the city’s district attorney, who will be leading for the prosecution
  • the cop who led the successful investigation, Emerson
  • the city’s District Attorney, Alex Rodin, descendant of Russian immigrants (p.36), who only likes to prosecute cases which are 100% slam dunks
  • Bellantonio, the thin tall dry forensic scientist who’s assembled a battery of irrefutable evidence
  • Ann Yanni, the ambitious local NBC news reporter, who Reacher takes an instant dislike to but who he recruits to the cause with the promise of a scoop
  • as it happens Rosemary Barr works for a law firm and they take pity on her being associated with her mass murder brother and initially commission their regular investigator, Franklin, to look into the case. Later he is hired by Ann Yanni, who has a much bigger budget

There are several strands to the plot.

Kuwait Helen and Rosemary hope Reacher has come to somehow vindicate and save Barr. But it’s the opposite. Reacher was the military policeman who assembled the conclusive evidence that Barr, after years of training as an Army sniper in the late 1980s, and after being forced to sit out Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991 (it was mostly an armoured and artillery war) snaps, holes up in a car park in Kuwait City, and shoots dead four civilians emerging from a house.

The Kuwait coverup The four turn out to be American soldiers so you’d have thought Barr would be court martialled and banged away for life. But the investigation uncovered that the four had themselves been gruesome thugs, raping and looting their way across Kuwait City. Any trial of Barr would have inevitably brought this to light with terrible consequences for the reputation of the U.S. Army and the Allied Coalition. Therefore, to Reacher’s intense disgust, the case was suppressed and Barr was given an honourable discharge.

He called for Reacher because a) he had made Reacher a promise to go straight but b), it slowly dawns on Reacher that it was a subtle call for help. Because Barr saw first hand what a meticulous investigator Reacher had been and hopes that, once again, he will be able to use his forensic skills and meticulous logical approach to revealing the true killers…

The Russians The reader is ahead of Reacher because Child, from quite early on, alternates the Reacher sections of narrative, with the parallel thoughts and activities of a group of Russian criminals.

These guys are really hard. Their leader, the Zec, is eighty years old, has lost most of the fingers on both hands, and has lived through extraordinary suffering which is only briefly hinted at – maybe surviving a gulag somewhere, maybe something in the Second World War. ‘Zec’ is, in fact, Russian slang which simply means gulag prisoner (p.383). We are told he himself chewed some of his own fingers off rather than succumb to frostbite and then gangrene.

His number two is Grigor Linski who, among numerous other dehumanising experiences he suffered from a similar Russian background, at one point had every one of his vertebrae systematically smashed with a hammer, surviving, but with a telltale limp and stoop (p.219). They have some younger muscle to help, Chenko and the big goon Vladimir. When a sidekick, Raskin, screws up tailing Reacher, he is invited to commit suicide, digs his own grave and shoots himself in the mouth.

The sports bar brawl It becomes clear that these are the guys who somehow got Barr to commit the shooting spree. Reacher speculates that they threatened to hurt or kill Barr’s sister, the only person in the sad loner’s life. 250 pages in we still don’t know for sure whether this is the case or why they sponsored such a high level incident. Instead we have an atmosphere of brooding threat, increased when the Russians commission a pack of redneck toughs to beat Reacher up in a sports bar. Bad idea. Reacher applies his Nine Rules of Barroom Fighting and pulps the first three, whereupon the last two run away.

Sandy More sickeningly, they’d used a local dolly bird named Sandy (real name Alexandra Dupree) to chat Reacher up in the bar then leap up and scream that he’d called her a whore. That was the prompt for the fight. But the Russians need to stop Reacher snooping so a few days later they pick up the girl and kill her outside Reacher’s hotel, hoping to make it look like he eventually slept with her but they argued for some reason.

The DA goes for Reacher Now the prosecuting attorney knows all about Reacher, met him in some of the meetings the lawyers have had about the Barr case, and has become fixated on the idea that Reacher is influencing his daughter’s handling of Barr’s defence. In a nutshell, Reacher is holding out hope that Barr might be innocent or there might be extenuating circumstances (as Reacher indeed thinks). When the police find the dead girl’s body and quickly establish a connection between her and Reacher in the brawl at the bar, Rodin is delighted, and tells Emerson to put out an all points bulletin to have him picked up. From now on Reacher is on the run.

To complicate things:

Barr beaten In the prison where Barr is remanded he is foolish enough to disrespect an extremely fierce Mexican crim, who shows up later with a pack of sidekicks and beats Barr to a pulp. He survives, is put in hospital, initially in a coma but, when he regains consciousness – has amnesia and can’t remember anything about the events of the last few weeks. He is genuinely heart-broken to learn that he shot those people. He has no idea why. A neurologist and psychiatrist test him and both agree it is genuine amnesia. Damn. There goes the main way of finding out what the hell happened.

An old flame Reacher foolishly let slip mention of the Pentagon to the investigator Rodin, who makes enquiries and has the officer in charge of the investigation, Eileen Hutton, subpoenaed to be interviewed. Now Reacher and Hutton had a passionate three-month affair in Kuwait back in the day (1991). They both got posted in different directions. He wonders if she’s changed and gets his hair cut and a close shave specially to meet her.

Love interest Hutton turns up, now an impressive Brigadier-General (p.262), but still hot and sexy like the best Reacher babes are. i) When called to be formally interviewed by Rodin, she stonewalls him, denying Barr has any previous form for something like this shooting. ii) She and Reacher have already hooked up (he goes to meet her) and soon he is hiding out in her hotel suite, making occasional forays out to investigate, and in between enjoying the kind of large-scale, bed-shattering sex which Reacher specialises in.

Questions Was it the Russians who blackmailed Barr into carrying out the killing? Why? Why did they want it to be a copycat of his Kuwait City killing spree? Will Reacher discover their existence and role in the plot before they contrive to have him arrested or bumped off? What lies behind the whole plot, what are they up to? Is the secret in the background of Barr the killer? Or is it something to do with one of the five murdered civilians? If so, which one?

And how many more times can Hutton and Reacher have wild, championship sex?

You’ll have to read the book to find the answers for yourself 🙂

One shot

The title has several different meanings. When Barr shot the five commuters down, he actually fired six shots. One of them he deliberately fired into an ornamental pond they were walking past, knowing the bullet would be slowed down and easily recoverable by forensics. But it was also a message to an expert like Reacher, the type of glitch or anomaly which recurs in all the books, a slight blip which sets our hero thinking: Why did a drop-dead ace sniper, firing from less than forty yards, miss one shot? What was he trying to say?

But in the second half of the book Reacher travels to a shooting range in Kentucky which he has discovered that Barr used to visit to practice. It’s owned by a tough, blunt ex-Marine who refuses to answer any questions about Barr (who is, by this stage, all across the news and notorious). But Reacher notices an old target paper with five near bull’s eyes, the record of the Marine winning a shooting contest back in the day. Reacher compliments him. The Marine gets out his personal rifle and challenges Reacher to do as well. Gives him one bullet.

The implication is clear. Reacher has one shot. If he can match the Marine’s accuracy, he’ll talk.

One shot to unlock the truth. Will he succeed?

Well, it turns out that Reacher himself won the U.S. Marine Corps Thousand Yard Invitational Competition in 1988. Will he succeed? Hell yeah. One shot? That’s all Jack Reacher ever needs!


Credit

All quotes from One Shot by Lee Child, first published in 2005 by Bantam Press, from the 2012 film tie-in edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

Killing Floor by Lee Child (1997)

‘He seemed like a capable guy to me. Tell the truth, you remind me of him. You seem like a capable guy to me, too.’ (Hubble to Reacher, page 112)

After reading the 20th Jack Reacher novel I went back to the first novel in the series to see how it all started. Violently, is the answer.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner.

is the opening sentence which commences Jack Reacher’s first adventure and inaugurates the series of 22 bestselling crime thrillers in which he features.

