How does one rate Reacher? By examining, first, what Reacher is. Reacher is a daunting, deadly, drifter detective. His books should be rated according to these qualities.
DAUNTING: Reacher's strength on the intimidation spectrum, from "simple staredown" to "stone cold kill a dude by looking at him hard". General badassery.
DEADLY: Number of bad guys dispatched through either fisty violence or gun violence.
DETECTIVE: The appliction of deductive reasoning towards either the solving of mysteries or the application of sudden, brutal violence.
DRIFTER: The propensity of Reacher to wander into a place, find a problem, and move on with zero attachments or consequences.
The axes are represented by coloured rings. The more colour in a circle, the more Reacherian the book.
Note that my rating order doesn't necessarily correspond to a point tally. This isn't an exact science. One goes with one's gut.
Trip Wire: In which we achieve Ultimate Reacher. When a book begins talking about a down-and-out hobo who is secretly an ex-military-cop who has been digging pools in Florida using a proprietary technique that exercises every muscle in his body at once, you know you're in for a ride. In this case, a ride that ends with crazed Vietnam vets, a bee-yoo-teeful goil, and tons of gunplay. Of all the Reacher books, this is the Reacherest.
One Shot: What does Reacher eat with his eggs for breakfast? Not regular ham. Reacher eats mayham. And there's mayham a'plenty in the second-best of the Reacher books. While a little toned-down on the Reacher front, without the bullet-stopping pecs and ultimate pool-digging of Tripwire, Child ratchets up the villains, with post-Soviet Russians that wouldn't be out of place in a Garth Ennis Punisher arc. I'm glad nobody will ever adapt this to make a film starring a tiny, tiny man in the title role. What was going to be a low Littlest Hobo score due to Reacher being literally phoned in gets bumped up due to stick-around-and-see-what's-up tenacity.
61 Hours: The gimmick is kinda cheap, but hella fun – and the countdown seems to give Child some juice that was lacking in the last couple of Reacher books, bringing us a more back-to-basics (no global/sociopolitical grand conspiracies) plot that has Reacher blowing into town and blowing up some dudes. Our first cliffhanger, which I have mixed feelings about, but a cliffhanger of such unparalelled... bigness that it's easy to forgive.
Bad Luck and Trouble: Maybe I'm a sucker for teams, but I'm a huge fan of Reacher's JLA (Justice League of Asskickery) and even though the band has never really been together on paper before this book, it's nice to see the band get back together. A tight plot, with Reacher getting to do his funky mathlete stuff right off the top, and some excellent setpieces including some spectacular explosions. Also a fun villain in Lamaison, who carries a certain I'm-too-old-for-this-shit weariness into the role. He knows he's going to die by the end of the book, you can just tell.
Without Fail: Hooray for Neagley! If you're reading the books in order, this is where we meet the first member of the JLA (Justice League of Asskickery), who provides a nice counterpoint to Reacher as Child dips his toes into the political thriller subgenre. A bit too heavy on "Reacher is smarter than everyone even these so-called super-agents do you see" Mary-Sue action, but an assassination plot – especially when Reacher gets to map it out – is a nice diversion from the usual punch-and-shoot. The worst cover in the entire series, as it actually shows Reacher, or somebody that one can easily assume is Reacher, decked out MiB style with a goofy black-wire earpiece that instantly dates the book about five years older than it actually is.
The Hard Way: A totally fine, mid-range Reacher. Turns out that the people behind giant private security firms are kind of murdering douchebags. I wonder who Child hires when he's doing public appearances and is worried about overzealous fans. Maybe nobody. A middlin' adventure, featuring middlin' villains and middlin' sex with a middle-aged woman. If there's a Reacher I'd recommend to somebody who is looking for some "just fine" Child, this would be it.
Nothing to Lose: A close tie with The Hard Way for mid-range Reacher: slightly better than The Hard Way for action and a compelling plot; slightly behind due to the terrible, terrible setting and the fact that Reacher spends half the damn book walking from Point A to Point B and back again. There's also a conclusion that... well, it's not Reacher Versus the Mole People, but it's a goddamn strange overreach. Loses out vs. The Hard Way on the scales because it's just that few extra feet into ludicrous.
