The Hard Way (Jack Reacher Novels) by Lee Child. Delacorte, 2006, $25, 371 pages.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Former MP Jack Reacher was alone, the way he liked it, soaking up the hot, electric New York City night, watching a man in a Mercedes drive away with a million dollars in ransom money. It's just an installment. The man who paid it will pay even more to get his family back. He runs a highly illegal soldiers-for-hire operation. A cash business, and he will use any amount and any tool to find his beautiful wife and child. And then he'll turn Jack Reacher loose with a vengeance -- because Reacher, an ex-military cop, is the best man hunter in the world.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
"Best yet...a straight-ahead, high octane thriller." -- The Philadelphia Inquirer "Takes off like a shot." -- New York Times
"Fans...will find themselves hanging onto their armchairs for dear life." -- Denver Post
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Formerly a British television writer, he lives in New York. Child is the author of ten Jack Reacher thrillers. His debut book, Killing Floor, won both the Anthony and the Barry Awards for Best First Mystery.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Lee Child is the pen name of James Grant, an English expatriate living in New York. The Seattle Times has described his series character as "the thinking reader's action hero," and the New Yorker says he "ranks in the first tier." I caught up with Lee Child in Seattle, on tour for The Hard Way. "You're reading in San Diego?"
"Just did, at Warwicks," says Child, in his lovely Brit accent.
"They're excellent. You must get to a shop in La Jolla, too. D.G. Wills Books. It's an old-fashioned bookstore. Two books deep on each shelf, and with a secret room."
"Okay. I'll look for it next time."
"This is a difficult question to ask an Englishman: Would you mind bragging about your books?"
"The Hard Way is my tenth. It is number three on the New York Times list."
"How long have you lived in the U.S.?" I ask.
"Eight years. But I'd been visiting the States extensively for 42 years. My wife is American. I feel a kind of classic immigrant's enthusiasm for the country."
"You seem to prefer it over England."
"Oh, absolutely," Child exclaims. "I could not wait to get out of England."
I'm surprised at his candor. "Why?"
"Because England is a dull, boring country. I mean, it's got this sort of method operatus like any other state, but for what? It's a small place of no very great importance. So it's like having a board of directors for a candy store. It's just somehow top heavy."
Lee Child has personally promoted each of his books. "Do you still enjoy touring?"
"Oh, yeah!" he enthuses. "I mean it's a blast, really, because the rest of the year is spent in solitude. This way I get out and see some real people instead of the ones I'm making up in my head."
Child spent 18 years writing for television in England, working on major productions, and then was dismissed via a message left on his answering machine. It may have been his lucky break, as he gave himself a year to write. The book had to be successful to support his family. It was, and he went on to write nine more and sell over ten million copies, earning over 18 million dollars from worldwide sales. Yet I worry about bringing up the subject.
"Ken Follett [author of Eye of the Needle] once said that he got into writing because he blew out the tires on his car and realized he couldn't replace them. And you sort of backed into it as well. You worked in the golden age of television, in England, and, like many in the global corporate world, you were downsized and laid off."
"Yeah, that's exactly right."
"What do you make of television now in the States? Do you think it's coming back a bit with The Sopranos and Weeds and Big Love, these very ambitious programs?"
"I guess cable penetration has reached a critical mass where there's enough money available to do ambitious shows like that. So it certainly is [coming back] in the sense that it's cable leading the charge. But you've got to ask yourself, what does that say exactly? It's a sort of fragmentation of the audience -- 'narrowcasting' rather than broadcasting. Certainly we'll never see the dominance of networks again."
An interesting phenomenon has been reported in connection with Lee Child's books. Despite the Dirty Harry vigilante violence of the main character doling out frontier justice, many booksellers have noted that more women than men are buying Jack Reacher novels. And more than half the members of the Reacher Creatures fan club are female. Theories about it abound.
"Your villains are really nasty and seemingly deserving of their violent fates, and Jack readily obliges. But do you get a lot of criticism because of his violence, or maybe your own?"
"It depends. In western Europe, absolutely. In those orderly Teutonic societies like Germany and Holland and so on, they buy the books and they like the character, but they are simultaneously appalled, by the vigilantism I guess. In the U.K. and the U.S. and Australia and other slightly more rugged countries, it's remarkable how many people actually delight in the summary executions. Which strikes me as perhaps readers are taking it as a kind of metaphorical condensation of the judicial process. The other thing I've come to believe over the years is that we read fiction to get what we know we should not have in real life. We live in a gray world, where closure is so hard to get. Your house is burgled. They're not going to catch the guys, you're not going to get your stuff back, and we long for some kind of justice. We know we can't really go around executing people in vigilante mobs in real life. Our consciousness is such that we know that is not permissible. But we yearn for it, and so we find that release in fiction."
"How far afield do you tour? Do you go to England and Germany and Japan and Australia for the books each time they come out?"
"Each territory has a separate publisher. Therefore, there's no global coordination. I always do the U.S., I always do the United Kingdom, and then I will do maybe just one other territory. This time around I'm doing Italy in between the U.S. and the U.K."