Margrave Reacher asks the driver of a Greyhound bus to stop at the little town of Margrave, in Georgia, purely on a whim because he’d had a postcard from his brother Joe, saying the blues singer Blind Blake lived or played here.

Arrested But instead of moseying about town and talking music with the locals, he finds himself locked up and interrogated by the (Harvard-educated and reasonable, and black) homicide detective Farley. Why? Because a body has been found at the warehouses Reacher must have walked past on the way into town. The corpse had been shot in the head twice, his face blown off, and then the body frenziedly kicked so that every bone in his body had been smashed.

Hubble Reacher is fingerprinted and photographed by the good-looking, relaxed woman police officer Roscoe. Then questioned by detective Farley. It emerges that the name of a local businessman was scribbled on a piece of paper scrunched up in the dead man’s shoe, one Paul Hubble. When he is brought in for questioning, to everyone’s amazement he enthusiastically confesses to doing the murder himself, even though there is all kinds of evidence that he didn’t, such as that he was at a party where loads of witnesses saw him.

Farley Over the course of questioning, the relationship between Farley and Reacher softens and becomes a sort of collaboration, because Reacher was himself a Military Policeman in the U.S. Army for 14 years and has carried out lots of investigations himself. He is able to provide a stone cold alibi – he was 400 miles away on the Greyhound at the time of the murder – and begins to help Farley think through various oddities and possibilities of the case.

Prison Despite starting to think Reacher is not guilty, Farley sends both him and Hubble to the local prison for the weekend, where he is meant to be held in the transient, custody cells. However, the head of the prison accidentally on purpose has them put in the main, long-term prison area.

Attacks Here not one but two violent attacks are made on Hubble and Reacher. The first is led by the enormous, terrifying head of the black gang in the prison, who Reacher confronts and then nuts, smashing most of his face.

Strangling Later, in the showers, they are attacked by a posse of white Aryan supremacists. One tries to strangle him but Reacher breaks his fingers before gouging out one of his eyes, while kicking in the larynx of another one, at which point the black gang arrive to attack the Aryans and a general prison riot ensues, during which Reacher and Hubble are evacuated back to the holding cells where they should have been all along.

Capable man So far so violent. But also, so far, so incredibly capable of six-foot-five Reacher, ex-U.S. Military Police and a man with a lifetime’s experience of winning super-violent brawls. Taking down the hardest black guy in the prison. And then three of the hardest whites. Wow.

The black attack began when the gang leader was intimidating feeble rich guy Hubble to kneel and give him a blow job. Reacher realised he had to intervene in order to maintain respect and kudos.

Hubble talks Saving Hubble’s life gives Reacher power over Hubble and he persuades him to talk, or at least to admit that there is something big, really big, going on in Margrave. It involves about ten people and Hubble admits he plays a key part. But ‘they’ have threatened that if he talks, to anyone, they will nail him to the wall of his house, cut off his balls and make his wife eat them, and then perform unspeakable acts on his two little children. Hence Hubble’s catatonic fear. This is why, as soon as Farley told him about the murdered man with his name and number in his shoe, Hubble confessed in such a hurry. He (mistakenly) thought he would be safe in prison. Er, no.

The investigator Hubble admits that the Big Scam and the frighteners ‘they’ were putting on him had prompted him to hire an investigator, anonymously, to help him find a way out. When Farley told him about the corpse at the warehouse, Hubble realised it was the investigator, and panicked, because of the threat to his family.

Reacher realises it wasn’t a mistake him and Hubble being put in the permanent part of the prison rather than the milder and safer custody cells. Someone fixed it up with the prison supervisor, who then tipped off the Aryan Supremacists in particular, to kill him. Why? What has he done to anyone?

Released Reacher is finally released because his alibi, that he only got off the Greyhound bus eight hours after the murder was committed, pans out, with eye witness testimony from the bus driver and other passengers. By this time he has struck up an edgy relationship with the black detective, Farley, and is even helping him think through all the angles of the problem

Joe Reacher So Reacher is in the police office when the fingerprints come through for the faceless body in the warehouse. Reacher’s life – and the whole book – takes a big lurch when he learns that the dead man is… his brother, his only kin in the world (both parents being dead), Joe his older brother that he used to stick by through thick and thin throughout their long, peripatetic childhood, as sons of a U.S. soldier, continually moving from one military base to another around the world.

His whole life they had looked out for each other and now… Joe is dead. That’s right, dead.

And to a man like Reacher (a six-foot-five inch, ex-Military Policeman with a taste for clear, logical thinking and the capacity for seriously hurting anyone who gets in his way) this can only mean one thing.

Finding the guys who did it, and taking his revenge. Looking out for Joe one last time. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do (or, more precisely, a man’s gotta kill who a man’s gotta kill).

The rest of the novel follows the intricate sequence of clues and discoveries by which Reacher, now working closely with detective Farley, and with the sexy Police Officer Roscoe, protect Hubble and his family from ‘them’, realise ‘they’ have representatives within the police force who are shadowing and reporting on all their discoveries.

The revelation of the big scam is nicely paced. There are plenty of surprises and unexpected shocks. The violence gets extreme, when the corrupt fat old head of the police department gets the Hubble treatment i.e. nailed to the wall, his balls cut off, his wife forced to eat them, yuk.

Justified revenge Reacher identifies the glaring, looming son of the old man who ‘owns’ half the town as the psychopath who carries out these gruesome acts and – in a tense scene – takes out him and his three accomplices when they arrive at the (empty) Hubble family home, to murder them. Instead Reacher takes them out, one by one, in a display of unstoppable physical supremacy reminiscent of other male heroes like Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis or Jason Bourne.

And, as so often with thrillers, at the book’s core is a whole load of factual information which is interesting in its own right.

Counterfeiting The Big Scam turns out to be an enormous money counterfeiting operation, which explains Reacher’s brother’s involvement. Joe had risen to be the head of the FBI’s anti-counterfeiting unit, as we learn when Reacher visits some of the counterfeiting experts he consulted. Through their mouths we learn quite a lot about the history of counterfeiting. We hear about the background of the academics, who worked as young men during World War Two on a plan to bankrupt the Nazi economy by dropping billions of fake Deutchmarks into Germany. There is then quite a lengthy explanation of how U.S. currency is designed and manufactured.

Assuming it’s true, this all makes for very Interesting reading.

The unexpected plot twists, reversals and betrayals continue virtually up to the last page. It is a very impressive updating of the basic thriller genre for our times (well, the 1990s) and you can see why Reacher, with his size, physical competence, military experience and calm logical thinking made, and continues to make, such an impression on fans of the genre.

Broken sentences

The twentieth novel is told in short punchy sentences by a third-person narrator. This first book in the series is told in short, punchy sentences in the first person. In fact the nature of the narrator is irrelevant: first person or third person, everyone in Reacherworld thinks and speaks the same way, laconic, to the point, logical, tough.

‘They killed him,’ she said. Just a simple statement. ‘Like they killed Joe. I think I know how you must be feeling.’
I nodded.
‘They’ll pay for it,’ I said. ‘For both of them.’
‘You bet your ass,’ she said. (p.346)

More noticeable in this one than in number 20 is Child’s habit of breaking up what could be one long-ish sentence describing people performing consecutive actions, into a sequence of short sentences, each one describing one action and omitting the pronoun indicating the actor.

He stood still for a moment then took out the key and unlocked them. Clipped them back on his belt. Looked at me. (p.18)

I used the john and rinsed my face in the sink. Pulled myself up into the bed. Took off my shoes. Left them on the foot of the bed. (p.79)

We drove for miles. Found the right terminal. Missed a lane change and passed the short-term parking. Came around again and lined up to the barrier. (p.312)

There are hundreds of examples, some extending for five or six consecutive pronoun-less clauses, each of which has been turned into a freestanding sentence.

He took out the tape machine. Dragged out the cords. Positioned the microphone between us. Tested it with his fingernail. Rolled the tape back. Ready. (p.38)

There are plenty of three-word-long sentences. Some two. Or one. All working to the same end, conveying a no-nonsense, tough guy, to the point, no fat on the bone, macho mindset.

