How dare Tom Cruise

Fans of Lee Child thrillers are apoplectic about who’ll play his six-foot-five hero in the movie

How dare Tom Cruise

Sigrid Estrada

Lee Child is six foot five, and so too is his fictional creation Jack Reacher, who also sports a 50-inch chest, 250 lb. of muscle and the ability (and willingness) to snap bones like matchsticks. And thereby hangs a tale. Mythic hero Reacher—a lone drifter who’s been traversing America since he left the army as a major, carrying just an ATM card, foldable toothbrush and expired passport, and stopping long enough only to right some hideous wrong—has been hugely popular since his first appearance in 1997’s Killing Floor. But Reacher is now firmly ensconced in the big leagues: 50 million copies sold; fall rather than spring publication (Child’s 16th Reacher novel, The Affair, was released Sept. 27); and, at last, Hollywood adaptation.

The last development is not unalloyed good news for Reacher Creatures, as true devotees are known. Not only has superstar Tom Cruise acquired the movie rights, but when filming begins this month for One Shot (2005), he—tiny Tom Cruise himself—will portray the literally larger-than-life hero. Fans have been venting their rage and dismay for months. Most started off absolving Child of blame in their online postings—acknowledging that authors have little control over film casting—but have lately started to resemble those Londoners who roundly abused Arthur Conan Doyle on the street a century ago after he killed off Sherlock Holmes. There’s a new truculence in the air as the Creatures demand Child do something to prevent the Cruise travesty.

Child, too, is now showing signs of being fed up. “I realize the fans are mad and resentful, and I’m thrilled they care,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. On the other hand, though, “If we all want the film to be a success, why not go with the great actor with the star power? I look at it as a professional author, like a musical act would consider a proposed cover version of a song—something new is more exciting a prospect than the same old thing. Besides, no one at all looks just like Reacher.”

The spat over authenticity is more than a little ironic, given that neither character nor author are quite what they seem. Lee Child is actually former TV producer Jim Grant, an Englishman no less, as is Reacher himself in certain ways, however much of an American icon he’s become. Child, who acquired his pseudonym almost reflexively (“I’ve always worked in showbiz: new project, new name—that’s what you do”), calls Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household’s classic—and very British—1939 thriller about an English big-game hunter who stalks an unnamed European dictator (Hitler, of course), “a groundbreaking book, the ancestor of what I do.” The protagonist, Child adds, “could have been Reacher’s granddad.” So he could, and not just because of their common integrity and stiff upper lips, but in their utter lack of introspection. Household’s hero actually believes his own cover story, that he’s just checking to see if the idea—a long-distance rifle assassination—is achievable.

The British character most reminiscent of Reacher, though, is the spy code-named Quiller, hero of 18 novels written by Englishman Elleston Trevor (who also wrote under a pseudonym, Adam Hall) between 1966 and 1996. Quiller is yet another loner with an attitude problem. The two heroes are most alike in their interest in time—Reacher has a precise clock in his head that never errs—and in the physics of their actions. When, in The Affair, Reacher ponders on which part of his opponent’s neck his elbow strike will land—the determining factor in whether the man will live or die—and considers the “time and speed and rotation and eccentric orbits” involved, Quiller would have understood completely.

Like their creations, Trevor and Child also share a key characteristic, a romantic appreciation of wide-open America, the antithesis of their tight little native island. “I had a long-distance love affair with the U.S when I was a kid,” recalls Child, 57, who went to the same Birmingham school J.R.R. Tolkien once attended. “I was born into postwar, pinched Britain, where we felt everything great had already happened. America was the place of limitless possibilities.” Now Child and his wife, Jane, live in New York state, even as Reacher has recently begun to think similar dispiriting thoughts about America.

