Jack Reacher, the ’ethical thug’—Lee Child on creating his most famous character

The similarities between the author, a street fighter as a kid, and his Yankee alter ego are obvious
Lee Child
Lee Child, author of 22 “Jack Reacher” novels. (David Empson/REX/Shutterstock/CP)

His books come out like clockwork. Every year on Sept. 1, Lee Child sits down to write another Jack Reacher novel, a ritual he’s observed for more than two decades. He starts writing without a plan, just a protagonist who treats his life as a blank page. A former military policeman with the U.S. Army, Jack Reacher is a homeless vigilante who roams America at random, without a suitcase or an itinerary, hopping buses and hitching rides, staying in cheap motels. His only luggage is a toothbrush. When his clothes get dirty, he trashes them and buys new ones. When he steps into a crowded room, it goes quiet. He’s always the smartest guy in the room, and the toughest—a six-foot-five hulk who maims or kills bad guys with clinical indifference. As he travels from town to town, he finds them by sheer happenstance, invariably stumbling upon a criminal conspiracy that requires him to indulge an appetite for vengeance.

Strangely progressive and more sophisticated than he appears, Reacher is an ethical thug. He’s an unlikely superhero, a James Bond in jeans who mainlines black coffee in a diner, not martinis in Monte Carlo. He doesn’t have a licence to kill, or even a licence to drive. He’s a bohemian brute, a mongrel mix of Kerouac and Clint Eastwood, and a paragon of American freedom that only a Brit could dream up.

Lee Child wasn’t always Lee Child. He was Jim Grant from Birmingham, who got laid off from a hack writing job he’d held for 19 years at Granada Television, where he became a union shop steward. With the methodical determination of someone planning a heist, he bought a box of pencils and three notepads, and became Lee Child, novelist.

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“I just closed my eyes and wrote to see what came out, and Reacher came out,” he says. Child is on the phone from Manhattan, where he’s lived since 1998, the year after he published Killing Floor, the first of 22 bestselling novels. His method hasn’t changed. His new book, The Midnight Line, opens with Reacher stepping off a bus, wandering into a pawn shop, and discovering a West Point ring so small it could only fit a woman’s finger. “That seemed a really solid start,” the author recalls. “I thought, ‘OK, he’s going to trace this ring and the story will tell itself.’ ”

Child considers Reacher “a standard mythological figure, the noble loner—the samurai who’s been disowned by his master and condemned to wander the land.” And he saw the ring as a talisman in a quest. But he had no idea the quest would lead to a biker gang in Wyoming—and a surprisingly sympathetic fentanyl addict. “That emerged later, I suppose out of being immersed in the news,” he says. “What the news ignores is the fact that an opioid high is a wonderful thing. People have hard lives and need to take the edge off. We’ve got this crisis because of the tremendous appeal of the effect it produces. We have to take that into account in determining prevention or treatment.”

As for his own vices, he says, “I’ve been addicted to numerous things. I’m still addicted to cigarettes, coffee, marijuana. Fortunately, I managed to get off anything else I’ve tried. But there’s a compulsion in the human psyche to alter your consciousness. Every single child does this thing where they spin around until they get dizzy and fall over. These epidemics are coming from a very deep place.”

If addiction is escapism writ large, full disclosure: I’ve wrangled this interview only because I’m a hard-core Reacher addict. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve read every damn book in the series. I blame novelist Michael Ondaatje, who turned me on to Reacher years ago. Child belongs to that echelon of genre writers who get literary respect, from people like Ondaatje, and places like The New Yorker, which hailed him as a “poet of diners and motels” while praising “the immensely accomplished manner in which he balances wish-fulfilling fantasy and earthbound detail.”

READ: Why Jack Reacher fans don’t like Tom Cruise playing the character (From 2011)

With sales of three million books a year, a dozen No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, and two Reacher movies starring a wildly miscast Tom Cruise, Child can be sensitive to the stigma of success. He resents “this idea that writing genre fiction is some kind of sausage machine.” But what about the annual output? “Yeah, that’s where the churning-out thing comes from,” he sighs. “One a year is actually quite slow these days. The literary guys are doing one every eight years, or whatever. But if they needed to, or wanted to, they could do one a year quite easily.”