Finlay and I hitched ourselves into the barber chairs. Put our feet up on the chrome rests. Started reading. (p.326)

The tone says of course he’s been interviewed before. Held in police custody. Put in handcuffs. Locked in a cell. He’s a Real Man. Had plenty of fights. Outstared plenty of cops. Toughed out many a gaol cell. All par for the course. Meat and drink.

Analysis

But Reacher is not just a fighting machine. He is a computer. He analyses and assesses. Repeatedly Reacher tells us that his military training and, specifically his long years of work in the Military Police, have taught him to process information, to work through it methodically. Many of the breakthroughs come from anomalies planted earlier in the narrative, little things someone said or did which, on reflection, Reacher realises stand out, don’t make sense, are clues.

Evaluate. Long experience had taught me to evaluate and assess. When the unexpected gets dumped on you, don’t waste time. Don’t figure out how or why it happened. Don’t recriminate. Don’t figure out whose fault it is. Don’t work out how to avoid the same mistake next time. All of that you can do later. If you survive. First of all you evaluate. Analayse the situation. Identify the downside. Assess the upside. Plan accordingly. Do all that and you give yourself a better chance of getting through to the other stuff later. (p.83)

The novel is larded with little homilies like this, advice on how to handle situations. Reacher says much of it stems from his military training, so I wonder how much of it is derived from the no doubt numerous and copious handbooks for soldiers and the military police. How much from police training. How much Child has made up.

This habit of sharing his life wisdom with us is a leading characteristic of the books. In Tripwire we learn that Reacher’s mentor, Leon Garber, had various rules for living, which Reacher usefully quotes as he applies them to the perilous situations he finds himself. Similarly, One Shot has a great scene where Reacher tackles five rednecks in a bar and shares with us Reacher’s Nine Rules for Bar Fights.

It comes as in surprise to learn that 21 years after this first book, and 22 novels into the series, Child has written enough text like this – life advice, how to think through problems, how to survive confrontations – that it has been cut and pasted into a stand-alone book, Reacher’s Rules: Life Lessons From Jack Reacher, which was published in 2012.

And all the characters are like this. They all spend a lot of time whirring and clicking like computers. They all have their own agendas (make money, run a crime outfit, assassinate anyone who gets in the way, or solve crimes, find the suspect, collect evidence etc). Everyone has projects and agendas and, in Reacherworld, you can watch them processing every new development into their thinking and adjusting their plans accordingly.

He was thinking hard… I had never seen someone think so visibly. His mouth was working soundlessly and he was fiddling with his fingers. Like he was checking off positives and negatives. Weighing things up. I watched him. I saw him make his decision. He turned and looked over at me. (p.92)

There are regular spurts of violence – fights, brawls, taking down armed men – and each novel includes at least one scene of really gruesome, sadistic bloodshed. And it’s this which, inevitably, readers often remember. Not least because of the cold-blooded efficiency with which Reacher – once provoked – kills the bad guys.

He dropped the shotgun. It thudded into the carpet. I pulled him backward and turned him and ran him out through the door. Into the downpour. Dug my fingers deeper into his eyes. Hauled his head back. Cut his throat. You don’t do it with one elegant swipe. Not like in the movies. No knife is sharp enough for that. There’s all sorts of tough gristle in the human throat. You have to saw back and forth with a lot of strength. Takes a while. But it works. it works well. By the time you’ve sawed back to the bone, the guy is dead. This guy was no exception. His blood hosed out and mixed with the rain. He sagged against my grip. Two down. (p.407)

But even the violence is highly analysed, thought about, planned. The fight scenes are notable for the care Child takes to explain how Reacher analyses every situation, estimates the angles, uses all his training to calculate how to win.

I was trained by experts. Guys who traced their own training back to World War Two, Korea, Vietnam. People who had survived things I had only read about in books. They taught me methods, details, skills. Most of all they taught me attitude. They taught me that inhibitions would kill me. Hit early, hit hard. Kill with the first blow. Get your retaliation in first. Cheat. The gentlemen who behaved decently weren’t there to train anybody. they were already dead. (p.85)

In summary, the majority of the text is made up of people planning, thinking and analysing. The books are a lot more about ratiocination and thinking through problems – combat situations, strategic planning, problem analysis, plan-making – than you might expect.

I looked all over the place. Looked at where Teale was sitting, looked at the office inner door, checked Kliner’s line of fire, guessed where Roscoe and Charlie might end up. I calculated angles and estimated distances. I came up with one definite conclusion. (p.503)

Reacher girls

Of course there’s a girl, by which I mean young woman, who fancies Reacher from the get-go and on page 163 of this 523-page-long novel they finally have the wild passionate sex the reader has seen on the cards for some time. Tear each other’s clothes off. She rides him till they collapse in a sweaty heap, spent and sated. Shower then do it all over again, etc. Championship sex.

If James Bond has ‘Bond girls’ then Jack Reacher appears to have ‘Reacher girls’, and every bit as improbable.

This one, Officer Roscoe, is part of the Margrave Police Department. When Reacher is first brought in, she gets him a cup of coffee. She is friendly. She leans her breasts against the desk when she takes his fingerprints, with a dazzling smile on her face. She is there to collect Reacher when he gets out of prison after his eventful few days inside. She drives him to Hubble’s house to interview him, though Hubble has gone missing. When Reacher is there at the police department when the news comes through the fax that the dead man is his brother, Roscoe holds his hand.

And then back to her place for wild sex.

Roscoe put on the clothes she’d brought from her place in the morning. Jeans, shirt, jacket. Looked wonderful. Very feminine, but very tough. She had a lot of spirit. (p.284)

I’m sure we have all met woman police officers just like Officer Roscoe.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

Tripwire by Lee Child (1999)

Novels of all types begin with a plot or fabula, a series of logically and chronologically related events, usually involving the same or a related set of characters. The author then creates from this a story, whereby different elements of the fabula are deployed in ways to create suspense, or irony, or mystery.

One of the main pleasures of reading a novel is working your way through the story back towards the fabula underlying it. In detective and thriller novels, this element has become the main element. Whodunnit, and why?

The fabula

Thirty years ago in the Vietnam War, a model helicopter pilot named Victor Hobie  is sent on a mission, carrying a couple of military policemen to collect a notorious crooked American soldier, Carl Allen from a remote part of the jungle. The chopper is shot down and crashes, killing all on board except Allen who, however, has half his arm chopped off by a rotor blade and half his face burned by kerosene.

In a very bad way, Allen nonetheless swaps dog tags with the nearest body (as it happens, of the pilot, Victor Hobie) and crawls off into the jungle. Weeks later he is picked up by a U.S. patrol more dead than alive and taken to hospital. But as soon as he is half way mended, he breaks out of the hospital and makes his way, first of all to the secret location where he had buried his stash of cash and other valuables, and uses this to buy his way through native villages across Vietnam, into Cambodia and then across the border into Thailand.

Thai doctors fix a prosthetic attachment to his stump of an arm, and he chooses a stainless steel hook. Not much can be done for his half-burned face. Eventually, he returns to the States and uses his assets to set himself up as a lender of last resort, using strong arm tactics to terrify his debtors.

Thirty years later he has established a respectable front organisation, Cayman Corporate Trust, with swish offices on the 88th floor of the World Trade Centre. He has adopted the name ‘Hook’ Hobie.

The trigger of the plot is that a man named Chester Stone has inherited the cinema film and projecter company set up by his grandfather, expanded by his father, which is now running into big trouble. He needs a loan if a million to tide him over for six weeks until some new business comes in. Stone’s finance director points him towards Hobie, so Stone goes to meet him and takes out a loan, signing over some of the shares as guarantee.

What he doesn’t know is that Hobie plans to take over his entire company, by force and physical intimidation if necessary, and then demolish all the properties, factories and so on which it owns along the Long Island shore – and develop it as prime real estate land.

