Our heroes are all dead - thank goodness!
Move over James Bond, the new action heroes are also good role models
The heroes of thrillers have not, traditionally, been the greatest of role models for young men. In Ian Fleming’s novels, the manliness of James Bond can be expressed as a mathematical formula: number of baddies killed plus number of babes bedded, divided by number of minutes spent on self-examination.
Major-General Sir Richard Hannay, the star of John Buchan’s novels, including The Thirty-Nine Steps, has sadistic tendencies that most often emerge when there is a chance to thrash a foreigner, while the late American crime writer Mickey Spillane made a fortune by having his “hero” Mike Hammer deploy sickening violence against villains, especially women who had betrayed him.
In recent years, however, there has been a shift in the way some thriller writers portray their heroes. There are still plenty of strong, silent types who’d rather wrestle a grizzly bear once a day than go home to a wife and kids every night; but now they try not to string women along, seek to help the downtrodden, and don’t have Bond’s smirking relish for violence. Men who come to these books for the action are staying for the life lessons.
Perhaps the most famous example is Lee Child’s world-conquering drifter Jack Reacher. Reacher, who has been described by his creator as “post-feminist”, is happy to use women as wingmen when tackling the bad guys, rather than treating them as delicate flowers to be protected. And when the fighting’s done he never, as Bond habitually did, forces himself on a woman or professes undying love when he plans to hitch a ride out of town the next day. And unlike Bond, he doesn’t play around with floozies on the taxpayers’ time; Reacher helps people in need because it’s the right thing to do, not for a pay cheque.
Was it important to Child to make Reacher a positive role model when he first created him?
“Actually it was,” he says. “I was thinking about grown men, looking at him eye to eye. I was saying: ‘This is how real men behave’.”
Child thinks that books, in general, provide more positive heroes than films or television. “There’s often a kind of obligatory edginess in screenplays. I call it ‘Noir for no reason’. Bad guys and worse guys. Nothing wrong with noir for whatever reason, but we’re talking role models here. Books are better.”
Younger thriller writers are following in Child’s footsteps in writing about “real men” who make good role models. They include Mason Cross, creator of the brilliant but likeable manhunter-for-hire Carter Blake (The Killing Season); Tim Weaver, who writes about David Raker, a missing-persons investigator with an affinity for lost souls (Chasing the Dead); and the American author Gregg Hurwitz, whose 2016 novel Orphan X introduced Evan Smoak, who has been trained from the age of 12 to be an assassin for the American government.
In Hurwitz’s novels, Smoak, like Bond, has spent a lifetime avoiding emotional ties so he can concentrate on honing himself into a killing machine. But then he starts to fall for his downstairs neighbour, a single mother called Mia — who, as Hurwitz puts it, “represents all the messiness, warmth, and complication that come with intimacy” – and has to find a way of admitting her into his life without losing the focus that is essential to his unconventional day job.
Despite the fact that Smoak kills people for a living, Hurwitz tells me that he is appealing to readers: “I get e-mails, posts, notes every day from boys and men of all ages who feel really engaged with Evan and his emotional journey. The good news is that I also hear a lot from women who are drawn to Evan, who see in him something worthwhile and uplifting.”
In Hurwitz’s book, Evan attempts to follow the “12 Rules for Life” devised by Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian clinical psychologist.
Hurwitz is a former student of Peterson’s at Harvard and a close friend. (“Fifteen years ago he officiated my wedding, making our service the only one on historical record to quote extensively from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche,” Hurwitz tells me.) Before Peterson’s guidelines to masculinity became a bestseller earlier this year, Hurwitz made use of them in Orphan X.
In that novel, Evan has had a series of commandments drummed into him from childhood to help him achieve his potential as a killing machine. But when he discovers that his love interest Mia has been teaching her young son about Peterson’s 12 rules — maxims such as “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient“; “Make at least one thing better every single place you go”; and “Treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping” – he starts to ingest their wisdom himself, making him conscious that even those who spend their days killing off their country’s deadliest enemies can strive to become even better citizens by engaging with the community and conducting themselves well in their personal relationships.
Smoak, says Peterson, “embodies the principle of forthright, meaningful action in the face of catastrophe and evil, which might be regarded as the central ethos of 12 Rules”.
Hurwitz himself believes that the brilliant but socially awkward Evan is “a good role model, paradoxically, because he’s deeply flawed. It’s easy to be perfectly disciplined when there’s no spouse or partner to accommodate, no kids to look after. In Evan Smoak, I created a thriller hero who veers heavily towards perfection on that see-saw tilt. But here’s the thing. He wants to understand intimacy. Which is something that any grown man worth his salt has to figure out.
“I did engage with this issue consciously, because I’ve been distressed by how much talk there is about toxic masculinity. But almost none about positive masculinity. What boys are seeing are largely examples of toxic masculinity or self-appointed societal guardians pressuring boys to admit their toxic masculinity. There are fewer advocates for the sense of adventure and risk that teaches young men to contend with their inner and outer challenges in order to hone themselves into worthwhile people, partners and fathers — into strong men worthy of the company of strong women.”
It could still be argued that taciturn loners who kill people are not great role models. Hurwitz disagrees. “There are two aspects of Evan’s character that I think are essential here. One, he only uses minimal necessary force and only commits violence in the protection of others. And two, he isn’t as emotionally intelligent as some when it comes to intimacy and everyday interactions, but he’s striving to figure it out. He’s not some chin-cleft, High Plains Drifter, content to fight and roam the wastelands on horseback. He’s confused and intrigued by the emotional and psychological landscape he sees before him, and attacks that dangerous unknown with the same courage and vigour he applies to any other mission.”
Does Child see problems with Reacher as a role model? “On an emotional level, could a young reader decide to retreat into silent stoicism, and thereby damage his relationships? Yes, probably, but I sincerely hope fewer than might see Reacher treat women better than their uncles do, and most of all see him always in a position of greater power, yet acting with courtesy and restraint.”
– © The Daily Telegraph