The Vigilantes Who Made Justice Cool Again

As the latest Jack Reacher thriller hits the shelves, we look at the principled, anarchy-taming characters who came before him.

In Lee Child’s 19th novel, Personal, Jack Reacher, the U.S. Army major turned vigilante, is brought back into service for the State Department after a sniper tries to assassinate the French president. Really, though, Reacher is being reinstated for the readers who lose sleep over every installment of the maverick’s adventures—to the tune of more than 90 million books sold to date. The disappointing Jack Reacher, the 2012 Tom Cruise film, only reinforced how we like our Reacher stories: in the realm of paperbacks, as he continually returns to apply his code of honor in a lawless world. And Reacher’s just one of fiction’s great mysterious strangers. Here are five other smart, rootless loners who will keep you turning pages.

Jim Lassiter 

In Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, the 1912 novel that created the blueprint for nearly every western that followed, gunman Lassiter—“snake mean and rawhide tough”—tries to save a plucky woman from polygamist Mormons. Though Lassiter is a type seen in nearly all of Grey’s many western novels, Sage was his most popular and influential work, and Lassiter was featured in both the sequel and a series of pulp westerns. — The best of the booksRiders of the Purple Sage

The Saint

The hero of more than 100 novels by Leslie Charteris, the Saint (a.k.a. Simon Templar) is a wandering Robin Hood with a taste for good food and fine clothes—and in possession of a vast store of specialized knowledge, specifically about horses, airplanes, and knives. Templar on Templar: “In my small way I try to put right a few of the things that are wrong with this cockeyed world.” — The best of the books: Hard to pick from so many, but the first big seller was The Saint in New York.


Richard Stark’s master criminal, who first appeared in 1962, approaches his job with machinelike efficiency. Parker (no first—or is it last?—name) ruthlessly follows his own code: He never double-crosses anyone and will take brutal revenge on any soul who messes with him. Sure, he may be pathological, but we love him because, like Don Corleone and Hannibal Lecter, he’s so damn good at what he does. — The best of the books: Any of the first three (The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, The Outfit). 

Travis McGee

Though McGee’s adventures are confined to Florida, where he cruises on his boat, the Busted Flush, John D. MacDonald’s hero—first introduced in 1964—is always on the move. Acting as a so-called “salvage consultant,” McGee is hired to find missing or stolen goods, but he nearly always becomes entangled in matters of the heart—particularly when it comes to women. — The best of the booksThe Dreadful Lemon Sky.

The Gunslinger

Introduced in the late ’70s, Stephen King’s Gunslinger (a.k.a. Roland Deschain) wanders a desert that is part Old West, part postapocalypticdystopia, and part parallel universe. He is searching for his nemesis, an evil entity known only as the Man in Black. Like many Old West heroes, the Gunslinger is a good man who kicks ass— even kills—in the name of justice. — The best of the books: Start withThe Dark Tower, and read them in order.