The phenomenal success of British-born author Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, which debuted in 1997 with “The Killing Floor," is enjoyed by few characters in popular fiction. The 22nd installment of the wandering ex-military policeman’s adventures, “The Midnight Line”, is due for release on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Of the previous 21 novels, 12 have been No. 1 New York Times bestsellers. All have been optioned for movies, two of which have been released. Reacher can be read in 100 territories around the world. His two-fisted, testosterone-fueled adventures show no signs of letting up, thanks to a legion of fans who call themselves “Reacher Creatures.”
Stateside, a specific form of American anxiety has propelled the success of Child’s work. As a character, Reacher resembles the stranger-come-to-town that featured so strongly in the glory days of movie Westerns, or the questing knight in medieval England. In today’s most popular hero culture, he’s the super-man out setting wrongs right (villains in the new novel refer to Reacher at times as “the Incredible Hulk” based both on his unusual size and his ability to wreak havoc among his enemies). It is a formula that has existed as long as people have been telling one another stories, and it works.
A score and counting of successful novels requires more than just poking a cultural nerve, though. Child, who didn’t publish his first novel until he was 40 years old, writes high-octane page-turners that are a joy to escape into. There is a certain expectation of what one is going to get when a Reacher novel is cracked open, and Child knows how to deliver.
Child was free with his time in answering a few questions in support of his upcoming event in Missoula at the Dennison Theater, on Wednesday, Nov. 8, hosted by Fact & Fiction.
Q: With 22 published novels now, do you still get the same thrill on release day as you perhaps did in the early days? Has it changed for you at all?
A: I would say it is more exciting now. It feels like more of an achievement, and I feel very fortunate. There are many people who get to publish one or two or three novels, but very few get to publish as many as I have. I am very grateful for the opportunity.
Q: The world has changed dramatically since Reacher first hit the scene in 1997. Do you think the reasons for his popularity have evolved at all?
A: The world certainly has changed, and I think people relate to Reacher even stronger now as a result of that. The thing with Americans is that they are mostly decent, kind people full of goodwill who want to do the right thing at all times. But of course in real life you can’t do the right thing at all times, because there are numerous problems in the way. Maybe you are physically incapable, maybe you are intimidated. Maybe it is a legal problem you can’t find your way through. Maybe it’s a work problem where you are going to get fired if you make waves. So most people live with a kind of low-level buzz of frustration where they wish they could have spoken out but they had to bite their lip, or they wish they could have crossed the street and helped the guy that was getting pushed around. But they didn’t, and that’s reality. And so they turn to fiction, and in a book like mine, Reacher does it for them, and they cheer him on and they want to be that guy. It’s as simple as that.
Q: Reacher travels all over owning only, quite literally, the clothes on his back. Recent years have seen a growing awareness toward minimalism, downsizing, living on the road — “van life” as its called. Do you find that curious? Reacher was ahead of his time, at least in the larger mainstream popular culture.
A: You’re right, he was ahead of his time. He has always believed that you don’t own things, things own you, and since 2008/2009, people have realized that. They were not doing themselves a favor by having these huge houses and big mortgages and all that kind of thing. It makes total sense to me to migrate toward a minimalist situation and Reacher is the paradigm for that. He has as little as is conceivably possible to have. If someone wants to use that as a target then [I say] go for it, and let me know how it works out in reality.
Q: Americans like to think we own the idea of wanderlust, of life on the open road, all of that. Given Reacher’s global popularity, that certain type of outlook must exist in plenty other places as well.
A: Yes, it totally does. You know in Japan, for instance, Reacher is an absolute ronin. The idea that Reacher was in the army with rank and now he’s not anymore, well that’s exactly like the ronin in Japan where you’ve been a samurai but for some reason your master has disowned you and you are now wandering on your own. That’s the exact myth right there, and it is an international thing. Everybody has the same dream, and of course America is made up of people who came from somewhere else. In fact they selected themselves as the boldest and the bravest, the people with the greatest wanderlust were the ones that would do that two- and three-month journey to get to America. So America is a recipient of much of the wanderlust from other countries. Britain, where I come from, has always had it. A lot of people just stay in Britain and never move, literally, more than a few miles from where they were born. But equally there is a large number of Brits who roam over the entire world. I think every country has their share of wandering characters and a lot of them ended up in America, which is why Reacher is so recognizable.
Q: And then folks out here in the West thumb their noses at the people on the East Coast and mock them for only going that far and then stopping.
A: You know I love that history, I love the idea that you would set out, and you would probably not be coming back, that you were just going to have to make the best of it. Can you imagine that happening now? Everybody would be worried about their health care and what is going to happen here and what is going to happen there … we’ve become a very timid society.
Q: Now everybody is also expected to be so connected all the time, available at any given moment for any reason, through any number of means of communication. It’s oppressive, isn’t it? I’m old enough to remember the days before there were pagers, and then cell phones, and all of it.
A: Well sure, me too, and how did we ever survive? We seemed to manage alright didn’t we? I’m the same way, and 99 percent of my effort is in getting away from communication. Nothing better is than a day when nobody is due to call and I can switch off my phone — I love it. I love being way out west where maybe cell service is patchy and you have a simple excuse not to be available, you know?