Hobie / Allen’s plan is complicated by the fact that he has been tipped off that someone has been snooping around the U.S. Army’s forensic facility in Hawaii, asking questions about Victor Hobie. And that, as part of the ongoing repatriation programme of U.S. military corpses, the army has just gotten round to crating up and shipping home the bodies from the helicopter site, delayed for so long partly because the Vietnamese authorities drove a hard bargain and delayed generally, partly because of its inaccessible site.

Hobie is tipped off about both of these situations, which threaten to unmask him and reveal his fake identity to the authorities. That is the meaning of the title. For thirty years Hobie has had in place a set of two ‘tripwires’ – the shipment of the bodies from Vietnam, and anybody snooping in Hawaii. Now both tripwires have been triggered at the same point.

His assistant, Tony, begs him to put in place the long-held plan, to liquidate his assets and flee the country, adopting a new identity. But Hobie is mesmerised by his project to fleece Stone, liquidate the Stone company, and sell of the Long Shore property at a vast profit. He is in a hurry to do this and so doesn’t hesitate to take Stone’s wife, Marilyn, hostage, along with the pretty woman estate agent who was handling the sale of Marilyn and Chester’s house.

The story

This is the long, complicated back story which Jack Reacher (and the reader) has to unravel, starting with a trigger incident and then slowly working back through clues and investigations.

When we meet Reacher he is happily digging holes for swimming pools in Key West in Florida, hard exercise which has made his six foot five body even more formidable and fit. In the evenings he works as ‘muscle’ in a strip bar where the girls, unsurprisingly, are attracted by his size and strength and chivalrous nature. He looks, one of them says, ‘like a condom crammed with walnuts’ (p.23).

In the opening scene a private investigator, name of Costello, comes to the bar asking after a ‘Jack Reacher’. He’s been sent by a Mrs Jacob. Reacher tells him he’s never heard of Reacher or Jacobs. Later Reacher discovers Costello’s body, shot in the face with his fingertips cut off.

Intrigued, Reacher figures Costello must have been a retired cop, from New York by his accent, and with typical ‘Reacher luck’ rings around New York precincts till he is answered by a jaded old cop who says, Sure, Costello, yeah retired and set up as an investigator to pay off his alimony – and even has the name and address of the Costello’s office.

So Reacher’s Quest begins. He gets a plane to New York and goes to Costello’s office, only to find the door swinging open (as so many doors are to swing handily open in Reacher’s adventures) and the secretary’s computer handily left on. He uses it to get the address of the client ‘Mrs Jacob’, hire a car and motors out there.

To discover that ‘Mrs Jacob’ is none other than Jodie Garber, daughter of Reacher’s own mentor in the Military Police, Colonel Leon Garber. He knew her when she was an already-beautiful 15 year old and he 24. Now she is a beautiful 29 year old, ‘achingly beautiful’ (p.81). Jacob because she married a man named Jacob, though she is now conveniently divorced.

In fact, her house is hosting a funeral party for her Dad who just passed away from heart disease. Lots of top brass and officials who Reacher mixes with embarrassed. Once they leave Jodie and Reacher do some catching up, then she says her dad had asked her to find Reacher, because he was involved in a case but, becoming increasingly poorly, needed his best M.P. to help him. Hence commissioning Costello to find him.

But they have barely got chatting before two armed men try to shoot them. Reacher being Reacher handles the situation and he and Jodie roar off in her car. Now she is On The Quest, too. Now she is On The Team. Reacher always assembles small teams, usually with an able male sidekick, and with a nubile and available woman. In Make Me it was investigator Chang, who he sleeps with. In Killing Floor it was Police Officer Roscoe who he sleeps with. In this book it is attractive Wall Street lawyer Jodie Jacob, who… he sleeps with.

(By the way ‘sleep with’ doesn’t really convey the sense of frenzied physical activity which the books tastefully hint at. In several of them there are fleeting references to the woman straddling Reacher. Given that he is six foot five of solid muscle trained to kill in 20 different ways, I can imagine that riding him is the only way to avoid serious physical injury.)

To cut a long story short, Jodie and Reacher go visit the old colonel’s heart doctor whose receptionist tells them he was always chatting to old Mr Hobie, another patient with heart disease, in the waiting room. So off they go to interview Mr and Mrs Hobie, who says that, Yes, they asked the colonel to help them find the remains of their son. He was a model son, a medal-winning soldier and yet for all these years the Army has refused to confirm he is dead. So they hope he is still alive.

In fact they had met up with a researcher who they paid eighteen thousand dollars to track their son down and who came back with a photo of a gaunt fifty year old man in U.S. combat fatigues, and asked for more money to help liberate him. Reacher takes Jodie to meet this guy, Rutter, who turns out to be a con artist, who had rigged up the photo in the New York botanical gardens amid tropical plants. Reacher beats the crap out of him, takes his gun and his car and all the cash he has, half to repay the Hobies what he swindled them out of, half to fund what is now Reacher’s Quest.

Thrillers generally have information instead of psychology. Characters don’t develop much, but they often take you to interesting places, and explore interesting subjects. In fact, many thrillers contain at their core a sort of Wikipedia level of basic information.

In this case it is an extended set of information about what happened to the Missing In Action in the Vietnam War. Using his wartime credentials, and the fact he’s with the daughter of the widely respected Colonel Leon Garber, Reacher blags his way into first the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and then on to the military Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, a special facility that identifies the forensic remains of soldiers.

At the latter Reacher meets again his old mentor, General Nash Newman, a forensic anthropologist (p.412). Threaded throughout the book we have had descriptions of the bodies of the American soldiers killed in that helicopter crash all those years earlier, being transported from the jungle to a military airport, being loaded aboard a U.S. Air Force plane with full military honours, and flown to Hawaii.

It is here that there is a memorable scene as Newman invites Reacher to study the seven bodies, reduced pretty much to skeletons, and figure out the puzzle. It combines the nearest thing to emotion in a Reacher novel, namely horror as the precise way each of the seven was dismembered, crushed or burned to death as the chopper crashed. But also a Sherlock Holmes aspect of close examination and deduction, before Reacher realises the truth staring him in the face — there are seven bodies but fifteen hands. The survivor had his hand chopped off in the disaster. They are looking for a one-armed man.

Meanwhile back in the World Trade Centre, the torture continues. Two policemen follow up a clue and go up to Hobie’s offices on the 88th floor, where they discover that Hobie is holding Chester, Marilyn and the state agent woman hostage. Hobie and Tony immediately get the drop on the cops, disarm and handcuff them.

Hook Hobie is a psychopath. He takes the woman cop into the bathroom of the swish offices where he tortures her to death. Chester and Marilyn have bought some time by telling Hobie that they can threaten them all they like, but the remaining share certificates are held in trust, and need to be witnessed by their lawyer.

It’s hardly high feminism in action, but it’s worth pointing out that Marilyn, Chester’s wife, from the get-go is much more tough-minded, focused and practical than her lily-livered husband. While he goes into catatonic shock at having been kidnapped, Marilyn becomes a classic Lee Child character, devising strategies to try and redeem the situation. It is she who persuades Hobie to let Sheryl, the estate agent whose nose Hobie had violently smashed, to be taken to hospital.

Grudgingly (and improbably) Hobie consents. Tony drives her to the nearest hospital, with the clear instructions that if she calls the cops Chester and Marilyn will be killed. She keeps to her side of the bargain which is, however, to alert a law firm Marilyn knows to expect a call.

Marilyn tells Hobie she is calling the law firm which must be witnesses to signing over all the share certificates to Stone’s company. Prepared for the call, the lawyer at the other end says they’re reluctant to do anything, she should really contact the police etc. Hobie is standing right by Marilyn and can hear everything she says, so it’s like the scene you’ve seen in hundreds of TV shows and movies where she has to say things which appear anodyne and to the point to the bad guy listening, but signal her real intent to the people at the other end.

