Sunday, 20 February 2011

Ass-kicking justice, Reacher-style

Review - Worth Dying For, Lee Child

Ah, Jack Reacher. The 6ft 5in Terminator-like bringer of justice, who's up righting wrongs while Spider-Man and Superman are still pulling on their knickers and fighting over the Weetabix. For his latest ass-kicking session, Child deposits Reacher in Nebraska, where he sticks his nose into the business of the Duncan family, three ageing ex-farmers who rule their home county with a mafia-style grip.

When Reacher busts the face of one of their sons, suspecting him of beating his wife, the Duncans call in their heavies and send them in Reacher's general direction. If you've read any Reacher before, you know what's coming - pain for anyone in Jack's way, and a complex web of intrigue, a dirty great scab the Duncans want to keep hidden, and, well, Jack just can't help but pick at it.

I finished Worth Dying For several weeks ago, but as I started to think about a review, I realised there wasn't a whole lot to say. Not because it's a bad book; far from it, I think it's one of the finest of his fifteen adventures. But if you've already fallen for Reacher's charms, then you know you can't delve into the plot without removing the joy for others of watching the big man piece it together.

No, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to talk about Reacher himself, and what it is that has enthralled millions of readers around the world.

Six years ago, when I read the first Reacher (Killing Floor) and blitzed through the back catalogue at a pace which had me believing I had true stalker potential, I thought of each book as one of my small guilty pleasures. It wasn't just because they were selling by the shitload, and so could be viewed as overly commerical; it was because the writing seemed too straightforward, Reacher a blunt vengeance-wreaking tool, almost superhero-like in his quest for justice. He was Batman, without the cape. And that was fine with me, but the impression I got from reviewers (and punters) was that it wasn't cool to admit it.

As the years, and books, passed, I realised I'd pegged it all wrong. The more I studied writing, and publishing, I began to see the beauty, and subtlety, of what Child was doing.

Sure, it all seems fairly formulaic - Jack gets caught up in some intrigue, sometimes of his own doing, other times because he's in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing is quite as it seems, there's usually a woman involved somewhere along the line, and Jack is usually two steps ahead of the villains (and three ahead of the reader).

And it's easy to understand the attraction. Reacher is part Bond, part Batman, part Man With No Name, and all hero. In fact, if Eastwood was forty years younger, and forty pounds heavier, he'd be ideal for taking Reacher to the big screen. Reacher wanders the US, moving on once the problem has been solved and justice meted out, carrying nothing but the clothes he wears, a toothbrush and, reluctantly, a bank card.

It's a brilliantly simplistic idea that Child forged and developed. There is something in Reacher's lifestyle that appeals to everyone. MrsQ is no doubt going to read me the riot act, but would I like to live the kind of life that Reacher does? Hell, yes. At least, part of me does. And I defy anyone, man or woman, to say otherwise - even if it's just one per cent, even if you know there is absolutely no chance of you doing so, there's always that thought - wouldn't that just be so damn cool?

What fascinates me about Child's writing is the intricacies of the reveal. I picked up Worth Dying For as I lay in bed one night and when I stopped for breath, even thought about anything other than what I was reading, I was on page eighty. It must have been an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and it felt like ten minutes. It was half two in the morning, I was wide awake (I'd been dead on my feet getting into bed) and I had to keep reading. I eventually quit half an hour later, but only because I knew I was looking after the kids the next day, and they'd be pouncing on my head in about four hours' time.

It's page-turning expertise of the highest order. Child is a master at coaxing you on, not just with another bit of action, or the promise of seeing Reacher taking down a few of the bad guys. It's those morsels of info that he reveals, delicately placed throughout to ensure you're cursing his name when the kids demand a viewing of Spongebob at half six in the morning. That in itself is a prized skill for any writer to attain, and one that - to my mind - puts Child right up there with the best authors working today.

Returning to Worth Dying For, and indeed its predecessor, 61 Hours, I've noticed a change in Reacher. His time on the road might be numbered. Avoiding spoilers, he's focused on one thing now - both books follow his path back to Washington DC - yet, at the same time, his thirst for justice and willingness to put himself in harm's way seems to be more intense. At the start of Worth Dying For, there's a point where Reacher knows he can just keep on walking. He's not embroiled in anything yet, there's no 'event' which lands him where he is. He can avoid everything and not get involved in what he believes to be a domestic situation. But he can't help himself. It's as if the bomb that has been ticking inside him all these years is ready to detonate.

