10 Best ‘Jack Reacher’ Books, Ranked
The Big Picture
- The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child has had mixed success with its adaptations, with Tom Cruise’s portrayal receiving criticism.
- The new Reacher series on Prime Video, starring Alan Ritchson, has been a hit and has already been renewed for a third season.
- The below list ranks the top 10 Jack Reacher books, highlighting their compelling plots, character development, and moral dilemmas.
There are 27 books in Lee Child‘s ongoing series following the adventures of military investigator turned noble-ish drifter Jack Reacher. Before handing the keys to his Mission: Impossible franchise over to Christopher McQuarrie, Tom Cruise drafted him to write and direct 2012’s Jack Reacher, adapted from Child’s ninth book in the series, One Shot. Cruise is no one’s idea of what the six-foot, five-inch, 250-pound Reacher is supposed to look like, but he and McQuarrie turned in a solid action-thriller that accurately caught the book’s tone. The critical drubbing and audience indifference to 2016’s anemic follow-up, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, effectively killed another Cruise franchise.
Now, Alan Ritchson (Smallville’s former Aquaman) has taken over the role for the latest adaptation of Child’s books, Prime Video’s Reacher series. The premiere was an undeniable success for the streamer; the show was renewed for a second season only three days after its launch on Prime Video, and a Season 3 renewal soon followed before Season 2 had even premiered. While Season 1 followed the first book in Child’s series, The Killing Floor, and Season 2 was based on the events of the eleventh book in the series, Bad Luck and Trouble, it was recently confirmed that Season 3 would adapt Book 7, Persuader.
Whether you’re a longtime fan of the books or brand-new to the franchise thanks to the Prime Video series, you might need to know the best place to start. Here are the 10 best Jack Reacher books, ranked.
When retired Military Police Officer Jack Reacher is arrested for a murder he did not commit, he finds himself in the middle of a deadly conspiracy full of dirty cops, shady businessmen and scheming politicians. With nothing but his wits, he must figure out what is happening in Margrave, Georgia. The first season of Reacher is based on the international bestseller The Killing Floor by Lee Child.
In a typically intricate plot, Lee Child’s third book in the series finds Jack Reacher in Florida, digging pools by shovel during the day, while working as a bouncer by night. When a private eye finds him on behalf of someone he’s never met and is gunned down shortly thereafter, Reacher finds himself drawn into the orbit of a deadly black market moneylender. The daughter of his former mentor enlists his help in tracking down a helicopter pilot thought to have died in Vietnam, leading to a ruthless, hook-handed villain and a bullet in Reacher’s chest. Tripwire makes it into the edge of the top 10 thanks to Child’s shading of Reacher’s character. Usually, Reacher is a constant from the beginning to the end. He doesn’t change much, if at all. However, when he is vulnerable and capable of injury, his facade cracks a bit, making him more human and compelling.
9 Die Trying
Die Trying opens with Reacher stopping to help a total stranger with her dry cleaning. They’re both held at gunpoint, tossed into a van, and driven across the country. He discovers that the woman is FBI agent Holly Johnson, daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and goddaughter of the President of the United States. The third book in Child’s series drags Reacher into a dilemma with far-reaching consequences. Most Reacher books deal with more modest, localized crimes and conspiracies, but Die Trying’s national scale is an outlier. The plot verges on the absurd (as many others do), but it remains an entertaining read thanks to some blockbuster action sequences. Reacher’s unrequited romantic interest in Holly also adds a bit more dimension to him.
8 Make Me
Many of the Reacher books start with simple coincidences, which then snowball into wildly complicated situations. Make Me follows this basic premise, as Reacher gets off a bus in the small Midwestern town of Mother’s Rest just because he likes the name. He meets a private detective named Michelle Chang and throws in with her as she investigates her ex-partner’s disappearance. Make Me delves into another small-town conspiracy plot, but is notable for some continued development of its main character. Child doesn’t go too long without a romantic interest for Reacher, but Michelle Chang is no one-night stand. She and Reacher develop a strong bond and end up together by the end of the book. Make Me’s overall plot is not quite as compelling as some others, but it offers a significant bit of growth for Reacher. No one expects him to settle down anytime soon, but Child hints that he is at least (in theory) open to change.
7 The Enemy
In the first Jack Reacher book, the main character is six months out of the Army and very bitter toward that particular institution. Lee Child toggles between first and third-person narrations throughout the series, with The Enemy serving as a prequel in the first-person. Rolling back the clock to when Reacher was a military investigator, The Enemy finds him delving into the scandalous death of a major general. He discovers a bigger scheme to prevent the modernization of the American military via the assassination of top military officials. This look at Reacher on the job offers an intriguing contrast with the bulk of the series, where he is a drifter who prefers anonymity. During The Enemy, Reacher’s mother dies in Paris. Between that loss and Reacher’s discovery that the military will cover up any embarrassing scandals like any other bureaucracy, we find a source for the man’s bitterness.
6 Without Fail
Reacher’s past finds him again as his former Secret Service agent brother’s colleague and old flame, M.E. Froelich, reaches out with an offer: help her plan to assassinate the Vice President. Without Fail nimbly merges a standout thriller plot with some deeply affecting personal stakes for Reacher. He falls into bed with Froelich, but he and the reader learn how much she still loves Reacher’s older brother in a heartbreaking scene near the end. Without Fail delivers a more interesting storyline than many other Reacher books, as Child again drags Reacher into a plot on a scale that could affect the entire country. The book delivers the kind of incremental character growth we’ve come to expect, which dovetails nicely with stakes that become personal for Reacher by the end.
