I just hate the big guy
- Make Me by Lee Child
Bantam, 425 pp, £20.00, September 2015, ISBN 978 0 593 07388 9
- Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of ‘Make Me’ by Andy Martin
Bantam, 303 pp, £18.99, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 593 07663 7
In the autumn of 1994, Jim Grant, a technical director at Granada Television, went to the Arndale Centre in Manchester and bought three A4 pads and a pencil. He was nearly forty and about to lose his job thanks to corporate restructuring, which he’d spent two years fighting as a union shop steward. His plan was to make a living as a novelist, and he set to work on a thriller, using as his models Alistair MacLean and the Travis McGee series by John MacDonald, which focuses on a happy-go-lucky investigator with a romantic code of honour. Grant’s first stab at a name for his hero was Franklin, but one day, in an Asda in Kendal, his wife watched him grab something from a high shelf and remarked that, if writing didn’t work out, he could always find work as a ‘reacher’: a punchier name, he thought. He had doubts about his own name’s catchiness too, and again a family joke got him thinking. A few years earlier he’d met a Texan who drove a Renault 5, marketed as ‘Le Car’ in the US. The Texan had pronounced it ‘Lee Car’, and the Grants still spoke of passing ‘lee salt’ and looking after ‘lee child’. So in 1997 Grant became Lee Child for the publication of Killing Floor, the first novel in a multimillion-selling series with a notionally all-American hero, Jack Reacher.
Reacher – no one in the books feels able to use his first name – hasn’t changed much since then. He’s got, if anything, more efficient and invulnerable, and he no longer passes dull moments by recalling blues recordings in high fidelity. In essence he emerged full-blown in Killing Floor: six foot five and 18 stone, with ‘ice-blue’ eyes and ‘dirty-blond’ hair, in ‘work pants’ and a ‘work shirt’ and a nondescript coat. He was 36 then and he’s now pushing fifty in the series’ deliberately hazy chronology, though in practice he exists in a state of unalterable early middle age – the best age for a man to be. ‘The guy was about forty years old, give or take,’ we’re told of an antagonist in Make Me, ‘not a dumb kid any more, but not yet an old man either, and full of accumulated competence and confidence and capability, all wrapped up in experience.’ The same goes for Reacher, who keeps in astounding shape with no ab crunches or moderation of his junk food intake. In Never Go Back (2013), a woman gets him to take his shirt off and studies him with interest:
‘How much do you work out?’
‘I don’t,’ he said. ‘It’s genetic.’ Which it was. Puberty had brought him many things unbidden, including height and weight and an extreme mesomorph physique, with a six-pack like a cobbled city street, and a chest like a suit of NFL armour, and biceps like basketballs, and subcutaneous fat like a Kleenex tissue. He had never messed with any of it. No diets. No weights. No gym time. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, was his attitude.
Working out isn’t just unnecessary for Reacher; it’s a sign of bad character. Freakishly tall pill-popping bodybuilders are one of the novels’ favoured solutions to the problem of coming up with adversaries who’ll make him break a sweat. Yet ‘weight machines and treadmills are no substitute for the kind of urgent … high-adrenaline fitness you need to fight on the street,’ Reacher observes in Persuader (2003). And of the women he teams up with, he usually notes approvingly that they’re strong and limber in a natural rather than a gym-toned way. (He’s likely to note similarly that they don’t use make-up, and don’t need to.) He lives mostly on pancakes, bacon, and eggs over easy, washed down with gallons of coffee and an occasional beer.
Reacher eats in diners because he’s a regular guy, but it’s also part of his character as a drifter, with no home, job, dependents, living relatives, car or driving licence. His only possessions are a folding toothbrush – plus, after 9/11, a passport and a bank card – and the clothes he stands up in; every few days he buys a new outfit and throws the old one in a bin. He’s been on the road since 1997, when he left the US army with the rank of major as a result of the military equivalent of corporate restructuring after the Cold War. A marine’s son who grew up on overseas bases and spent his army career abroad, he’d barely set foot in America beyond a few years at West Point. So he decided to wander around the country, hitching rides or taking trains or buses, in order to satisfy his curiosity and restless disposition. In his first two or three adventures his lack of local knowledge is a proxy for Child’s: like the writer, the character mostly knows America from the movies. As the series progresses, Reacher’s ease with American settings grows with that of his creator, who moved to Manhattan in 1998. Still, Reacher never quite stops being an outsider, and runs an informed but consciously superficial eye over the cities and backwater towns he passes through.
It’s important to the set-up that he lives that way by choice and not in response to a trauma in his past. Child has said he was ‘determined to avoid the hero-as-self-aware-damaged-person paradigm’; there was to be ‘no tedious self-pity’. Reacher has savings in the bank, more qualifications than he needs to dig swimming pools or work as a bouncer at a strip club – as he sometimes does – and no trouble forming relationships. For a short time, between Tripwire (1999) and The Visitor (2000), he lived with a lawyer girlfriend in upstate New York, but Child soon thought better of it and sent her off to work in London. Reacher could have everything he lacks if he wanted to, but says he already has everything he needs. Asked what that is, he replies: ‘A few bucks in my pocket, and four points on the compass.’ His time in the army left him with many scars and medals, some useful skills and not much respect for the top brass, but no PTSD or bitterness towards civilian society beyond a feeling that politicians and bureaucrats will do anything to save a buck. Cops might see him as a highly suspect ex-military vagrant and itch to run him out of town, but he’s more like an angst-free Rambo on permanent vacation.
