So, could a sword-and-sorcery icon like Robert E. Howard’s Conan ever tread the pages of modern mainstream fiction beneath his sandalled feet?
The answer is: for sure.
The Conan of today’s best-seller/mystery/thriller genre is a hulking former U.S. military police officer named Jack Reacher, the protagonist of a series of novels by Lee Child.
Over the past 12 years, Child — a native of England who now lives near New York City — has published a lucky 13 Reacher novels, with the fourteenth coming out early next year. The first, Killing Floor, won both the Anthony and Barry awards for best first mystery novel. Since then, Child hasn’t looked back. Neither has Reacher.
The Reacher novels are, indeed, excellent mystery yarns replete with enough twists, turns and feats of ratiocination to do Sherlock Holmes proud. But there’s an added dimension to the Reacher ouevre. Not only is the protagonist smart as a whip — he’s also harder than nails. Think Robert B. Parker’s Spenser on steroids.
Or … Conan with a SIG Sauer pistol in his hand.
I picked up my first Reacher novel, Nothing to Lose, from a supermarket paperback rack earlier this year. It was purely an impulse buy, as at that time I had not heard of either Lee Child or Jack Reacher. Unlike my first purchase of a Conan novel way beck when, this book did not sport a Frank Frazetta-style cover to grab my attention. The cover of Nothing to Lose depicted a sunset at the end of a highway rather than an image of the protagonist. I went ahead and bought the book anyway, thinking for no reason in particular that it might be more interesting than the usual thriller read.
It was … in more ways than I could imagine.
As I sped through the pages, I realized that Frazetta could indeed have painted a cover for Nothing to Lose. Although Reacher’s hair is short and blond in contrast to Conan’s square-cut black mane, the two are otherwise physical counterparts. Reacher stands six-foot-five and weighs between 220 and 250 pounds (his bulk varies in the novels). All that weight is lean muscle rather than the pumped-up bulges of a bodybuilder. Also like Conan, Reacher’s skin bears many battle scars.
And in the most obvious parallel to the Cimmerian, Reacher is a veritable berserker in combat. In this scene from Nothing to Lose, he takes on six thugs otherwise known as “deputies” during a bar brawl in a town aptly named “Despair”:
He slipped forward off his stool, turned, bent, grasped the iron pillar, spun, and hurled the stool head-high as hard as he could at the three men at the back of the room.
Before it hit he launched the other way and charged the new guy next to the guy with the damaged jaw. He led with his elbow and smashed it flat against the bridge of the guy’s nose. The guy went down like a tree and before he hit the boards Reacher jerked sideways from the waist and put the same elbow into the big guy’s ear. Then he bounced away from the impact and backed into the guy with the bad jaw and buried the elbow deep in his gut. The guy folded forward and Reacher put his hand flat on the back of the guy’s head and powered it downward into his raised knee and then shoved the guy away and turned around fast.
It goes on like this for a while, and then …
Eight blows delivered, one taken, one guy down for maybe a seven count, four guys down for maybe an eight count, the big guy still basically functional.
Time to get serious.
Of course, Reacher wins the fight efficiently. Conan could hardly have done it better, although the Cimmerian would never have gone into a bar without a weapon on him, and neither would his adversaries. In the Hyborian Age, to go unarmed was to go naked. In our era, that’s true only in some places, such as Afghanistan and Somalia. Not necessarily in Despair.
Here’s another example of Reacher’s physical prowess, as he grapples with a Russian thug even bigger than he is in the novel One Shot:
Vladimir glanced right, toward the sound. Reacher was already moving. Vladimir glanced back. Saw him. Pushed himself away from the table and half-rose. Reacher watched him calculate the distance between himself and the gun. Saw him decide to go for it. Reacher stepped into his charge and ducked under his swinging left hook and buried his shoulder in his chest and wrapped both arms around his back and jacked him bodily off his feet. Just lifted him up and turned him away from the table.
And then squeezed.
Best route to a silent kill against a guy as big as Vladimir was simply to crush him to death. No hitting, no shooting, no banging around. As long as his arms and legs couldn’t connect with anything solid there would be no noise. No shouting, no screaming. Just a long, labored, barely-audible tubercular sound as the last breath he had taken came out, never to be replaced.
