‘Biceps like basketballs’: Titan Alan Ritchson sizes up Reacher

As the crime busting maverick hits the screen, Lee Child’s biographer traces his evolution

Jack Reacher catches plenty of buses. Hitches a fair few rides. But for all that he may be the heir of Sir Lancelot, a descendant of Don Quixote, a variation on the Lone Ranger, a remake of Shane, you’re unlikely to find him on horseback. In Echo Burning, book five in the bestselling series about the wandering vigilante with an unerring moral compass, he describes a horse (at length) as though he didn’t have a clue what it was. “Teeth like that, this thing is not a carnivore.”

Yet when, in 1995, the newly minted Lee Child, previously known as Jim Grant, delivered his first manuscript to his agent, it was a horse that sprang to Darley Anderson’s mind. More precisely, The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans, another recent debut that had sold direct to Hollywood and went on to become one of the bestselling books of all time. Killing Floor was “very visual, very filmic”. Could Anderson pull off the same trick?

The short answer is no. But Hollywood film agent Steve Fisher loved Killing Floor – “it gave me nightmares” – and “pitched it like a movie” to his friend David Highfill at New York publisher GP Putnam Sons, who snaffled it up in a two-book deal. Highfill fell hard for it too. This tall, languid Brit with his English accent was so bankable! But even he couldn’t predict Reacher’s future as a billion-dollar brand.

Killing Floor was published on March 17th, 1997 and remains the most beloved of Child’s books. It was optioned for film on the very same day. “They fell down like dominos,” Lee told me. “Hollywood’s movie moguls have been frantically bidding to buy the exclusive rights to a blockbuster penned by an unknown writer”, wrote his old local, the Lancashire Post. The US first edition, its striking red handprint against a stark white cover invoking Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, was “an instinct classic” that Lee considered one of his “biggest pieces of luck”.

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In 2017, Killing Floor scooped a Specsavers Platinum Award for selling a million copies in the UK alone. In 2019 Child was named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards, for being (in his words) “a person who people quite like, but above all sells a lot”. In 2020 the book that “got the whole show on the road” was given the luxury Folio treatment, while this year sees the release of a 25th-anniversary edition with a foreword by Philip Pullman.

But the big news is the arrival of Reacher on Prime Video, starring Alan Ritchson (formerly of Titans). Delayed by Covid, it coincides with jubilee celebrations for this much-feted king of thriller writers, who in 2019 was appointed a CBE on the royal honours list for services to literature, and invited to judge the 2020 Booker Prize.

Some, perhaps most, fans would say the most important thing about Reacher is his increasingly caricatured size: 6ft 5in and 250lbs, hands like frozen turkeys, “a six-pack like a cobbled city street, a chest like a suit of NFL armour [and] biceps like basketballs” (Never Go Back). Some, perhaps most, would say the most important thing about the new series is that this mythical creature should not be played by Tom Cruise. Certainly the boxes of hate mail among the papers at UEA’s British Archive for Contemporary Writing reinforce this view.

For a while Lee claimed that Reacher’s size was “a metaphor for an unstoppable force” in the same way violence was “a metaphor for justice”. Then in 2017, at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival, he admitted he’d made a mistake. Not in rubber-stamping the casting of Cruise – the original reasoning (it would “sell more books in Brazil”) still stood – but in “underestimating how offended readers would be”. “I know,” he said, getting his retaliation in first: “Reacher belongs to you.”

Child believes Ritchson has the intimidation factor. “Let’s say you’re in a bar, the door opens, [Reacher] steps in, and the temperature in the room drops by a degree, because people think, ‘What the hell is this?’”

Back at the beginning Polygram had developed Killing Floor for 18 months. In 2003 New Line put a writer on it, but couldn’t solve the problem of casting. In 2005 Paramount bought the rights, only for Cruise to start jumping around on sofas. When in 2011 a rehabilitated Cruise announced he loved Christoper McQuarrie’s screenplay so much that he wanted the role for himself, small wonder that Lee Child said yes. They could have cast Katie Holmes as Reacher by then with his blessing.

It’s been a long and winding road to get that “very visual, very filmic” first book to the screen, and for Child things have come full circle. After a quarter of a century as the Reacher guy, he’s heading back to television, where as Jim Grant he spent 18 years as presentation director at ITV’s Granada. As Reacher once said, waiting is a skill like any other, and on the fourth day of February, 2022, patience would finally be rewarded.

Every Lee Child fan cares about the opening scene of Killing Floor, when Reacher is arrested in Eno’s Diner. As one of the few to have seen the original manuscript, handwritten in pencil, I care more than most. But when I watched the advance screening of episode one, I almost didn’t mind that (a very big) Reacher was eating peach pie instead of eggs. Peach pie is a staple of the Reacher diet, and the missing eggs were made up for by the arrival of the police.

Reacher put down his cutlery neatly. Took a slug of coffee. Tucked a dollar bill under his plate, mindful of both his manners and the waitress. He said nothing. But those fastidious movements, and his expression, told me exactly what he was thinking: “This major operation had to be for me.” Or, as it became in the more lapidary, published version: “This operation was for me.”

Reacher was ready. Killing Floor had begun.

Heather Martin’s The Reacher Guy: The Authorised Biography of Lee Child, is published by Constable at Little, Brown. Reacher launched on Prime Video on February 4th.