I don’t read a lot of mystery or suspense novels, but many of my favorite reads in other genres include those elements.  One example is “Gun, With Occasional Music”, by Jonathan Lethem.  It’s about 75 percent noir detective novel and 25 percent science fiction.  One thing I enjoy from the suspense novels I do read is a tough-as-nails protagonist with a soft, chewy center.  These are men unusually cool under fire, and they never take the easy road if it deviates from what they believe to be the just path.  Don’t ask them to talk about their feelings, and don’t ask them to apologize for punching a deserving villain in the face.  To them, the legal system is for people who respect the law, and there is only hot lead for those who prey on the innocent.

I’ve come late to read the Jack Reacher novels, but I couldn’t ask for a better leading man for these types of stories.  He’s smart and versed in investigative techniques, but when necessary he’s perfectly capable of kicking some butt, busting down a door or voluntarily taking a bullet to protect a friend. What has endeared him to me the most is his ability to consistently surprise his enemies with his ingenuity and deadly competence.  Characters seem to underestimate him at first, and then scramble to stay one step ahead of him as he draws closer.  That’s probably how he’s stayed alive long enough to appear in so many of Lee Child’s novels.

The Swagger men are the protagonists in novels by Stephen Hunter.  I read most of the Bob Lee Swagger novels first, recommended to me by a friend in the library where I worked.  His experiences as a Marine Corps sniper during the Vietnam War are ancient history at the time of the novels, but it always seems  to be these trials that simultaneously keep him alive and at the edge of death.  Bob is a man of his word, and this sometimes makes his actions predictable and susceptible to the schemes of those with fewer morals.  Unfortunately for them, his methods are unpredictable, and he’s usually the last person they ever see.  Bob’s father, Earl, died when Bob was very young but left an impression that shaped Bob’s opinions of manhood, duty and integrity that he always strives to duplicate.  Earl won the Medal of Honor in WWII and kicked the Mob out of Hot Springs, Arkansas.  Both of the Swagger men never hesitate to put themselves in danger to defend lesser mortals against aggressors.

Hap and Leonard, from Joe Lansdale, are slightly more morally ambiguous than my earlier examples. Their hearts are in the right place, and they do the best they can to stick by their friends, especially each other.  They grew up together, back to back, defending each other in many scraps as kids. Unfortunately trouble seems to find them, especially when they stick their necks out to help friends and family.  They are usually quickly over their heads, seeking help where they can from a variety of memorable characters.  Along with Lansdale’s brand of humor, they are a winning combination of protagonists.  When push comes to shove, they aren’t shy with their fists. Though possessed of tough exteriors, they occasionally reveal just how much they mean to each other, when they’re not bickering like an old married couple.

If these tough guys sound worthy of your time, you’re in luck.  They’re all featured in multiple novels, and I hope I never see the end of them.