Lee Child: Not “The Man”
Lee Child left his former life behind to author an unlikely hero: Jack Reacher, a vagrant vigilante who reaps justice for the underdog. Over the course of the past two decades, Child and Reacher have sold millions of books worldwide.
Lee Child (the pen name of James Dover Grant) is a bestselling novelist known for his series of books featuring hero Jack Reacher. Two of these novels have been adapted into films starring Tom Cruise.
Born in Coventry, England, he studied law at the University of Sheffield, then spent nearly twenty years as a presentation director for British TV network Granada Television. He published his first novel, Killing Floor, in 1997, two years after losing his job in a corporate restructuring. The book introduced the character of Jack Reacher, a former major in the U.S. Army military police who wanders the country on missions of vigilante justice. One Shot (2005) and Never Go Back (2013) were turned into the blockbuster movies Jack Reacher (2012) and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016). A television series is in development.
In 2020, after twenty-five thrillers that sold over 100 million copies, Child began co-writing the Reacher books with his brother, crime novelist Andrew Grant, who will eventually take over the series.
For more than 20 years, millions of fans, readers, moviegoers, even music lovers, have followed the adventures of Jack Reacher, a former U.S. military cop turned vagabond, a latter-day Robin Hood, who hopes for the best, plans for the worst, and always helps out the underdog.
Lee Child: I’m more critical of him than you would expect. I dislike him more than you would expect.
Jack Reacher is a maverick, tied to no place, person, or profession. But when the British author Lee Child created this all-American hero, his own life was in turmoil. In 1995, in a flurry of corporate restructuring, Child lost what he had thought to be a job for life as a mid-level manager and union organizer at Granada, the TV network in the northwest of England, where he’d worked for almost two decades. Prospects in his field were bleak, so a 40-year-old Child decided to try something new, writing a hit crime thriller series.
Child: It was about forging forward and saying, I’ve done the good corporate thing. I’ve been a loyal employee, it got me absolutely nowhere, and now I’m gonna work for myself, I’m gonna do it my way.
AJC: Were you always fighting the Man, then? Jack is clearly not a big fan of the Man.
AJC: You were a union shop steward protecting people from the Man.
Child:I hate the Man, and there’s a passage in one of the Reacher books where his friend says, “You know, you could have been anything. Why did you become a military cop? You coulda been Delta Force, you coulda been Armored Division, you coulda done whatever you wanted!” And Reacher says, “Well, you know, I just wanna look after the little guy.” And the friend, skeptical, says, “Really? You care about the little guy?” And Reacher says, “Eh, not really, I just hate the big guy.” And that’s very much me, that I hate it when bullies, people taking advantage of their situation, just cruel and heartless type of behavior, that really gets to me. So in a sense, yeah, the entire Reacher series is about stickin’ it to the Man.
And Lee Child and Jack Reacher have been sticking it to the Man for more than 20 years. And with over two dozen novels, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide, Child and Reacher still begin a new adventure together on September 1st of every year. Following two hit films starring Tom Cruise, Child is now developing a Reacher TV series for Amazon. Who will play Reacher is yet to be confirmed, but other creations in the Reacher universe have come to life far more quickly, like the 2018 10-song album, Just the Clothes on My Back. It took just two sessions for Child and his friends, Jennifer Ferguson and Scott Smith of the band Naked Blue to pen an entire record inspired by their hero.
Scott Smith: That’s a very daunting task, we thought, because it’s his baby, and we were like, “Can we do that, can you do that?” “Sure, I can do whatever I want!” Which was actually great, because we’ve been readers since the first book and are huge fans. So you feel like you know the character and the story and the style and all of that, so it made it actually easy to hone in on this one guy and his perspective.
Jennifer Ferguson: The three of us were very nervous, but I think Jack Reacher demands, you know, we all know him so well, and we just gave him what we thought he would want.
Wherever Jack Reacher goes, he avenges injustice, violently when necessary. But unlike other heroes, he has no tragic flaw. He’s not a broken man, he doesn’t need to be fixed.
Child: I don’t know, 30, 40 years ago, we had the introduction of the dysfunctional hero, the damaged guy—
AJC: And it’s become a trope now.
AJC: You can’t have one who’s not damaged!
Child: No, you know, they were alcoholics or recovering alcoholics, and then divorced recovering alcoholics whose teenage daughter hates them, and maybe they made a mistake, they were on a stakeout at night and they shot at a fleeing suspect and it turned out to be a 14-year-old boy, so they’re totally traumatized and they have to go and live in a hut in the woods. There was that terrible sense of misery. And I thought, well, nobody really wants to read about miserable people, so I wanted him to be free of all of that stuff. He has no flaws, no traumas in his past, no horrors to escape, none of that. The central tension in Reacher is that he loves his solitude, but he’s simultaneously worried about being lonely.
AJC: That’s the point, alone but not lonely!
Child: Yeah, and he suffers from that, I think, inasmuch as you wanna sort of have a psychological aspect to the character. He’s caught between two stools, and that is a tension that he may never resolve.
(Excerpt from Jack Reacher):
He liked to sit outside in the summer in New York City, especially at night. He liked the electric darkness and the hot, dirty air, and the blasts of noise and traffic, and the manic barking sirens and the crush of people. It helped the lonely man feel connected, and isolated, both at the same time.
In a world of thugs, Reacher is a straightforward, benevolent cowboy, an avenging hero we can root for.
Child: When I was little, I loved David versus Goliath, which is the ultimate paradigm for a conflict story. We’ve lived with it forever. But I liked Goliath better, you know. I wanted Goliath to be the good guy, I wanted Goliath to win! And so I just, when I came to writing the series, I thought, “All right, can we have Goliath as the good guy, can we have the good guy utterly physically unchallengeable?” And again, I think that works as a consolation for people, because in real life, we’re not, you know? In real life, we’re always just a little nervous about something or other.
AJC: Has he ever lost a fight? I’m trying to think.
AJC: He’s temporarily lost.
Child: He’s had his nose broken and he once had a headache, but basically, yeah, this is a paradigm that this guy will not be beat. And that ought to be a short-circuit dramatically, but people love it. The drama comes from solving the mystery or sorting out the situation, but yeah, Reacher is a knight errant, in that old-fashioned sense. I mean, you mentioned cowboys, and most of the people say, yeah, Reacher is this Western figure, which of course, he is in a sense, but that figure was not invented by the Westerns.
AJC: No, true.
Child: It was imported from medieval Europe when medieval Europe was scary and there was a frontier feel. Then later, of course, Europe became more settled and civilized, so that character was literally forced out, to where there was still a frontier, which was either Australia, lots of similar legends there, or America, of course, in the West.
AJC: The classic avenging hero, then.
Child: Yeah, and universal in world culture, actually. There’s a Japanese trope, the ronin, who is the samurai disowned by his master and sentenced to wander the land doing good deeds. This trope has been around for thousands of years, because we want it, you know? If you’re in trouble somewhere, sometime, you would love it if some guy would show up, solve your problem, and then, crucially, leave. Because it’s the transience that’s really important to that myth. They can’t stick around. The only time, in legend or myth, any one of them has ever stuck around was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. He stuck around because he didn’t get paid. And then he killed all the children by marching them off a cliff. It’s a nightmare if they stick around! So the idea is, they show up, they solve the problem, they leave, and that has been happening for thousands of years. So it is permanent in our culture.
And Jack Reacher, it seems, is here to stay. The cultural icon, guardian of the little guy, enemy of the big Man, always on the road to his next great adventure.