WHEN I greet Jim Grant by his first name, he corrects me. “It’s Lee. How are you?” Jim Grant, who worked in production with Granada Television, has been known as Lee Child since he published his first Jack Reacher novel in 1997.
Child is on the bill next weekend at Dún Laoghaire’s Mountains to Sea book festival. His visit to Ireland — the English writer has an apartment in Manhattan and homes in England and the south of France — coincides with the release of Personal, his 19th Jack Reacher book, a series that has sold 70m books.
Reacher, a marauding vigilante, also spawned a movie, Jack Reacher, in 2012, starring Tom Cruise in the title role.
In Personal, Reacher is on the trail of a rogue marksman, John Kott, whom the CIA believes is bent on assassinating political leaders at a G8 summit meeting. The hunt is ‘personal’: Reacher, when he was in the US military police, put Kott behind bars for 15 years for killing a sergeant in Colombia because of a barroom slight.
Kott is dangerous. He has “superhuman sight” and can kill with a gunshot from three-quarters of a mile. He’s also unhinged. At 16, he was shooting squirrels from trees too far away for people to see; at 17, he killed his parents; “at least, the county sheriff thought he did”, but the sheriff couldn’t muster the proof.
Reacher is at his best with a mission. He can put his drifting behind him. When he gets the call-to-arms from the CIA, he has just spent 48 hours in California with a girl he met on a bus, but their affair came to nought: “She wanted to be an actor. I didn’t.”
Child says it is curiosity that drives Reacher. “He gets up in the morning because he wants to see what that day will bring; mostly that day brings something of impress. He goes somewhere or sees something, and has a happy little self-contained day.
“Once in a while, the day brings trouble. He feels obliged based on the medieval concept of noblesse oblige; he’s a knight-errant — if somebody is in trouble, he feels obligated to help, which we all do, in a way.
“That’s his appeal — we would all like to do that. If you see an injustice, maybe at work or in your neighbourhood, people feel they would like to put it right, but we can’t in real life, most of the time, because we lack the skills or authority, or we’re inhibited in some way, so we’re frustrated about it. To read about it in fiction is inspiring — that Reacher is doing what we would all like to do.
“He’s an outsider. I’m interested in that feeling of alienation, and not fitting in. I was aware, in the back of my mind from all the previous reading that I’ve done, that it is a very ancient character. People think it’s a sort of Western thing, but it dates back much earlier than that.
“All through the Middle Ages, there was always a mysterious stranger who shows up in the nick of time, unexplained, solves the problem, and then disappears. That is the figure that I wanted to write about.”
Reacher metes out justice in a non-tech way. He is not a modern man. As Child says, quoting a phrase uttered by Tom Cruise: “He’s an analogue character in a digital world”. He doesn’t have a mobile phone, a credit card or a driver’s licence. He roams around the backwaters of the United States on a Greyhound bus.
“It just emphasises that he’s always a fish out of water,” says Child. “He’s never really at home anywhere. He’s not self-conscious about it. He doesn’t care. He’s a bit perplexed that many people depend on these things.”
Personal is notable because the drama hauls Reacher, who is used to tramping around the rural outposts of the United States, overseas — to “exotic for him” locales like Paris and London. Child said it was intentional: he wanted “to shake it up”, not wanting “to write the same book every year”.
Child will be 60 in October. He was born in Coventry, but grew up around Birmingham, and is a supporter of Aston Villa football club. He went to the same school that JRR Tolkien had attended decades previously.
During 18 years with Granada Television, Child worked with many of Britain’s greatest actors, including Alec Guinness, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren. He singles out Laurence Olivier as the most impressive. He was struck by his chameleonic quality.
“When we did Brideshead Revisited, what happens in those shows is that you don’t shoot them in sequence, you shoot them in bits, and stitch it together later. With a guy as important as Laurence Olivier, and as old as he was at the time, we did all his bits back-to-back, so he wasn’t spending months on it.
“In that story, he’s first shown as this vigorous guy — middle-aged, in the prime of life, in control of everything.
“By the end of it, he’s an old guy who’s dying. His physical acting was amazing. He actually became an old, frail man from one day to the next. That level of physical acting was remarkable, which is what usually impresses me most about actors: by sheer force of will, they can change their bodies to be somebody different.”
One can imagine the august Olivier raising an eyebrow at Reacher’s approach to personal hygiene: he often sleeps in his clothes.
When he gets a new set, he changes into them in the clothing store’s cubicle and dumps the old ones in the thrash. He travels light: with only a fold-up toothbrush. Reacher’s wanton approach to appearance is something on which Child’s readers challenge him.
“People are horrified by that. They think he must be smelly, and so on. The response to fiction is odd. If you enjoy reading, you’re obviously an intelligent person. It’s one of the qualifications, but somewhere in their minds some readers think he’s real. I’ve had people at readings — completely normal people, some of them perfectly middle class and respectable — say: ‘Is Reacher here?’ I always say, ‘He’s waiting out in the car park, because he doesn’t like crowds’.”
Lee Child will be in conversation with Declan Hughes as part of the Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival, 4.30pm, Sunday, at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire. www.mountainstosea.ie