Yet the country remains the only possible setting for Child’s self-described “altruistic loner” stories. He began to write them in 1995 after a cost-cutting reorganization ended his 18 years at Granada TV, where he worked in production on such shows as The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead Revisited, Cracker and Prime Suspect. He was a ways into his first Reacher novel before his character had a name, finally bestowed by Jane. “We went out shopping to the supermarket and a little old lady comes up to me and says, ‘You’re a nice tall chap, could you reach me that can?’ So Jane said, ‘Hey, if this writing thing doesn’t pan out, you could always be a reacher in a supermarket.’ I thought, Reacher: good name.”

There’s more than a catchy name to Reacher, of course, including a lot of Child as a child. Growing big early, he ruled his schoolyard as a paid bodyguard, working for cookies and lunch money: “I never started a fight, but I was in plenty. I broke arms, did damage.” Old habits die hard, as Child discovered as a middle-aged author on book tour in San Francisco. “I figured I’d go look at the Tenderloin [neighbourhood], which is rough. This guy stepped out and said, ‘Give me your money.’ I was amazed how quickly I snapped back through 40 years and suddenly became that tough kid again. I got right in the guy’s face and told him he had to give me his money or I’d break his arms.” Not that it netted Child anything: “He only had five bucks. I gave it to the next homeless person I saw.”

Personal authenticity, combined with a lovely grasp of American idiom and exquisite pacing—Child could give master classes in building suspense—go a long way to explaining Reacher’s appeal. Author Malcolm Gladwell claims that Child’s Persuader (2003) “is to noir fiction roughly what Paradise Lost was to poetry.” Child himself likes to note that “Reacher is a funny guy, or so I think,” before registering his dismay—possibly in all seriousness, although it’s hard to tell—that his character’s “dry, sardonic wit” is not more celebrated. (Canadians, though, tend to “get” Reacher’s humour, Child kindly adds, before explaining that his novels’ almost random references to Canada are because this country is “part of my consciousness: five of my grandfather’s six brothers emigrated there.”)

But readers don’t love Reacher for his wit, but for his controlled ferocity. Child’s large female fan base—unusually large for the thriller genre—has to do with the way Reacher is a perfect fantasy lover, the author says—attractive, attentive and guaranteed not to clutter up your life. (He always moves on after a few days.) Maybe, but the abused and terrified women in the novels surely appreciate more the rock-solid closure he brings to their problems. After he blew apart a psychotic husband’s head in The Hard Way, the widow looked down at the corpse, “understood for sure that there was going to be no Hollywood moment where he reared up again, and walked away with a spring in her step.”

Then there’s another of Child’s stylistic graces, the pleasingly abrupt disconnect he provides between the evils committed by the bad guys and Reacher’s responses, which tend to the neat, surgical and quick. A villain haunts a novel for hundreds of pages, but then walks into a hallway and encounters Reacher, who immediately sticks a knife in his throat. Four men in Nebraska are guilty of appalling crimes; Reacher takes down two of them with a bullet each, runs over a third, and lets a victim empty a revolver into the fourth. Reacher may lack “the remorse gene” in his DNA, as Child once wrote, but he also has none of the latent sadism found in so many thriller heroes.

Subtly but unmistakably, Reacher is showing signs of change. In 61 Hours (2010), he makes a rare mistake, one with tragic results. Readers, in fact, are now witnessing the first stirrings of Reacher’s self-awareness, his first sense of fragility. He is, after all, getting on, a fact that concerns Child. “I started him at 36, which was a nod to Dick Francis, one of my favourite writers—all his leads were 36—so now Reacher’s 50.” Child has shortened the time span between stories, sending Reacher directly from the events of 61 Hours to those of the next novel, Worth Dying For. And Child will set more tales in the past—The Affair takes place in 1997, the year Reacher left the army, and explains the end of a relationship that was once all he knew of adult life. The author has even penned a short story of Reacher at 13, Second Son: Reacher is already Reacher, decisive and physically dangerous—and why not, since an earlier novel described six-year-old Jack waving a knife at a scary movie monster—but it does offer more backstory.

After 16 novels, Child is still adding depth and texture to an already iconic character. Fans can relax—the Reacher express is on a roll, and not even Tom Cruise can derail it.

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