"Has the reception been pretty uniform across the globe?"
"No, it's been actually an illustration of how things happen and nobody understands why. Some nations went crazy about it early, like New Zealand. And Bulgaria. Certain nations are just inexplicable. The book will come out. It goes to number one and stays there until the next book comes out. Other countries take longer and are harder to penetrate. Like the U.S., frankly, because this is now the tenth book before we've had the really solid-gold success. A long, hard process. Other countries are somewhere in between."
"That's got to be much better and more gratifying than, say, what [John] Grisham experienced, which is start at the top [with The Firm ] and watch your sales fade with each succeeding title."
"Grisham did it with his second book, and it's always difficult when you do it too early. It sounds really tempting, but you're forever on a downward slide rather than an upward climb. I feel better about having done it step by step."
"I read movies are in the works, but you're having trouble casting your hero, Jack Reacher?"
"Yeah, I mean the way the movies work now without a strong studio system, you need basically three people interested at the same lunch: a producer, a director, and a star. They will get interested based on the quality of the script and the buzz. Many, many times we've had two out of the three committed, yet it's a question of getting all three."
"And at the same moment."
"Yes, literally at the same moment, and that's a bit of a lottery. As for casting, if there's a big-name director committed, he will cast somebody he likes. If it's a star who likes the script, he will pick out the director. It's all up for grabs still at the moment."
"With your experience in media, are you going to stay involved when the movie is made or are you going to keep distancing yourself, like many sane writers?"
"I'm going to distance myself, not because I have a problem with Hollywood at all. I like Hollywood. But I learned an interesting lesson over the winter, when I wrote a screenplay for Harvey Weinstein. He had a project that he liked the concept of, but he did not like the way it was written. So, he asked me to rewrite it. And because I had no personal investment in the original script, no emotional investment, I was able to attack it with something that really amounted to callousness. And that triangulation, the distance of the screenwriter from the original project, I think is incredibly valuable. So that's what I'm hoping for, for my books -- a screenwriter who has nothing invested in it, who would be able to look at it with a clear eye and make a great movie out of it."
"After a decade of the series, are you still getting along with Jack Reacher or are you finding yourself in the position of Conan Doyle and wishing he would take a short hike on a --?"
"Down a steep waterfall? Well, I certainly understand why Conan Doyle felt the way that he felt. I've noticed that with all my contemporaries and friends. It's a love/hate relationship with the character. But when I get down to writing a new book, I'm still very friendly with him. Partly because he's so versatile. Conan Doyle, you know, that's clearly the classic series of all time, but it was limited in its scope because Sherlock Holmes was who he was, living where he was living, doing basically the same thing in every story. Whereas, Reacher is completely versatile because he's not tied to a location or a job or anything like that. He's really just a sort of wandering metaphor who can show up anywhere, doing anything. That keeps me from getting bored."
"Your friend, Michael Connelly, who has authored a very successful series himself [starring Harry Bosch], boxed in his character in L.A. Homicide for a long time and then finally got smart and had him retire. That sort of freed him. And now the detective has rejoined the force on a cold case squad, which travels all over to investigate."
"That's right. That's a great series, but it does show that even a writer as talented as Michael must have felt a little weariness to have the guy in the same job."
"How do you get in touch with Reacher? I mean, you're working away at the top of the house, six and seven hours a day. In America if you want Batman, you send a signal into the sky using a searchlight, but when you retire to your room, how do you reach him? Is there a talisman, is there a piece of music, a photo, some way that you conjure him up?"
"Well, in terms of his emotional responses to things, Reacher is largely autobiographical. So, I just try and dream up a scenario that's going to engage him. And I just sort of write it as if this was me. What would I be doing, how would I conduct myself?"
"But he doesn't love jazz, he doesn't drink heavily, what does he do for fun?"
"There's a little clue here and there. He likes some kinds of music; he likes baseball. But, largely, instead of finessing a character by supplying him with various likes and dislikes, I'm trying to leave him vague, because then he turns into what is in fact a historic paradigm, that character who has been around forever. He showed up in westerns a hundred years ago. You can definitely see him in the Middle Ages, in the chivalric sagas of knights errant, wandering the land performing good deeds. You can see him in Norse sagas, and all the way back to the Greek myths. If I were to put in jazz or beer or whatever things other writers are bolting on, then that would tend to obscure the fact that he's an empty vessel, ready for readers to pour their own desires and ambitions into."
"You introduce into the very stark landscape of Jack Reacher's world some really gorgeous lines on occasion. In this latest book, Hard Way , they come just in the middle. The line is about a woman's character: 'She's beautiful and rich; people like that are difficult. If it's not happening to them, it's not happening at all.'"
"I try to build in a little bit of lyricism here and there, and, as you notice, I'm still a bit of a class warrior, and always will be. But if the book starts to read like a political message, the readers are going to lose interest."
"You use it so frugally that when it comes, it really just explodes."
"I suppose the trick is to not overload it."
"It must be hard to keep it in check. Are you tempted to really let loose at times?"
"No, because I've learned over the years to do it sparingly is the most deadly way of doing it."