Child has retained his English accent, which is flattened by a faintly American drawl and an air of relaxed confidence that sounds, well, a lot like Reacher. The similarities between the 63-year-old author and his Yankee alter ego are obvious. Child stands six-foot-four, just one inch shorter, and grew up as a street fighter in England’s industrial heartland. “Everything was settled by fighting,” he says. “There was that arcane class system where, if you were doing well in school, it marked you as somebody to be attacked. It was 224 years older than the United States. To go there from my neighbourhood, every single day there would be a fight. I loved it.”

He was the second of three children born to a tax auditor and an embittered mother who had to give up her civil-service career for her family. “My parents were incredibly old-fashioned,” says Child, “obsessed with English things, obsessed with trying to get out of the lower middle class maybe into the regular middle class. It was insane, like growing up inside a religious cult, except there was no religion. All that lace-curtain respectability.”

Child studied law, which he saw as a Swiss Army knife of disciplines, folding in history, politics, sociology and language. While getting his law degree, he was drawn to conviviality of theatre as “a kind of compensation for the emotionally chilly atmosphere at home.” Realizing he had no talent for acting, he migrated backstage, then to TV. At Grenada, home of The Jewel in the Crown and Coronation Street, he scripted trailers, commercials and news items, though no screenplays. “I may have written 10,000 things but most of them were four words long.” Writing concisely on deadline served him well. Most writers of hard-boiled fiction have to pare down their prose, but with Child it’s the other way around. “Typically, I’ll do a couple of paragraphs then go back and realize, ‘Wow, that’s too minimal.’ When I’m revising, I usually add words rather than take them away.”

His sentences may be spare, but they linger on expansive details, from the ballistics of a sniper’s bullet to the blueprint-like geography of buildings and back roads. “I want to know the shape of things,” says Child. “Coming from Birmingham, which is a manufacturing city, I love machines and knowing how they work. I love precision. I’ve made Reacher a bit of a pedant. He knows a lot of stuff and he’s very picayune about the meanings of words.”

The most virtuosic writing in any Reacher novel comes in scenes where his brain turns his body into a weapon. The fight will last only a few seconds but unfolds over several pages, suspended in an adrenaline spell of clarity as Reacher calculates a kind of muscular chess that will reduce a gang of assailants to a quivering mess of broken bones. Child says he hasn’t studied martial arts, and just draws on memories from his youth. “Reacher is very opposed to martial arts. He thinks it’s silly, a competitive ballet suited for the Olympic Games rather than the street. Fighting is usually an ugly brawl that’s over very fast. It has no art or ballet to it.”

Hollywood has its own ideas about action, and action heroes. And I can’t think of movie star endowed with less of Reacher’s grit than the smooth and compact Tom Cruise. “I completely understand that point of view,” says Child, “and you’re not alone in thinking that. My problem is you’ve got to work with what’s available. There’s a universe of actors and none of them are ugly in the way I picture Reacher. They’re all small, neat people. Reacher is a plain, blunt-featured guy.”

How about Daniel Craig?

“Daniel Craig is tiny,” he replies, adding that Bond’s latest incarnation only seems rugged “because he clamps his jaw and his face resolves itself into hard planes.” You can see Cruise attempt something similar in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, as he stares into the middle distance and clenches his face until it looks like it might explode. Child says he loved working with Cruise. (“That part was fantastic. He gets the weird press because of Scientology. I saw none of that. He’s just a fun guy to hang around with.”) But he seems nonplussed by the results: “For me, the book is the ultimate product. The movie can’t change it. The movie is an amusing side product that somebody else wants to do, and that’s fine with me.”

Child had always dreamt of escaping to America, specifically Manhattan. His wife, Jane, is an American. They met as college students in Sheffield, and he assumed they’d live in the U.S. after graduation. “But she was a rabid anglophile and wouldn’t leave,” he says. “It took me 20 years to get her out of there.” Now they live on Central Park West, where Jane makes quilts and does charity and environmental work; their 37-year-old daughter trains dogs. “I live in the kind of apartment I was amazed by when I first came here in the ’70s,” Child muses. “Finally I got one.”

You can take the boy out of Birmingham, but Birmingham hasn’t quite escaped him. One summer night four years ago, he was walking home when a cab pulled up with a drunk and belligerent young passenger. “The driver was this little skinny Sikh guy, and the young man was this loud, obnoxious frat boy type who wouldn’t get out,” recalls Child, who stepped in. “The boy hit me in face, which gave me a cut and a black eye. Which was a bad mistake. Without really thinking about it, I was that kid again from Birmingham.” So what did he do? “I worked him over,” he says, betraying no emotion. “I left him horizontal on the sidewalk.”

Some addictions can never be shaken.