For years, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Lee Child’s novels about Jack Reacher. I love the way the Reacher stories thrum with pleasurable uncertainty while I roll my eyes as Reacher’s over-the-top, alpha-male infallibility.
For me, the latter annoyance begins with his name.
“Jack Reacher” to me, is a moniker of such stereotypical gravitas that it feels like ridiculous deck-stacking on the author’s part. As well as on the part of every novelist or screenwriter who trots out a sweat-stained, blood-streaked, sperm-and-gunpowder knight-errant named Jack (or John, from which Jack etymologically spawns; other common derivatives in crime fiction include Jackson and Jake).
So, I wonder, could Jack Reacher be JACK! REACHER! if he were named, say, “Vernon Loudermilk” or “Nelson Nurdlefurtz”?
The born contrarian in me says, “Why not? It’s about the character, not the name, right?”
But a body of social science, and centuries of social conditioning says, “Absolutely not.”
MWA-NW member Bethany Maines, who writes cozy mysteries and romantic suspense, put the Jack matter in cold perspective: “No, of course not,” she said in answer to my question. “’Vernon Loudermilk’ is not a hero name. Heroes are aspirational and inspirational, and their names have to have good cultural weight and currency in the mind of the reader.”
She added: “In general, names are shorthand for what the character is—it has to sound right to the time and place. Which is why you won’t see characters named ‘Dick’ anymore. It’s a nice strong name, similar in sound and length to Jack… but the culture shifted.”
And it’s hard to deny that “Jack” has a flat, crisp, declarative sound. It sounds like a punch, or a breaking bone, or the crack of a baseball bat, or an authoritative shout or command.
And that stuff matters: Other chapter members said they considered matters of consonance in naming their characters. Glen Erik Hamilton, whose Edgar-nominated series of Seattle-based novels feature a knight-errant who drifts between both sides of the law, says he named his hero “Van Shaw” in part because it sounds “like a sword being unsheathed.”
Thomas Burchfield, whose novel BUTCHERTOWN is set in 1920s California, said he chose character names based on how they “ring in my ears.” He named his hero “Paul Bacon” because it “has a nice tone and rhythm, a kind of music, like a brief melody.” Laurie Rockenbeck, whose two set-in-Seattle police procedurals feature a transgender detective, says she chose the name “Court” for her hero “because it sounded masculine and appropriate for a cop.” And it also had a hidden layer, because “Court” was born as “Courtney.”
That said, Rockenbeck says she still found it easy to trip over names and their cultural resonance. For her heroine, Court’s counterpart, “I picked the name ‘Karen’ before the unfortunate meme went out,” she said.
Author Robin Lemke had an interesting take: “I love the flow of names that have one name that’s softer and the other that’s punchier: Lucien Blake, Jack Robinson, Adrian Monk, Dave Robicheaux, etc. I think it gives you some play with how other characters interact with them. Co-workers or people upset with them can use their shorter, punchier name—it’s easier to shout.” Softer names, she added, can be employed for characters when they’re at their most sympathetic. And “Jack Reacher” would seem to fit into both aesthetics.
So back to Jack. Or rather, all those Jacks. Is there any risk of “Jack” lapsing in popularity, or falling from its culturally fickle perch ala “Dick” or “Karen”? The sheer longevity of the name as shorthand for male super-competence seems to suggest that it won’t. In an article for The Take, film critic Jeff Saporito unpacks this question:
“The short answer is, we as a culture are hardwired to respond to those names as authoritative, identifiable characters,” Saporito wrote, adding that “Jack” and John” go back to the Bible, medieval legends and nursery rhymes. “They are short, strong and universal, capable of instantly branding someone with masculine qualities and a simultaneous ‘everyman’ persona.”
Film and television, he added, are “one Jacked-up industry.” And given that virtually every genre novelists aspires to a screen deal, that would seem to mean that the book industry has to be to some degree as well.
Take it from one of screendom’s most famous Johns, Johnnys and Jacks: Keanu Reeves. In an interview with Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey, Reeves said, “There’s an energy responsibility to that (name). When you say ‘Jack,’ the shape your mouth makes, the breath it takes, signifies loner, hero, renegade. Think John the Baptist, Johnny Guitar, Johnny Suede, Jack the Ripper, Jack Straw, jack-o-lantern.”
“And so,” Saporito concluded, “we’re not likely to see the end of Jacks and Johns filling our narratives.”
OK, I’ll accept that, even as I’ll continue to roll my eyes at it. But that leaves another question hanging for me: What are the female-character equivalents of Jack? Discuss.
Jim Thomsen, an MWA-Northwest Chapter member and former board member, is an editor and writer who lives in Kingston, Washington.