The climactic shootout

Jodie’s firm tell her she has been booked in for a big business meeting about the liquidation of a multi-million dollar company, and so she and Reacher have to hasten back from Hawaii mulling over what they’ve learned about the helicopter crash and the likely fate of Victor Hobie.

After having more sex at her Manhattan apartment, and freshening up, Reacher drops Jodie at the World Trade Centre. It is here, on the 88th floor, at Hobie’s offices, that the climax comes. In the lift Jodie meets the private detective hired by the law firm Marilyn had contacted. The two of them walk into a trap in Hobie’s office, disarmed, beaten up a little, and plonked on the sofa next to Chester and Marilyn.

All through the novel Hobie has been kept informed of the researches of Reacher. It was, after all, his goons who killed Costello and then, following the same paper trail from Costello’s office, tried to break in and kidnap Jodie – only to have Reacher save her life and scoot her away.

Hobie also has a paid snitch at the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, who tips him off about Reacher’s visit. For some time Hobie has known Reacher was on his scent. Now he holds his razor sharp hook against Jodie’s pretty face and tells her to phone Reacher and ask him to meet her there.

Knowing something is wrong, reacher says he’s still in St Louis and it will take him some time to get there. OK, says Jodie. Hobie hears all this and settles down to wait. Unbeknown to him Reacher is still just outside the World Trade Centre. He bluffs his way past security in the standard Reacher style, and takes the lift to the 88th floor. Takes out the hall bulb so it’s dark and buzzes to say there’s a delivery.

Now throughout this final stage of the story, Hobie is accompanied only by his fixer, Tony, and another tough guy. The tough guy opens the door and Reacher immediately attacks him, disarms him, pushes him over to the wall and breaks his neck. Using a fire axe he chops his lower arm off, then arranges the body, with severed hand next to it, carefully on the floor, and ducks down behind the reception desk to wait.

Noticing the tough guy’s absence, Hobie himself comes out to the reception area but still holding Jodie by his hook with a shotgun in the other hand. Hobie freezes when he sees the dismembered body, exactly as Reacher had hoped, but Jodie is entirely blocking his face so Reacher can’t get in a shot. Tony the fixer follows carrying a shotgun and, walking clear of the other two, Reacher has a clear shot and shoots his head off with his handgun. This makes Hobie turn, scoop up the shotgun and before Reacher can re-aim, fire a huge, scattergun blast at the reception desk which blows into smithereens.

Reacher is aware of terrible pain and blood pouring. Jodie tells him he has a nail sticking out of his forehead, wrestles and fights back against Hobie who trips over the corpse on the floor and shoots the other barrel of the shotgun accidentally. Blood flies everywhere and Hobie scoops out of his pocket one of the little handguns he had confiscated off the cop-turned-investigator who had accompanied Jodie to the meeting, and is with the others, back in the main office.

He holds this gun against Jodie’s side. It is a classic movie standoff with Hobie knowing that if he kills Jodie, Reacher will immediately shoot him, but if Reacher tries to shoot Hobie, Hobie will kill Jodie. Impasse. The two protagonists weigh the situation and discuss it like pros, like all the characters in Reacher novels who spend their entire lives calculating odds and making plans.

‘I’ll shoot her,’ Allen said.
Reacher shook his head again. The pain was fearsome. It was building stronger and spreading  behind both his eyes.
‘You won’t shoot her,’ he said. ‘Think about it, Allen. You’re a selfish piece of shit. The way you are, you’re always number one. You shoot her, I’ll shoot you. You’re twelve feet away from me. I’m aiming at your head. You pull your trigger, I’ll pull mine. She dies, you die one-hundredth of a second later. You won’t shoot me either because, you line up on me you go down before you’re even half way there. Think about it. Impasse.’
He stared at him through the pain and the gloom. A classic standoff. (p.521)

The impasse is broken by Jodie who kicks back against Hobie giving Reacher just time enough to pull up his gun. Hobie beats him to it by a fraction of a second, fires and hits Reacher full in the chest but Reacher still has the momentum to fire a shot which, with typical Reacher luck, blows Hobie’s head to smithereens.

Days later Reachers regains consciousness in hospital. They removed the nail and other debris from his head. And it turns out that all that pool building in Key West has built up his musculature to such a peak of toughness that the bullet’s momentum was slowed and it only bruised a rib.

Captain America. Superman. Jack Reacher.


Jack Reacher novels as ternary systems

In mathematics and digital electronics, a binary number is a number expressed in the base-2 numeral system or binary numeral system, which uses only two symbols: typically 0 (zero) and 1 (one). (Wikipedia)

Calculating plans Like all the other Jack Reacher novels, all the characters spend all their time calculating what to do next, coming up with plans and schemes.

‘We were chased and attacked there, but nobody out here is paying any attention to us.’
‘You been checking?’ she asked, alarmed.
‘I’m always checking,’ he said. (p. 352)

The other guy was busy calculating the odds. (p.29)

Hobie moved his arm and tapped a little rhythm on the desktop with the point of his hook. Thought hard, and nodded again, decisively. (p.57)

Then he [Allen] made his second great breakthrough. Similar to the first. It was a process of deep radical thought. A response to a problem. (p.130)

There was silence on the line again. Just the same faint hiss, and breathing. Like the old woman was thinking. Like she needed time to adjust to some new considerations. (p.136)

Hobie nodded, vaguely. He was thinking hard. (p.139)

It was a good plan, almost worked. (p.181)

Reacher changed his plan. (p.287)

Tony laughed. Jodie looked from him to Hobie. She saw that they were very nearly at the end of some long process. (p.495)

They view life as a sequence of problems, to be thought through and solved. Have a problem = unhappy. Have a plan = happy.

He could see Gerber’s problem. In the middle of something, health failing, unwilling to abandon an obligation, needing help. (p.93)

Jodie was the problem. (p.104)

‘Those two assholes playing at being my enforcers will be no problem.’ (p.141)

‘What about this Reacher guy? He’s still a loose end.’
Hobie shrugged in his chair. ‘I’ve got a separate plan for him.’ (p.141)

They paused in the hot Missouri sunshine after they paid off the cab and agreed on how to do it. (p.313)

Hobie has put in place a plan for what to do it the secret of his false identity ever comes out. When he discovers Mrs Jacob is on his trail he despatches men to kill her. Meanwhile he devises a plan to take Chester Stone’s company off him. Chester, meanwhile, is devising a plan to keep his company afloat. For her part, Marilyn Stone, sensing the financial trouble her husband is in, devises a plan to sell their house – hence the presence of the estate agent. And then reacts to the plight of being kidnapped not with panic, but with a series of strategems intended to wrest some control and agency back to her and her husband. And so on, throughout the text. There is no end to the characters’ scheming and planning.

Binary Therefore, you could say that, for the purpose of these stories, all Lee Child characters operate in a binary system, having just two mental states: problem or plan.

Child has Reacher reflect that this simplicity stems from his upbringing in the Army, which gave him a very binary view of life.

His own career had been locked tight inside the service itself, where things were always simple, either happening or not happening, good or bad, legal or not legal. (p.474)

And, in a later passage, we are also shown how Reacher’s obsession with planning everything out, about thinking in terms of strategic advantage, combat and victory, is also the legacy of his army training.

Combat is about time and space and opposing forces. Like a huge four-dimensional diagram… Stay calm and plan. (p.508)

Stage 1: analyse threat. Stage 2: implement plan. OK. But I think there is another, third, element.

Shrugging As I read on looking for verbal tics and habits, I couldn’t help noticing that the characters are always shrugging. I began to underline the word ‘shrug’ and realised that it occurs on almost every page, sometimes twice a page.

DeWitt just shrugged. (p.374)
DeWitt shrugged. (p.376)
DeWitt just shrugged again. (p.378)
DeWitt shrugged. (p.379)

Why? In practice there’s a variety of reasons, but at its simplest it’s because a character doesn’t know what do do or say.

