On page 18 of Andy Martin’s book, Reacher Said Nothing, (Reacher’s most common ‘utterance’) he asks Lee Child, the author of that novel:
“Do you have any kind of strategy for writing, or rules or whatever?”
“I don’t really have one. You should write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.”
Now, I’m not sure what Child means here, although I’m sure he does. What I am sure of is that Child has “strategy…rules or whatever.” He may not be conscious of his rules, but he most certainly has them. He is not naturally talkative and (I think) reluctant to give his secrets away. He does, after all, sell a book every 7 seconds. Why tell everybody how you do it?
I am not generally a ‘thriller’ reader. I do like most of Louise Doughty, Gillian Flynn, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers, John le Carré, Don Winslow, Elmore Leonard, Arthur Conan Doyle, James Elroy and James Lee Burke’s books, among others – though I’m well aware that some of these are not strictly ‘thriller’ writers, just good writers. But I have to admit, when I want something easy to read, that I know I will enjoy, of quality, that will certainly not be rubbish or rushed out for the money – I turn to Lee Child.
Make Me was the twentieth novel in the Jack Reacher series; starting in 1998 with Killing Floor. He writes one book per year, spending 6 months on it, taking the other 6 months off, but no doubt thinking about the next book – that’s what writers do. Firstly, to emphasise the work and conscientiousness Child puts into his novels, let me note what he relates on page 28. Child had been employed in some dismal jobs in his youth. He didn’t like any of them. It wasn’t so much the work he didn’t like, it was the workmanship. One of the jobs was in a Jam factory where he says:
“It was all sugar paste, nothing but sugar paste. If you wanted apricot jam you just threw in some orange colour. Strawberry – throw in some red. It was like you were painting jam. What about raspberry with all those little pips? No problem – we’ll throw in some tiny wood chips.’
He was outraged at how bad it was:
“Nothing was real. Nobody cared.”
Child felt responsible for people eating trash pretending to be jam. He wanted to produce good jam, whatever the flavour. He went on to mention other jobs and his main observation was:
“Nobody cared. That’s how it was.”
That is an attitude he brings to his writing. An understanding of life and a desire to produce the best possible result, every time, in twenty plus novels; novels which are basically the same – in the same way that Conan Doyle’s and Dorothy L. Sayers’ books are the same. What these books have is an engaging character, a character who meets all kinds of situations and observes life as he/she sees it in each novel, and it is these observations that set the books apart from other ‘thrillers’, because they are they are terminally exciting, interesting, surprising – each one is new – readers really want to know what their character is up to.
And Jack Reacher, like Sherlock Holmes, Dave Robicheaux, Peter Wimsey, George Smiley and Art Keller, is one hell of a character. Men want to be him, women love him; he has a bad ass attitude but he is not a criminal, although he will break the law when he believes it’s right – he is tough but fair. He lives as I, and many other men, would love to live. He has no possessions, lives mostly on his army pension, usually has no particular destination in mind, just goes where fancy takes him in the U.S.A. He doesn’t bother washing clothes, just buys new and cheap ones every few days (although he is scrupulously clean). He used to hitch-hike but at six-foot-five in dangerous times has taken to Greyhound buses instead. And, in the U.S.A., there is no shortage of adventures for him to get mixed up in.
He is as free as a man can be.
Take no notice of the ridiculous decision to cast Tom Cruise in the films. Reacher is 6′ 5″, Cruise is… . This is Reacher.
It is this character, conscientiously created every year by Lee Child for nearly twenty years, that justifies the popularity of his books. I have read nearly all of them, possibly there have been a few misfires, but the quality is generally very high. Few writers can do it every time, for so long.
Child is highly intelligent. I do not have the space to say all I would like to say, but will quote him a few times to illustrate my opinion.
“Shane a great work of art. Realistic fiction tends to be bureaucratic: it fills in all the forms, ticks the boxes about identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, chronology etc. Some writers like to deploy spreadsheets and graphs. They over-explain. I, in contrast, prefer to under-explain. Shane was a mysterious stranger with no past and no future. Reacher is a little like that, at some level, at some level nobody could know anything about him. He was a blank.”
Lee Child is very good at what he leaves out.
I like Lee Child a great deal, as you may have gathered, but not only is he a good writer – I like the person. He drinks too much coffee, as does Reacher, he smokes too much and doesn’t care, and he is basically on the side of the decent hard-working man:
“It is the duty of the citizen to stand up to the state. Bureaucrats can’t get anything right. And they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.”
There are many ‘good’ writers who like Child’s books, Antonia Frazer, Kate Atkinson and Haruki Murakami, for example; and many that don’t, Julian Barnes, Harold Pinter and Edward Docx. The writers who don’t like Child are mainly humourless, take themselves very seriously. He says:
“I’m too low-falutin for them.”
It was an axis that stretched from the Radio Times to the Sunday Times:
“Colin Dexter and Morse had broken through, thanks to Oxford and the opera; then when he stopped writing, it was Ian Rankin and Rebus. They were the anointed ones; the intellectuals had permission to read them. On Radio 4 one of the artsy women panellists said ‘I would never dream of picking up this book’”.
To her surprise she enjoyed it, as millions of readers from all walks of life do.
If you are prejudiced against Lee Child and his books about Jack Reacher, don’t be, you’ll enjoy them.
Reacher said nothing