As genres bleed into the mainstream, people who were blissfully unaware of superhero tropes in the past are now becoming mutant connoisseurs and experts on the effects of radiation exposure when combined with insects, animals, or mad scientists (or all three). This acceptance of the superhero as literary star shouldn’t be surprising—there have been superhero characters outside of science fiction for ages. To prove it, here are five characters that are basically superheroes, despite appearing in books that aren’t in any way speculative fiction. They would be an unstoppable team of literary Avengers.
Marathon Man, by William Goldman
Goldman’s classic 1970s thriller not only inspired one of Laurence Olivier’s most memorable film performances (the phrase “Is it safe?” is still a monumental buzzkill), it introduced the titular character, real name Tom Levy, into the cultural landscape. Through no fault of his own, Levy is caught up in a world of espionage and assassination, and makes it through only because of his superpower: superhuman endurance. He survives horrific torture and manages to triumph in the end only because he can keep going when his enemies have to slow down to catch their breath. If you’ve only seen the movie, the book is not only more tense and exciting than you might think, it’s also much less sweaty than you might expect (although still plenty sweaty).
Memory Man, by David Baldacci
Superpower: Perfect memory
Amos Decker’s life gets ruined twice. The first time, a head injury ends his professional football career, but blesses/curses him with a perfect memory stretching back even before the injury, allowing him to access details as if his brain were a DVR. The second time, he loses his family to a grisly murder, and is almost destroyed. When that tragedy turns out to have been the first step in a fiendish plan personally targeting him, his super memory is what helps him survive and solve the mystery. It’s a novel that seems to consciously draw on superhero tropes for much of its structure, including the origin story, the doppelgänger villain, and the “Moment of Despair” so common in superhero stories.
Jack Reacher, by Lee Child
Jack Reacher is one of the most popular modern fictional characters, a huge man who towers over everyone he meets, who maintains peak physical fitness despite never mentioning, even in passing, a workout regimen (although, to be fair, he walks everywhere and spends much of his time punching people). Reacher’s brawn and physical size is matched only by his big brain, and the two together, combined with a keen sense of justice and morality, make him every criminal’s worst nightmare. Remember how the A-Team used to show up and help folks fight villains more numerous, better funded, and more heavily armed? Reacher is large enough and smart enough to be his own self-contained A-Team, setting things right before walking off into the sunset while the “Lonely Man” theme from the old Incredible Hulk TV show plays.
Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle (and others)
Superpower: Super logic
The “Sherlock Scan” is so well-known it is literally a trope, but when viewed through a reality filter, some of Holmes’ deductions can seem a bit supernatural. Over the course of more than a century, Holmes has arrived at countless crime scenes and figured out what’s happening merely by observing available data and then engaging in some vaguely unsavory substances abuse. His immense intelligence is shown time and time again to prevail over just about every obstacle or threat—even his most evenly matched enemy, Professor Moriarity, could only mostly kill Holmes, who figured out a way to come back.
Dexter Morgan, by Jeff Lindsay
Superpower: Lack of empathy
Most of us are prevented from doing terrible things through a complex combination of an inner moral sense, fear of consequences, and empathy for our fellow living creatures. Dexter Morgan has only one of those things, and it is only his fear of consequences that keeps him from more or less destroying the world. That very same lack of empathy, however, also makes him one of the most powerful people in the world—though whether he would count as a superhero or a supervillain is up for discussion, considering his efforts to employ his special skill exclusively against bad people.
There you have it: superheroes have been lurking in our books all along, no need to look solely to science fiction and comic book movies.