She looked up at him, astonished. ‘But why?’
He shrugged. (p.91)

McBannerman shrugged and looked blank. (p.122)

‘OK,’ she said. ‘Where to first?’
Reacher shrugged. This was not his area of expertise. (p.149)

‘But when? How?’
He shrugged. ‘Maybe early one morning…’ (p.277)

‘I need to call somebody’s lawyer.’
The doctor looked at her and shrugged. (p.319)

‘Why list them as missing?’
Major Conrad shrugged. (p.327)

‘And what do we tell ourselves? That we were attacked by a ghost?’
He shrugged and made no reply. (p.359)

‘Why would she say she walked into a door if it was really a car wreck?’
O’Hallinen shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’ (p.361)

‘So what are you going to do?’ she asked.
‘About what?’
‘About the future?’
He shrugged again. ‘I don’t know.’ (p.449)

‘Are you going to look for Hobie?’
He shrugged again. ‘Maybe.’ (p.466)

Why do characters shrug on every page?

I realised it is often a third ‘state’ to add to the ‘Problem / Plan’ dyad. It denotes a moment when a character is presented with a question or challenge which they can’t, at that moment, process. Which doesn’t fit with any existing plan or strategem. Which needs to be processed in order to generate a new plan. Or, quite often, a question which the character hasn’t considered yet. Or a question the character is deliberately not answering.

Whatever the precise motivation, it represents a kind of third state, intermediate between being faced with a threatening problem, and coming up with a planned solution. Neither 1 nor 0, it is in between. Neither yes nor no. Maybe.

Thus Lee Child characters can be said to exist in one of three possible states.

  1. Problem – where they’re presented with a challenge or threat, long term strategic or physical and immediate
  2. Plan – where they have devised a plan to solve the problem
  3. Shrug – the intermediate stage, where a character has a problem but hasn’t yet formulated a plan, or is simply batting the problem aside

(In fact, rereading the shrug moments, I realise there’s an alternative explanation to some of the shrugs. They are a response to elements which are outside of the current game. What is Reacher going to do after he’s solved the Hobie mystery, Jodie asks. Reacher shrugs, because that is a scenario beyond the current game, outside current concerns.  Not relevant. Ignore.

(This is particularly true of poor Chester Stone who is kidnapped and beaten up and stripped early in the story, held prisoner in Hobie’s office and does nothing but shrug whenever anyone talks to him or asks him a question. His persistent shrugging indicates that he is hors de combat.

‘You ready?’ she asked.
Chester shrugged. ‘For what?’ (p.481)

(Also, there might be a lot of shrugging for the same reason that all the characters are described simply as ‘saying’ things, he said, she said. Because Child is deliberately reducing all verbs (and lots of human variety) down to a bare minimum.)

Pauses Quite often in the novels, characters pause.

She gazed at the photograph for a long moment, something in her face. (p.96)

They paused a beat… (p. 296)

She was quiet for a beat. Amazed. (p.357)

She was silent for a moment. (p.495)

Child uses a handful of distinctive phrases to describe this moment, a long pause, a long moment, occasionally stretching out to the verge of discomfort (i.e. making the other person in the conversation uncomfortable).

The long pauses struck me as another marker for when a character hasn’t yet formulated a plan. Remember the old icons you used to get on Microsoft computers where a timer or an hourglass icon jiggled for a few seconds while a programme opened or closed or saved.

That’s what the pauses indicate a character is doing in a Jack Reacher novel. Processing information. Preparing another plan.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

Make Me by Lee Child (2015)

We can’t fight thirty people. To which Reacher’s natural response was: Why the hell not? It was in his DNA. Like breathing. He was an instinctive brawler. His greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. (p.136)

Make Me is the 20th novel in the series featuring tough ex-U.S. Army Military Policeman-turned-investigator, Jack Reacher. The series is immensely popular, with every one of the novels having been optioned for movies, and two – One Shot and Never Go Back – made into ‘major motion pictures’ starring Tom Cruise. Which is odd since Cruise is famously on the short side (5 feet 6 inches) whereas the whole point of Jack Reacher is that he is a hulking bear of a man (six foot five).

The single most interesting thing about the Jack Reacher novels and their star, a strikingly tall (6 feet five), street wise, intelligent and bullet-proof American tough guy, is that their author is English. Lee Child was born in Coventry and grew up in Birmingham. You can hardly get less glamorous and more provincially English than that. What turned him into an international publishing phenomenon? Eighteen years working with Granada TV, writing trailers, introductions, commercials and news stories. This honed his skills for getting to the point. (In fact Lee Child is a nom de plume: his real names is James Grant.)

The cover of the book is festooned with praise from his peers in the thriller writing business, such luminaries as James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Ken Follett, Stephen King and Frederick Forsyth. It is noticeable that all the women writers describe Reacher in terms of physique and sexual attractiveness.

Patricia Cornwell says she picks up Reacher ‘when I’m in the mood for someone big to solve my problems.’

Karin Slaughter says Reacher is ‘one of the sexiest characters in fiction.’

Joanne Harris says reading Reacher is ‘one of my essential guilty pleasures.’

The most revealing comment is from British journalist Lucy Mangan:

I am very much in love with Jack Reacher – as a man and a role model. If I can’t shag him, then I want to be him.

(The bold is in the originals.) Reacher is tall, blonde and handsome, He is strong and silent. He protects women and the vulnerable. He doesn’t cause trouble but if there is trouble he can more than handle himself in a fight. ‘What do women want?’ Freud is said to have asked. Jack Reacher, apparently.

Slow buildup

I was surprised and then amazed at how slow moving this novel is, very slow, very slow-moving indeed. It has 492 pages divided into fifty-nine short punchy chapters (8.3 pages per chapter, though each one manages to feel much briefer because of the snappy writing).

By half way through, the following has happened: Reacher has stepped off a train at a remote and minuscule settlement in the American mid-West, intrigued by its incongruous name, Mother’s Rest. A woman steps out of the shadows as he strolls towards the central strip of town, clearly expecting him to be somebody she knows, then realises he isn’t.

They get chatting and it emerges that she is Michelle Chang, ex-FBI, now a freelance investigator, having set up a company with a few other investigators in similar plights. One of them was named Keever. He called in to tell the others that he was investigating something here in Mother’s Rest, then disappeared. She’s come to find out why.

We, the readers, know why – because Child opened a novel with a description of ‘them’ – an unnamed group of men – burying Keever. He’s dead. They killed him. This much we know. But why?

Very slowly Reacher gets drawn into Chang’s problem, provoked by the unfriendliness of the guys in town. (All men are referred to as ‘guys’ throughout.) The one-eyed owner of the only motel is twitchy and nervous, refuses to answer questions about Keever, keeps an obvious eye on him and Michelle Chang (a name as tokenistically ethnic, but really as bland and commonplace as his own).

As Reacher moseys round the small town he realises he is being followed by a kid and that various store owners lift the phone as he walks by – phoning in his progress to a central figure, who goes unnamed – we only know that he wears pressed jeans and has blow-dried hair. They are all nervous about the way Reacher is snooping around. They all talk about ‘us’, and how ‘we’ will have to take some action… Creepy.

Reacher and Chang decide to drive to Keever’s apartment in Oklahoma City to find out more. Some guys from Mother’s Rest follow them as they drive. Reacher stops the car, gets out, confronts them and, as they go for their guns, kicks one in the nuts and smashes the other’s cheekbone with his elbow. He’s so tough. He’s so strong. Men want to be him. Women want to shag him. The appeal really does seem to be as primitive as that.

Reacher’s ‘technique’ is thoroughness

Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are clever and unexpected. Reacher’s feel far more obvious. He and Chang find a scrunched-up note in Keever’s room with a phone number and a name on it. They ring the number. It’s a science journalist in LA named Westwood. He agrees to meet them. They fly to LA. The science journalist explains that he gets calls from cranks all the time. Reacher guesses that whoever had hired Keever might be one of these cranks. They check Westwood’s database of calls. They systematically ring them all and eliminate all the obvious fruitcakes or unanswered calls. This narrows it down. One particular caller made lots of calls from Chicago, from a number they identify as the public library. They fly to Chicago. They take a taxi to a hotel. They check in.

