Lee Child: ‘If it comes to it, I’ll kill Jack Reacher. No problem’

Lee Child at the European premiere of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back in London. Photograph: Mike Marsland/Mike Marsland/Getty
According to Lee Child, Jack Reacher is a modern version of something that's been around for thousands of years, but that doesn't mean the character can avoid his fate when his creator decides it's time

Reacher said, “This is a random universe. Once in a blue moon things turn out just right.” Scholars of Lee Child’s oeuvre may have detected a certain quality of cynicism in the titles of his Jack Reacher thrillers, from Killing Floor and Die Trying to Bad Luck and Trouble and Nothing to Lose.

So it comes as some surprise to learn that Child himself believes that the inherent optimism of Blue Moon, the title of his 24th Jack Reacher novel, is intrinsic to his appeal.

“The times we’re living through make it actually quite difficult to write against, in my opinion,” he says, “and yeah, the current political scene everywhere, it just makes it very hard to enjoy fiction right now. But that optimism is just normal Reacher. He always assumes that he’s always going to win, and things will turn out all right, so optimism is characteristic of the series.”

Reacher first appeared in Killing Floor in 1997, shortly after the Birmingham-born James Grant was made redundant from his position with Granada Television. He adopted the pseudonym on the basis that “Lee Child” would appear between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie on the bookshelves, Child created Reacher as a former military policeman who drifts from town to town in the United States, righting wrongs before moving on again.

It’s an enduring motif, and one that Child believes stretches back through James Bond and the western through the medieval epics to classical mythology.

“So much fiction depends on the idea that your community is in some kind of terrible trouble, and a mysterious stranger arrives, and sorts out the trouble, and then leaves,” says Child, who will publish The Hero, a monograph on the evolution of the age-old myth, in late November. “And you’ve got to ask: why would we keep on reinventing that story over and over again? I think it’s because, deep down, we want that, we would love that to happen for real. Reacher is a modern version of something that’s been around for thousands of years, and people are extremely accustomed to respond to it in a way that betrays a deep desire. So, absolutely, I trace a lineage all the way back definitely to Odysseus and so on, and presumably to the oral tradition that came before Homer.”

That quality of escapism, he believes, is required now more than ever.

“I felt, in 2015 and 2016, when the Trump spectre was on the horizon, and then the first couple of years after he got elected, that people were writing really well, and possibly reading very well. I fell to thinking that we were burrowing deeper and deeper into escapism as writers, and possibly I was as a reader as well. But now, after three years or so, the weariness is setting in, and the preposterousness of the events in the real world – you know that old line ‘You couldn’t make this up’? It just feels so weird, as if we’re living in two fictional universes.”

Cobie Smulders and Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
Cobie Smulders and Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Blue Moon is a novel that is political-with-a-small-p. The story revolves around an elderly couple, the Shevicks, who have been reduced to utter desperation by medical bills, and now find themselves at the mercy of rapacious loan sharks. “In America, it’s just completely routine that this could happen. It’s a fact of life,” says Child. “I believe that something like half a million people per year go bankrupt due to medical bills. But of course, in the rest of the world, they’re going to think it’s barbaric.”

Ludicrous situation

In setting out to help the Shevicks, Reacher finds himself embroiled in a deliberately prosaic scenario, one that is the antithesis of the thriller’s more traditional high-concept fare.

“It’s always my ambition to do what you could call a low-concept thriller,” says Child. “When you do a book per year for so many years, and keep on with the high concept, ramping it up and up, then you end up in a completely ludicrous situation, where in every book a terrorist has a nuclear bomb or something, and that just gets too big and too overblown and too fundamentally implausible. I’m always trying to make an exciting story out of something small, because I really feel that you can’t do it year after year if you’re saving the world every single time.”

Although he’s famously a loner, Jack Reacher rarely works alone, and generally triumphs after establishing a network of allies. Is that simply good military strategy exercised by an ex-army man, or is there a political message there?