Side question: was there some point where the publisher had a falling out with the cover designer for the Lee Child series and just said "hell with it, we're just going to put a target on the cover of every one of these bastards and have done with it!"?
Worth Dying For: Resolving the cliffhanger at the end of 61 Hours – sort of – puts some extra pressure on this book, and it staggers a bit under the strain. It’s solid Reacher, featuring the small town, local big man, small-minded bullies and (naturally) a beeyootiful lady, and it doesn't disappoint, but coming off the electric end of 61 Hours it can't help but feel a little flat in comparison.
Die Trying: the first (in publication order) “real” Reacher book -- third-person narrative, a good group of villains (right-wing terrorists – I'm not sure Child had quite figured out his audience's political leanings yet) and a solid mystery at the core (with more than a little Tom Waits in it: what’s he building in there?). A quick round of Batman deductive skills off the top, plenty of cold-eyed staredowns, and a smattering of beatdowns. Less a "Reacher finds a problem and solves a problem" than "Reacher gets suckered into solving people's problems for them," which harms the Littlest Hobo score. We also spend a lot of time with FBI geeks on a manhunt, which is... fine. But it leaves less time for Reacher-style mayhem.
Echo Burning: Putting aside the fact that this is mainly about a lady and horses, and that Lee Child's Texas seems to be a sand-blasted wasteland of bars and ranches populated by Yosemite Sam impersonators, a solid outing: a Reacher-classic intro of a chance encounter becoming a Reacher Problem, and more punch-ups than gunplay (and the punch-up is where Child seems to have the most fun, action-wise). The plot gets a little gnarly at the end, but once the dust settles, it's a cracking lesser entry in the series. With horses. Lots and lots of horses.
Persuader: Arrrrrgh, first-person Reacher – an automatic drop in my books, and a Threat From Reacher's Past, which is also a step back. I'm kind of fond of Paulie, though, as almost the perfect lowlife scumbag that Child loves to hate. A bit of a locked-room mystery; like Echo Burning, it's sometimes hard to get excited about single-location Reacher books. There's also a damsel in distress and a perpetual boy hostage that in my head looks just like Skippy from Family Ties. Probably the best of the first-person Reachers, which is damning with faint praise.
Gone Tomorrow: First-person Reacher. Nuff said? Probably not, but once again, a less effective book than the third-person entries. Without Fail handled the political intrigue stuff later, and Middle Eastern bad guys feel easy. It's a weird fit where there's nothing wrong with this book, other than the first-person narrative and everything just seeming a bit paint-by-numbers here.
Running Blind: Weird plot turns, our first Threat From Reacher's Past (sort of), an antagonist that can only be described as a supervillain, and the sludgy "Reacher's got a girlfriend, and now a house and hates the idea of yardwork" subplot turn this into a kind of a grind. What you think is going to be a mob story turns into a crazed-killer story, and then takes a turn for the unfortunately goofy as the mastermind's plan is revealed to be logistically bizarre and frankly kind of silly. Reacher is a bit underworked, and there's a lot of maudlin spans where people sit around depressingly plinking away at pianos and such. Reacher's also got no agency here, getting literally drafted into the plot rather than doing what he does best: wandering into town and getting into situations that aren't any of his business.
Killing Floor: A bit of a lurch into the series -- first-person, which immediately qualifies a book as Lesser Reacher, and hinges on a series of coincidences that veer from merely Reacheriffic (he rolls into a random town with a big problem) to black-hole-causing singularities (this also happens to be the town his older brother was investigating for a big case). Less thinking, more badassery, but a kind of diminished intro across the board.
The Enemy: First-person Army Days Reacher. Bah. A slodgy plot about corruption in the military, Reacher spending half his time acting like Reacher but riffing off his superiors like Mahoney in Police Academy. A kind of weird finale that involves probably the world's worst live-fire testing squad. Reacher beats up some folks, but no classics here.
The Affair: Meh! And once again, meh! A first-person Tale From The Past that exists only to fill in some speculative holes in Reacher's backstory, but with a lackluster plot and paint-by-numbers villainy. Child seems to have fallen sway to the compulsion that hits most creators that are responsible a popular protagonist with a mysterious past. Bulletin: we don't really want to know, and it's inevitably disappointing. Wolverine. Hannibal Lecter. Darth Vader. Not having the holes filled in is always much more satsifying than having them plugged for us.