By this stage Reacher and Chang have got beyond edgy camaraderie, progressed to sharing theories and hunches, and have had dinner together. He is tall, blonde and handsome with eyes of Arctic blue. She is lean and fit with curves in all the right places. Go on. Guess what happens. Yep. They go to bed. What do women want? To be wined and dined, to be respected and courted. And then to be shagged senseless by a tall, capable man. Repeatedly. In hotel rooms across America.

They visit the public library in Chicago where the calls came from. They interview the librarian who knew the old, sad man who they now think was the caller, Keever’s client, the instigator of Keever’s investigation, name of McCann.

As I mentioned, Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are deliberately made outlandish and improbable. By contrast, at every step of the way Reacher is shown working through the possibly scenarios with very clear logic and application. If Reacher has a method it is extreme thoroughness. At every stage, almost on every page, there are options and alternatives. He considers them rationally and logically. He works through them. He chooses the best one. It generally proves to be correct.

There is more than a touch of Mr Spock about Reacher.

Lucky man

But one of the things that makes this genre fiction – and at the light and popular end of thriller fiction – is the easiness, the fluency and the luck. Reacher is lucky, continually lucky.

He speculates that it was Keever’s client who called the LA journalist – and is proved right.

He speculates that the caller will have called in a specific time window 3 to 4 months earlier – and is proved correct.

He guesses that the caller, having been blocked by the journalist as a nuisance, will change his name and continue calling, but call from the same number or area code. He does, and that’s what helps them recognise the fake name he uses second time round, which in turn leads them to his real name – McCann.

(It helps that Chang has a contact in the US telephone system who does her favours and helps them identify the various numbers.)

All this evidence narrows the search down to Chicago so they fly there, check into a hotel, have sex, then visit the library. All of which proves to be the correct deduction.

Similarly, the polite lady librarian at the Chicago public library won’t give them the address of the man they have now identified as McCann, out of a sense of confidentiality – but Reacher asks a series of questions about whether he drove or took public transport to work (walked) and his health (poor) from which they deduce he his home must be among the surrounding three blocks. Which is correct.

A block away from the library is a dusty old pharmacy which sells the kind of temporary cell phones (known as ‘burners’) which they speculate that McCann used. So Reacher guesses that the old boy walked past it on his walk to the library – so his house must be in that general direction. Which turns out to be correct.

The librarian had said that McCann gave the impression that he was ashamed of where he lived. So Reacher guesses it’s not a nice house but an apartment, probably in a rundown block. And so it is that after half an hour of working along the street looking at nameplates to every flat on every apartment block, Michelle finds one with ‘Peter McCann’ on it.

They pretend to be making a delivery in order to get buzzed into the block, walk up to the apartment in question, to find the door is open.

And so on.

At every juncture Reacher makes reasonable enough guesses based on the odds, working things through steadily and methodically. But he is always lucky. The cards always fall his way. The time period of calls to the journalist turns out to be dead right. Chicago turns out to be the right hunch as location for the mysterious client. Guessing the pharmacy is the one where McCann bought his disposable phones turns out to be right. His apartment has a nice legible name label (unlike most I’ve ever visited) – and it gives McCann’s real name. The door to the apartment is unlocked.

In a similar way, Reacher’s guesstimates about how to pace things in his relationship with Chang turn out to be picture perfect – when to hold off, when to be polite and professional, when to be slightly more personal, when to take her to dinner, when to wait for her signal, when to make a first move (a kiss) and when to take her to bed – all turn out to be right. He is right all the time. About everything.

Tall, tough and handsome, and always right.

Fighting

This supernatural skillfulness comes into its own in the many scenes of violence, fighting and shooting.

When he gets out of the car he and Chang are driving to Oklahoma City to confront the two toughs who have been tailing them – the reader partakes in his expert assessment of the situation, his estimate of where best to stand in order to a) kick one in the nuts and still have time to b) smash the other in the face.

When an assassin confronts them outside Keever’s apartment, we once again share Reacher’s immensely detailed calculation of the best way to handle the situation and a literal blow-by-blow account of the fight.

Later in the book, Reacher and Chang go to visit McCann’s sister to find out more about his motives for hiring Keever. She’s married to a rich doctor and they’re supervising wedding celebrations for their grown-up daughter when three assassins hired by the Mother’s Rest people burst in. Three assassins with guns. Once again Child gives us an extremely detailed account of how Reacher thinks through the problem, works the angles, creates a diversion, and ends up killing all three and saving himself, Chang and McCann’s sister’s family.

We see his careful planning and calculations, so it’s not dumb luck. He thinks the problem through, calculates the angles, waits for the right moment. Still pretty lucky, though.

When they identify ‘the fat man’ in Arizona as the head of the organisation of hitmen which is trying to kill them – having been sub-contracted by the Mother’s Rest mob – Chang and Reacher a) fairly easily identify the nightclub which is a front for the gang b) find the gate to the fenced compound around the club conveniently open c) find the fat man sitting inside the compound, so that d) Reacher can walk up to him, shoot him in the head, turn and walk away. No bodyguards protecting him, no-one comes bursting out of the club firing at him.

Lucky, huh?

He is always right, about everything.

No wonder men want to be him. No wonder women want to shag him.

Characteristics of a Jack Reacher novel

Simple Child’s prose style is pared right back in the standard thriller style.

1. Partly because all modern American prose is pared back – generations of American creative writing teachers have told all their students to go over and over their manuscripts to remove unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, to keep it simple. So now American prose is simple.

Three Rugers, three guys. Black clothes, scalped hair, pale skin. Big enough and heavy enough, but also somehow bony. Tight cheekbones. Hard times in their DNA, from not too long ago. From Europe, maybe. Far in the marshy east. Every man against his neighbour, for the last thousand years. (p.330)

2. Partly because over the past hundred years the masculine world of crime fiction with its strong silent types has been associated with tough no-nonsense prose for tough no-nonsense guys. Hard boiled. Nothing soft or wishy-washy. True since the 1920s at least. Dashiell Hammett. Keep it simple.

Simple sentences. Short sentences. Sometimes three words. Or two. One. Limited vocabulary. Repetition.

Reacher listened hard, and heard nothing.
He stepped around the desk to the private side.
He glanced at the ledgers. And the files. And the notebooks. Routine motel stuff. Accounts, orders, to-do lists, percentages.
He listened again. Heard nothing.
He opened a drawer. Where the guy kept the room keys. He put 113 in, and took 215 out.
He closed the drawer.
He stepped back to the public side.
He breathed out. (p.73)

It gives a bleached-out, empty effect. Obviously designed to be tense and taut. Minimum perceptions. Human as robot, as terminator, stripped of all uncertainty and hesitation. A pure knowing, calculating machine.

A gated community. Rich people. Taxpayers. Political donors. The Maricopa County sheriffs on speed dial.
They waited at the kerb, a hundred yards short.
It was three in the afternoon. Five, in Chicago.
There was one guard behind the glass.
Reacher said, ‘We should have figured.’
Chang said, ‘If she’s heard about her brother, we’ll never get in.’ (p.291)

Said When characters talk they never question, answer, reply, respond, smirk. They never do anything with any colour or inflection. They just ‘say’. She said. He said. The guy said. They said.

Chang said, ‘He could be a brother or a cousin…’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said…
Chang said, ‘We have to be certain…’
Reacher said, ‘Did your contact mention family members?’..
Chang said, ‘We don’t know of any family members.’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said… (p.352)

The deliberate reduction of the complex and multi-faceted human activity of speaking, questioning, answering, discussing and joking down to one monotonously reiterated word – ‘said’-  typifies the general strategy of simplification.

All men are ‘guys’. All roads are blacktop. Taxis are taxis. They took a taxi to the hotel. It was part of a chain. The hard goods store is typical. The pharmacy is the type you see everywhere.