“I think it’s more of a personal message from Reacher’s point of view. He has this permanent conflict going on where he enjoys the solitude and he knows he can’t fit in, so he’s happy to be on his own – except he’s not, he’s always worried about being lonely. So any adventure, he sees that as an opportunity to get together with other people for a very intense few days, which he really enjoys. Especially because there’s an element of ‘I’ll help you, but you need to participate yourself – you can’t just rely on the help of a stranger.’ ”

Tribal inheritance

In Blue Moon, Reacher frequently stresses the importance of the “tribe” as he sets about helping the Shevicks. Is that Reacher’s instinct or that of his creator? Are the two conflatable?

“It’s partly based on myself and it’s also based on what I believe is our history as humans,” he says. “We’ve been evolving for a very long time. It’s possibly seven million years since we’ve had a common ancestor with anything other than ourselves, and a lot of that time we were inferior animals. Survival was very difficult. And we coped largely due to tribalism, which for millions of years was absolutely essential to our survival.

“But of course,” he concedes, “in a lot of ways, that’s very bad for the world now. Tribalism can be a very negative thing, but we can never get rid of it, it’s our animal inheritance. And I do like to speculate about what are the good points of that, what are the bad points, because both Reacher and myself are totally tribal.”

Moving on to matters literary, I suggest that Reacher’s description of a Heckler & Koch pistol – “Beautifully engineered. Almost delicate. But also steely and hard edged. Therefore manly” – might also apply to Child’s style.

“It’s all style,” he says of a series that has sold in excess of 100 million books to date. “It’s partly how I characterise Reacher – this kind of no-nonsense leanness and muscularity of the prose mirrors the personality of the character. But it’s also about how people read. The idea of settling down all afternoon on the sofa with a cup of tea and a rug on your knees, to read a book for four or five hours – I think that’s a luxury that most people don’t have any more. So we read in a more fragmented way, and you’ve got to keep it clear and crisp, who the characters are, what the situation is. So on two levels, yes, it’s all about style. It characterises the experience, but it also helps the reader to get through the book while living what is a dizzying and fragmented life.”

Cruise casting

Two of the Reacher novels were adapted for film, which caused many of Child’s fans to baulk at the idea of Reacher – a hulking, 6ft 5in man-bear – being played by the diminutive Tom Cruise.

“I enjoyed the movies, I enjoyed the experience, I enjoyed working with the people,” says Child. “But I particularly understand that the readers were not happy about the casting, and not happy with the format either, because entertainment has moved on in the past decade.”

Lee Child and Tom Cruise. Photograph: Ryan Theriot/WireImage
Lee Child and Tom Cruise. Photograph: Ryan Theriot/WireImage

As a result the Reacher novels are moving to the small screen.

“People used to think, Oh, that’s a good book, it should be a movie. Now they’re saying, ‘That’s a good book, it should be on Netflix.’ It’s all sort of migrated towards this long-form fictional narrative on TV, and that’s the obvious home now for a series like Reacher. So we took it away from the movies, and Amazon won the bidding with a lot of enthusiasm.”

With a taller actor, presumably, slated to star?

“We haven’t cast it yet, but that comes next, and it looks very promising. Because what people forget is that I know television, I was in that business 20 years, so I know the signs, and the signs are pretty good.”

At one point in Blue Moon, Reacher states that he is “fundamentally indifferent” to living, and acknowledges that no one lives for ever. Is Child ever tempted to kill off his hero?

“In a way, I suppose, it’s inevitable,” he says, “because a series hero like Reacher is constantly exposed to danger, and why would he do that if he was really precious about his life? So I wanted to throw into the discussion the idea that Reacher is fundamentally indifferent whether he lives or dies. I’m always trying to keep it teetering on the edge of whether he’s going to make it through the latest adventure, because that is the fundamental weakness in any long-running series, where the reader kind of knows that the guy is going to survive, because obviously there’s going to be a book next year. So in a way that short-circuits the suspense.

“But I do want to keep it pushed towards the edge of it maybe happening, sure,” he says. “Because if it comes to it, yeah, I’ll kill Reacher, no problem.”

Blue Moon by Lee Child is published by Bantam Press