Reacher held Vladimir a foot off the ground and squeezed with all his strength. He crushed Vladimir’s chest in a bear hug so vicious and sustained and powerful that no human could have survived it. Vladimir wasn’t expecting it. He thought this was some kind of preamble. Not the main event. When he figured it out, he went crazy with panic.
Vladimir’s inevitable demise occurs a few sentences later. The scene is reminiscent of Conan’s strangling match with Baal-Pteor in the story “Shadows in Zamboula.”
Another similarity between Reacher and Conan is that they are both wanderers. Neither stays in the same place for long, although Conan eventually took up long-term residence in Aquilonia — but only because he usurped that kingdom’s throne. The reasons behind the men’s rootlessness are different, though.
Conan left his native Cimmeria as a teenager, and his travels usually had a purpose: wealth, women and escape from run-ins with the law and battles gone wrong. It is only later in his life, when he became a leader of pirates, bandits, mercenaries and soldiers, that he began to think of settling down.
Reacher, on the other hand, has been rootless all his life. Born into a military family, he spent his childhood moving from base to base throughout the world. When he joined the military police as an adult, his travels continued. Although Reacher is an American citizen, he hasn’t spent much time in the country of his father’s birth. So when he decides to leave the military after spending all his life in its embrace, he sets out to explore America in his own way.
That way is frugal in the extreme. Reacher owns nothing more than the clothes he wears and a folding toothbrush. Sparing use of his military pension — accessed through Western Union and ATM machines — finances his meandering.
Although Conan was notorious throughout the Hyborian world even before he became king, Reacher is known only in select circles. Otherwise … well, this passage from One Shot tells the story:
He had no credit rating. He wasn’t listed as title holder to any real estate, or automobiles, or boats. He had no debts. No liens. No phone number. No warrants outstanding, no judgments entered. He wasn’t a husband. Wasn’t a father. He was a ghost.
Reacher talks about his choice of lifestyle in Child’s first novel, Killing Floor. Some of the novels, by the way, are written in first person, others in third … and interesting variation.
“Why aren’t you working?” Finlay asked.
I shrugged. Tried to explain.
“Because I don’t want to work,” I said. “I worked thirteen years, got me nowhere. I feel like I tried it their way, and to hell with them. Now I’m going to try it my way.”
To put this conversation in context, Reacher is under interrogation as the prime suspect in a murder he did not commit. He ends up helping the police solve the case.
Reacher avoids possessions like the plague. But he’s no ascetic. He likes women, and women like him. His sexual appetite and boudoir exploits easily equal those of Conan. Although Conan eventually makes a slave woman named Zenobia his queen, Reacher remains unwilling and unable to settle down.
These two hard men, separated by about 12,000 years of fictional time, are cast from similar molds. However, their differences are as deep as their affinites — as to be expected, given the contrast between the writing styles of Child and Howard.
Howard excelled at the pulp-magazine prose of the 1920s and ’30s. Child is an exemplar of the modern mystery/thriller style. He eschews the descriptive embellishments that make Howard’s stories so timelessly compelling. Child is, however, a master of technical explanation that doesn’t get in the way of his tight narratives.
Then again, the weaponry Reacher employs is far more complicated than the swords, axes and dirks Conan wielded.
Although Conan sometimes wanders alone, he is not a loner by nature. Reacher is. But Reacher is also something of a modern-day knight-errant, using his unique and dangerous skills to help people in trouble. Conan is more of an opportunist, constantly seeking his pot of gold … or diamonds … or rubies.
Whereas Conan battled warriors, soldiers, sorcerers and dire beasts and demons, Reacher goes up against gangsters, drug dealers, kidnappers and terrorists. Like Conan, he has a code of ethics that can be lethal to anyone who runs afoul of it. The aforementioned Vladimir, for example, was marked for death in part because he broke the neck of a woman Reacher was protecting.
Unlike Conan, though, Reacher has virtually no interest in wealth or status. Conan’s rise from barbarian youth to king of Aquilonia was convoluted, but credible. But there’s no leap of the imagination long enough to envision Reacher as a future President of the United States.
Child may or may not have been influenced by Howard. But both authors succeeded in creating larger-than-life heroes that are part of a line that goes back to Beowulf and beyond. If Conan existed today, he would probably be a lot like Jack Reacher. And if Reacher had been born in the Hyborian Age, he would have been a lot like Conan.
If you like one, you’ll like the other. I know I do.