I've no idea what Child has in store for Reacher. When I interviewed him for the Litopia e-zine, Muse, fifteen months ago, he said that as long as people want to keep reading about Reacher, he was happy to write the books. Folk seem happier than ever to read them. But I can't help but feel that Reacher is being steered towards some kind of climax. Whichever way it pans out, I'll be right there with Jack, striding into danger, no matter what time of the morning it is.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A story worth waiting for...

During the fifteen years I spent as a freelance journalist, trainee and then staff journalist on regional newspapers, I can probably count on one hand the occasions when I felt proud of the work I did. Not those times when I thought I'd written a good story - rather, the times when I thought I'd actually done something worthwhile with what little talent I'd been granted.

One such instance was the £30,000-odd we raised in a month for breast cancer research, with the high point a world record-breaking chain of bras - 3.2 miles long - along Douglas Promenade (yes, the bras were empty at the time). All done in howling wind and pissing rain, but there was one hell of a sense of achievement when all was done and we were in the pub celebrating. Other moments were few and far between.

Then last night I heard some news that made me smile. And I'm still smiling now, twenty-four hours later. As a trainee on the Chorley Guardian, I received a letter from a woman called Diana Curren, highlighting the plight of a ruined historic building called Bank Hall, which stands by the River Douglas in the nearby village of Bretherton. The shell of the building remained, but it was crumbling away as the years passed and the grounds were wildly overgrown. Diana asked if anything could be done to raise awareness of the hall and protect if from any further deteroriation.

I met Diana at Bank Hall and instantly fell in love with the place. You could live a few hundred yards away from it and spend your entire life unaware of its existence. The hall dates back to the early 17th century, and you can read about its history here. It was the kind of place - both the building itself and the extensive grounds - for which the words moody and atmospheric were conjured.

Tall chimneys and a spectacular clock tower remained, but gone were the lime trees which once lined the drive to the front door, likewise the stone lions that guarded it. The building had been devastated by dry rot and the sheer weight of years of neglect.

Spurred on the by the visit, I wrote a feature on the hall's history and current plight. We asked for views from the public, and I wasn't expecting the strength of emotion the piece generated - particularly from those who either knew very little of Bank Hall, or were completely unaware of its existence.

I arranged a meeting (in a local pub, naturally) of interested parties and from that meeting was born the Bank Hall Action Group. I stayed active within the group, covering developments as a plan was formed. It led to the Chorley Guardian running the 'Save Bank Hall' campaign, which won awards. The strength of feeling within the community was astonishing. Over the next twelve months, meetings were held with the owners. Access was established, to the grounds if not the building, and - after what seemed like an age - some initial stabilising work was undertaken.

But then the campaign seemed to stall. There was little indication from the owners and the council of any real desire to come up with a solution. Some schemes were suggested, but never came to fruition. In September 1996, I left Chorley and returned to the Island.

The following years saw further work carried out - ivy was stripped away, trees growing out of the foundations were removed, and the garden was cleared of the jungle that was strangling it. More of the grounds were opened to the public, a visitor museum was built and each year a calendar of events was organised. I managed to stay in touch from time to time, one day hoping that the building could be restored in some way.

As the years passed, I lost faith. I shouldn't have. The Bank Hall team continued to work tirelessly behind the scenes. The website was created , a Facebook page appeared, the campaign to save the building continued to gather pace. The hall was also in with a chance of winning the first series of BBC's Restoration, which saw derelict historic sites vying for the public's vote.

Last night I heard the news that planning approval has finally been granted for a project that will restore Bank Hall, if not to its exact former glory, then at least to what should be a decent version of it. There will be apartments, and a visitors' centre in the clock tower and main hall/porch, a walled heritage garden (back to how it was in its pomp) and conversion of the greenhouse and potting sheds into a visitor entrance and cafe.

In this day and age, it sounds like a fair compromise. The news brought with it another rare feeling of pride from my time in journalism, five years after I left it. The wait has been worth it. What started sixteen years ago, with me as a wet-behind-the-years rookie trying to find a feature with which to fill a page gap before deadline, has ended - all being well - with a victory for people power.

I write these words not as a self-congratulatory pat on the back, but as a tribute to the folk who took up the fight in those early days and those who continued to carry the baton as the years passed. It also serves as a reminder that, whatever it is you want in this life, most of the time you have to work damn hard to get it - and if you give up on your dreams, you won't live to see them come to glorious life. And that's particularly apt within the world of publishing.

My thanks go to everyone in the Bank Hall Action Group, past and present. A fantastic achievement.

(My thanks also to Bank Hall tour guide John Howard for allowing me to use his photographs - if you want to see more cool pics, visit - and like - the Hall's Facebook page here)