5 61 Hours
The fourteenth book in the series finds Child upending much of his successful formula for the previous books. Typically prone to wandering the Southern and Midwestern U.S., this time Reacher finds himself in a snowbound small town in South Dakota. The local police are trying to protect the sole witness to a major methamphetamine operation, but they are contractually bound to come running if there is an emergency at the huge local prison. When the cops discover Reacher’s background, they naturally want his help. Things are not exactly as they seem, as Reacher uncovers a conspiracy within the police department related to surplus World War II equipment, including certain stimulating substances meant for bomber pilots. The cops have linked the meth operation to Plato, a Latin American drug lord and little person. The final sequence takes place in small tunnels beneath an old Air Force facility, where Plato’s size gives him a rare advantage over Reacher. Throughout 61 Hours, Reacher is way outside his usual hyper-competent comfort zone. He makes mistakes, is too late to save a key character, and needs help. 61 Hours introduces Major Susan Turner, Reacher’s replacement in his old division, and their hint of romance carries over through the next few books.
4 Gone Tomorrow
Gone Tomorrow begins with one of Child’s most ingenious setups. On a New York City subway, Reacher suspects a fellow passenger might be a suicide bomber. Narrated in the first person, Reacher runs down all the tell-tale signs. When he attempts to help her out of the situation, she shoots herself in front of him. Driven by a need to know what happened — and guilt over her suicide — Reacher investigates and promptly drops down a disturbing rabbit hole. The bomber, Susan Mark, was a pawn in a bigger plan involving the dark secrets of a crooked congressman, undercover terrorists, and federal agents willing to neutralize Reacher to keep things covered up. Published in 2009, Gone Tomorrow examines a morally gray post-9/11 world. In different hands, Reacher’s clear moral throughline could come off as jingoistic or insincere. Child keeps us grounded in Reacher’s calm fury as he penetrates layer after layer of lies and betrayal. Reacher usually wipes out the corrupt, hidden garbage people behind the shadowy plot, but Gone Tomorrow’s ambiguous ending reflects the morally complex world around him.
3 Worth Dying For
The basic premise of the Jack Reacher books parallels any number of American Westerns: a capable stranger wanders into town, sniffs out some trouble, and mops the floor with the bad guys by the end. Lee Child often takes pains to steer his installments away from obvious Western territory, but in Worth Dying For, he leans right into it. Usually, Reacher is content to mostly stay out of trouble until he can’t, but this time he goes looking for it. Reacher overhears a drunk doctor in a remote Nebraska bar blow off a call from a patient. He drives the doctor to the house of a man named Seth Duncan, whose father and uncles run the county, and who clearly beats his wife. Reacher gives Duncan a piece of his mind (and fist), and becomes embroiled in a conflict with the entire Duncan clan. Reacher is in classic hero mode in Worth Dying For, which contains some of Child’s richest prose and sharply drawn supporting characters. Reacher ably dispatches wave after wave of would-be hitmen, which could become tedious if not for Child’s skillful handling. In Worth Dying For, the Duncans are such odious creatures that keeping Reacher in a superior position makes for a ripping good read.
2 One Shot
The 2012 Jack Reacher movie adapted One Shot as a kickoff to the would-be franchise, which was a wise decision. McQuarrie and Cruise stay quite faithful to the source novel, which arguably features Child’s most engaging plot. A shooter seemingly kills five random people with six shots. One missed shot conveniently leaves a bullet behind. This evidence leads directly to a former Army sniper named James Barr, who will only tell the police that he’s the wrong guy, and to find Jack Reacher. They don’t have to, since Reacher sees a CNN report about the killings and immediately heads that way. He’s not there to defend Barr, but to help put him away. Barr is counting on Reacher’s clear moral purpose, but he’s beaten so badly that he can’t remember anything about the day of the shootings. Reacher must piece together what happened, and in the process picks apart the prosecution’s case. One Shot presents one of the best moral dilemmas for Reacher. While in the Army, Barr committed an unsanctioned mass murder at long range. Army politics allowed Barr to walk free, but Reacher promised that if he ever stepped out of line, he’d be there to bury the sniper in prison. One Shot gives Reacher perhaps the closest thing to a Bond villain he’s ever faced in the sinister Russian mob boss known only as the Zec, played by the unforgettable Werner Herzog in the film. One Shot presents Child’s writing at his peak, gradually tightening the Swiss watch of a plot as Reacher balances his hatred of Barr with the morality of railroading an “innocent” man.
1 Killing Floor
The Reacher series started at the beginning, adapting Child’s first Reacher book, Killing Floor. While Child would go on to craft more sophisticated action-mystery plots for Jack Reacher to unravel, this character’s debut is unmissable for the fresh approach Child brings to this genre. Written in the first person, Killing Floor remains his most compelling adventure as it introduces readers to this remarkable character, who is both an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Six months out of the Army after 13 years of service, Reacher drifts across the United States. He finds himself in Margrave, Georgia, simply because his brother once told him that blues legend Blind Blake somehow died there. The opening chapter tells us everything we need to know about Reacher. As the local police herd him out of a diner with shotguns, he narrates calmly, assesses the situation, and decides not to break their arms and take their guns. We understand that he absolutely can, but chooses not to, even though he’s done nothing wrong. As he is clearly railroaded for a murder he couldn’t possibly have committed, Reacher uncovers the first of many small-town conspiracies he will come across. This Reacher is bitter, rather cold-hearted, and has a much bigger chip on his shoulder than he will in later installments. In a morally gray universe, Reacher’s unflagging sense of justice is already fully formed in Killing Floor.
Both seasons of Reacher are currently available to watch on Prime Video in the U.S., with Season 3 to premiere at a date yet to be announced.
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