Hardly anything is really described, certainly not given any detailed vibe or atmosphere. That would require an element of subjectivity on the part of the narrator, that would involve soft, wishy-washy feelings and perceptions and these – in this genre – are banned.

Instead atmosphere is almost entirely implied by Reacher’s reactions to a situation, sizing up the guy, weighing the odds, calculating the angles.

Paused a beat Hence another characteristic: characters often pause in speaking — pause a beat or, in another common phrase, pause until the silence becomes uncomfortable.

He paused a beat… She was quiet for a long moment, five or six seconds, right to the edge of discomfort. (p.492)

During these pauses the characters – mostly Reacher – are calculating the odds, thinking the problem through.

Which Another mannerism is, after anyone has made a decision or acted a certain way, to have a short sentence starting with ‘which’ and approving it.

Which made sense. (p.349)

Which was a good question. (p.468)

Which was good. (p.457)

If you say it out loud, in a slow tough guy drawl, you can see how it conveys laconic, wise approval. One pro nodding approval of another pro. Good choice, Good move.

The bloody climax

In the end, you won’t be surprised to learn that the sleepy little ville of Mother’s Rest does indeed contain a gruesome and disgusting secret, a secret so sordid and violent that the townspeople are all jumpy whenever a stranger arrives, and have outsourced ‘protection’ to a Ukrainian mobster, Merchenko, and his hitmen. (Reacher, obviously, deals with the hitmen in the scene where they invade McCann’s sister’s house in Phoenix – referred to above – and then tracks down and coolly executes the mobster.)

In fact there are two secrets, a secret within a secret, which is very effective, in narrative and thriller terms. As the plot moves along, Westwood introduces Chang and Reacher to a geek who can access the so-called Dark Web, the vast cyberspace with hidden websites and transactions, mainly used for pornography and crime. He is referred to simply as ‘the guy from Palo Alto’ (p.378).

This guy uses the evidence our team have assembled – a middle-aged man named Peter McCann had a 30-year-old son he was concerned about and who had gone missing on a bus journey through Mother’s Rest, and had made repeat calls to Westwood asking for his help tracking him down – and discovers that the son – Michael – was a frequent visitor to dark websites concerned with suicide. It looks like he made a pact with someone he met on the Dark Web to go to Mother’s Rest and be euthenised.

In other words, the dark secret behind the sleepy little town, is that a dozen or so of its inhabitants have set up a euthenasia centre on a remote farm a dozen miles outside of town, where you can commit suicide in a number of ways. The computer guy tracks down a hidden brochure: injection of poison, carbon monoxide piped into a peaceful room to nice music etc.

Having discovered all this Reacher and Chang return to Mother’s Rest along with Westwood, pretty sure there will be a welcoming committee and there is: the ten or so men have posted lookouts around the town and are waiting with guns. There is a very bloody shootout. Reacher and Chang lure out of the stronghold, cosh and tie up five of the baddies, before the situation degenerates into a prolonged shoutout with the other five.

Despite being trapped in a large shed-like building with the baddies firing rifle bullets through the thin walls, our heroes in fact survive unscathed, while despatching all five of the armed baddies. Lucky, eh?

It is only during the shootout that they discover there is a drak side, an even darker side, to the euthenasia setup than they had originally thought. I won’t give it away, partly because it’s so disgusting, partly because… you should read it yourself!

Reacher is a calculating machine

By page 492 – in among the violence, the pared-back prose style, the inevitable film sex between Chang and Reacher and the incredible fluency and mobility of American life (on one level the book is a blizzard of planes and trains and coaches and taxis and hotels and gold cards) –  I kept being struck by the surprisingly Darwinian nature of its worldview.

The longer it goes on the more you realise that Reacher is a calculating machine – not doing sums, but calculating the odds of everything. What is really going on in Mother’s Rest, why does a shopkeeper glimpsed through a window move his arm (phoning someone?), what are his chances with Chang, how will the assassin in the doorway move next, how accurate will the shooters with their M16 rifles be – and so on. He never stops. He is permanently calculating the angles of everything.

Some of this is unconscious. On a number of occasions Child tells us that Reacher is calculating something with the frontal, conscious part of his mind – but meanwhile, the unconscious back part is making its own split-second decisions – what he refers to several times as ‘the lizard brain’.

A forty per cent chance, the back of Reacher’s brain told him, immediately and automatically… (p.332)

Then the guy in the yard opened the slider and stepped inside, and the back of Reacher’s brain showed him the whole chess game right there, laid out, obvious, in flashing neon arrows, in immense and grotesque detail… (p.327)

Meanwhile the guy [Reacher has just shot] was going down vertically, as if he had stepped into an elevator shaft, and Reacher was turning fractionally left, from the waist, shoulders braced, looking for the third-base guy, the furthest away, because some back-of-the-brain calculation was telling him the guy had a better line of fire… (p.337)

It’s like being inside the brain of a cheetah or a leopard, stalking its prey on the savannah, permanently calculating, continually alert to its next move.

At one point Reacher is described as a predator above the waterhole. This is exactly what he feels like all the way through. When not being pressed he is gentlemanly and courteous, to old ladies or women like Chang. But when pressed, he turns into super-predator, an unrivalled calculator of the odds for fighting and surviving and beating all the opposition in sight.

He’s not just tall and strong and trained to kill in twenty ways. He is a super-predator, a quintessence of the hunter-killer instinct which the biologists tell us is inside all of us.

Which men want to be, and women want to shag – in order to have babies by him, in order to be protected by him.

The heartlessness of American life

Where does Reacher get his money from? There seems to be no end to the train tickets, hire cars, flights, hotel rooms and taxis, taxis everywhere. Credit cards, cell phones, the internet, shiny hire cars, the rich doctor in his gated community, the party by the pool, power breakfasts, brunch in diners, dinners in restaurants – to me there is a sickening surfeit of wealth.

In their films and fictions, Americans seem to take it for granted that they can go anywhere, do anything, eat anything, shoot anyone. By and large Americans don’t realise how rich and privileged they are.

Which makes the contrast with the sickening sadism, violence and general heartlessness of almost the characters so upsetting and disturbing. The novel opens with a murder, there’s a lull while Chang and Reacher slowly uncover the powder trail leading to the gruesome truth – and then a steady increase in tempo of the opponents Reacher has to blow apart, eviscerate, behead, execute and generally murder.

For me there’s an umbilical connection between the two: The casual way they accept the train tickets, plane flights, hire cars, identikit hotel rooms, everything is described in solely functional terms, as expressions of wish and desire. I wanna go there. I’ll getta plane. I’ll hire a car. I’ll getta taxi. I want, I get.

The characters apply the same instrumental mindset to each other. You’re in my way. I gotta kill you. Sorry it ain’t personal, it’s business. I’m being paid to execute you, sorry but a job’s a job.

In the scene where the assassins burst in on Chang and Reacher talking to McCann’s sister and her family, the assassins – once they’ve lined the good guys all up on the sofa – proceed to share the fact that they’re upset: they were paid to kill three people (Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister) and now they’re confronted with five. Well, that’s not fair, is it? If they gotta kill five they want more money. I mean you would too, right? Am I right?

Presumably this scene is meant to be funny. In fact it’s the delay while the assassins try to figure out who the three they’ve been sent to assassinate – Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister – are (well, Chang being Chinese is easy enough, but they’re uncertain about the other two) that allows Reacher, with his lizard brain, to contrive a strategy which evens up the odds enough for him to tackle all three assassins and – lucky as usual – to go from sitting on a sofa completely unarmed, to getting the better of three armed assassins. What a guy.

It’s possible to enjoy books like this for the thrill of the narrative, for its tongue-in-cheek hard man prose, for its ridiculous love scenes – but still be appalled by the insight they give into a society which has been hollowed out and lost all its humanity.

Every possible facility of advanced twenty-first century life is laid on for these Americans. And yet, with a kind of tragic inevitability, books like this show how having everything has somehow withered Americans’ humanity and turned them into killing machines.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

%d bloggers like this: