According to which bit of hype you read, there’s a copy of one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers sold somewhere in the world every four seconds, or every seven, or every nine. It’s a cute statistic and (as Child wryly notes), there’s an element of Barnum & Bailey hucksterism to it. But suffice to say he sells a lot of books —around about the 100 million mark to date, in 42 languages.
Reacher fans tend to binge-read the lot, and nobody (including Child) can remember the titles. The novels tell the story of a former military policeman called Jack Reacher who hitchhikes around the United States with nothing but a folding toothbrush, a bank card and the clothes he stands up in. Reacher doesn’t look for trouble, but it seems to find him. And when it does — Reacher being 6ft 5in and as badass as anyone decently needs to be — trouble regrets it.
‘I was just obsessed as a kid with David and Goliath,’ says Child when we sit down to record The Spectator’s books podcast. ‘It’s probably the ultimate conflict paradigm in literature. But I was always on the side of Goliath. I loved Goliath. I didn’t like David at all and I wished Goliath could win.’
You’re righting that wrong?
‘Yeah, exactly,’ says Child. ‘The Bible got it wrong. I thought: how would it be if Goliath was the good guy?’
That, as Child sees it, is the core of his books’ appeal. ‘We turn to fiction for the satisfactions that we don’t get in real life. In reality you know that if a crime is committed against you they’re never going to find who did it. If your house is broken into they probably won’t even show up, and if they do you’ll never get your stuff back. If your car is stolen you’ll never see it again. We live with this sort of buzz of frustration and dissatisfaction. So we turn to fiction for clarity and consolation and closure. You know in a book like the Reacher books of course you’re going to get your car back. Of course they’re gonna find the guy and…’
‘He’s going to get his head caved in?’
‘He is, yeah.’
‘In the worst way possible…’
‘Exactly. Book-readers in general are by definition the most thoughtful, educated and generally sensitive people among us. In reality of course they believe in due process, and protection for both victim and accused, and fair trials and so on. But it’s sort of boring and frustrating. So they escape into the world of fiction, where they capture the guy and they bash his head in rather than put him on a long and expensive trial where he might get off on a technicality.’
Child is candid about how that vengeance fantasy shaped the books from the start. He wrote the first one, Killing Floor, after he was laid off from his job at Granada Television in the mid-1990s. ‘[It was] a personal catharsis but also on behalf of everybody else who was in the same situation. It wasn’t just me at Granada: it was 200 or 300 people in ITV as a whole. It was thousands of people in the country as a whole. In the world it was millions of people losing their jobs at that time, and they still are. So I wanted Reacher to be a consolation for them.’
Reacher is undoubtedly close to his creator, though. When I ask Child whether Reacher had ever had a thought or an opinion with which the author disagreed, he says: ‘That’s a good question. All of us make the main character pretty much autobiographical in a lot of ways. So, no, I don’t think Reacher has any political opinions that I don’t have or tastes that I don’t have.’
And unlike those novelists who want their characters to evolve and grow, Child is conscious of working with an archetype. ‘I’ve tried very hard not to change him because I think the nature of the series, the nature of popular literature like this, is people want familiarity.’
But why did the British-born Child send his lonesome Goliath to the States? ‘This is fundamentally a very ancient character,’ he says. ‘The knight errant, the mysterious stranger — the noble loner who shows up and deals with whatever needs dealing with. That particular character can only exist where there is open territory and danger lurking. So you find this character in Europe in the Middle Ages where the Black Forest was a vast uncharted space. But as Europe became civilised and more densely populated, that character was essentially forced out.’
In an early book, he points out, Reacher gets kidnapped in Chicago and is driven 2,000 miles to a remote hideout in the Rockies. ‘That’s possible in the US. It’s really not possible here. If you were kidnapped where I lived and driven 2,000 miles you’d be in Algeria.’
Child has called books the ‘purest form of entertainment’, and his series hero is about as pure an avatar of freedom as you will find in modern fiction: no wife, no kids, no mortgage, no domestic entanglements, no rules except the ones (and there are many) he makes for himself.
One of the previous novels was called Never Go Back, which is near as dammit an encapsulation of Reacher’s philosophy. But in the new one, Past Tense, going back is just what Reacher does. ‘He is usually a guy who’s not interested in the past at all,’ says Child. ‘It’s all about today for him and possibly a little bit of tomorrow.’
In this book, though, Reacher is ‘wandering as usual’ when he sees a road sign to a town whose name he recognises from his father’s birth certificate. Mild curiosity — Reacher’s default mood — leads him to take a detour. But when he asks in the town records office, he’s told there’s no record of a family called Reacher ever having lived there. ‘So yeah, we’re off and running with one mystery right there,’ Child says. And around it he wraps — since Reacher finds himself in Maine — a ‘Stephen King sort of creepy suspense strand’.
One of the peculiarities of Child’s writing is that he never plots his work in advance. Each year, on the same day, he sits down to write a new Reacher novel. He starts with ‘an opening that will capture some kind of a mood or some kind of a predicament’ and takes it from there.
‘It’s a completely organic process and it’s a slight illusion, to be honest. If you spilled some ink on a piece of paper it’s just an ugly blot but then if you place a mirror against the blot it becomes this rather beautiful symmetrical shape.’ For the first half or two-thirds of every book, Child is just spilling ink: ‘Then at some point you take stock and you say, all right: this is what I’ve got; this is what has happened so far. How do we make sense of this towards the end of the book? And that’s like placing the mirror on the blot. Then the book looks like it has been planned and it really hasn’t.’
I wondered — pleased to be able to pick the master’s nits — whether this was the reason for a glaring loose end in Past Tense: there’s a meeting with an ornithologist that’s set up and looks like it’s going to be important — then gets summarily cancelled in the closing pages of the book.
‘That is actually the downside of writing in the way that I write,’ he says. ‘The ornithologist at one point looked like he might be able to contribute something. But then when it came to it he really didn’t.’ Writing him out was ‘partly to characterise Reacher — he’s found out enough about his father, so he’s quite happy just to turn his back and walk away. But really it was just that at that point there was nothing for the ornithologist to add’.
I can’t help returning to the subject that must preoccupy anyone else who publishes books. One every nine seconds (or seven, or four)? Child will sell more books while we’re recording this podcast than I’m likely to this year. Is he conscious of something he’s doing that works, and why it works?
That, as Reacher would say, is for damn sure. ‘There’s a lot of hidden undercarriage to it,’ says Child. ‘I certainly hope readers don’t know about this, because they shouldn’t. But a lot of effort goes into the propulsive sprung rhythms of the sentence, and the paragraph, and the page, so that the reader is constantly being tipped forward in terms of acceleration and velocity.
‘Because one of the things that you’ve got to accept when you write a series that you hope to be popular is what “popular” actually means. It means that it’s not just a large agglomeration of readers, but that there are different types of readers.
‘It’s like the rings of Saturn. In the centre you’ve got habitual readers who read a lot and read fast and it’s their instinctive way of passing their time: the expert readers. Then as you move out to the periphery of the audience you find the people who read one book a year when they go on their summer holiday. You can see them in the airport: it’s almost a distress purchase. The compliments that you get from that type of reader are very illustrative. I’ve heard them over and over again. People say to me: “I loved that book. I finished it.” ’
Listen to Sam Leith in conversation with Lee Child on the latest Spectator Books podcast.