The novels often open with a small town’s powers-that-be trying to push Reacher around and Reacher pushing back. Sometimes they begin instead with him bringing trouble on himself by an impulsive act of decency: helping a stranger with her dry cleaning a few seconds before armed men show up to kidnap her, or counter-intimidating goons shaking down the restaurant he’s eating in for protection money. Elsewhere, trouble seeks him out in the form of one or other federal agency wanting his help with criminal or national security matters. Two of the books – out of twenty so far published – deal with murky episodes from his military career. Whichever way the story begins, there will be a mystery for Reacher to get to work on: a murderer to unmask, a conspiracy to unravel. With the exception of a capable and attractive woman, a cop or lawyer or FBI agent or the like, who’s in a little more danger than she can handle and reluctantly (at first) forms an alliance with him, the authorities will be either unhelpful or hostile, sometimes because they’ve been led astray by the conspirators, sometimes because of Reacher’s unorthodox methods. And there will be many ill-intentioned people, ranging from ‘undistinguished muscle’ to teams of trained killers, for Reacher to subdue along the way.
In each novel, there’s a quick rundown of his CV for the benefit of a character who hasn’t read his file. (Child keeps the book-to-book continuity to a minimum in order to make new readers feel welcome.) In the army he was the star investigator and later commanding officer of a military police unit that handled thorny cases involving wayward special forces personnel. From the age of six, he showed an unusually ‘aggressive response to danger’ and he’s the only non-marine in history to win the corps’ annual long-range marksmanship contest. In other words, he’s a crack detective who’s tougher than the toughest guys in the army, and Child has to work hard to prevent him from instantly wiping the floor with everyone who takes him on. Hence – a word Reacher often uses when he’s in high-speed reasoning mode – the need for the authorities to level the playing field by running interference. It’s essential to the novels’ brand of wish fulfilment, however, that Child doesn’t restrain his hero too firmly in the opening stages, in which Reacher, equipped only with his folding toothbrush, generally finds himself squaring off with two or three armed but amateurish heavies.
Intense fights with progressively more formidable opponents are one of the series’ two signature touches. The other is Reacher’s habit of solving seemingly impossible problems by means of astonishing feats of ratiocination. These tend to lean more heavily on narrative logic than on swallowable deduction: in Killing Floor he tracks down a man on the run by looking at a road map and applying the ‘universal truth’ that, given a free choice, people always go anti-clockwise. But they’re of a piece with the fight scenes as fantasies of competence and control in which the world, when viewed correctly, breaks down into a flow chart on which one chooses the right course of action. Jack Reacher (2012), the unloved Hollywood adaptation of One Shot (2005), starring Tom Cruise, was hampered by the difficulty of dramatising the hero’s thought processes: Reacher kept having to explain how clever he’d just been and so came over as a brittle narcissist. On the page, the superhuman calm with which he out-thinks his enemies can be conveyed in the pacing. At crucial moments, Child slows things down and walks the reader step by step through, say, the procedure for tackling a right-handed gunman standing in a doorway. These mini-lectures are careful to give the impression of explaining technical details with diagrammatic clarity instead of exploiting their surface dazzle: through Reacher’s eyes you too can see the flow chart.
Solving problems, for Reacher, is a ‘data-driven’ process, and he has a pop-scientistic worldview to match. It’s better to clout people on the side of the head than punch them in the face because the human brain is ‘much more sensitive to side-to-side displacement than front-to-back. An evolutionary quirk, presumably, like most things.’ Taking advantage of such quirks – another is that ‘a running man [attracts] the eye a hundred times faster than a walking man’ – is one of the things that gives him an edge, and evolutionary just-so stories are rarely far from his mind. He has ‘a private theory. Involving DNA’ to explain his own wanderlust: ‘Millions of years ago we were all living in small bands … So there was a danger of inbreeding. So a gene evolved where every generation and every small band had at least one person who had to wander. That way the gene pools would get mixed up a little. Healthier all round.’ In the slow-motion fight scenes, the ‘back part’ of his brain, the ‘lizard brain’, handles the calculations. (‘For every year humans had been modern, they had been primitive for seven hundred more, which left a residue.’) The front part of his brain is good with numbers; he doesn’t need an alarm clock to wake up at a given moment, and can be a pedant when it comes to timekeeping:
‘Give me 11 minutes.’
‘That’s how long it takes me to get ready in the morning.’
‘Most people would say ten.’
‘Then either they’re faster than me or imprecise.’
Reacher will kill bad guys, if it’s a case of him or them, in cold or at least lukewarm blood, and if he accidentally crushes an assailant’s windpipe, he doesn’t worry too much about it. (‘He went down on the floor again and suffocated. It was reasonably quick. About a minute and a half. There was nothing I could do for him. I’m not a doctor.’) From time to time an appalled ally will complain that he’s ‘feral’ or ‘like a predator. Cold, and hard.’ But he isn’t an amoral reasoning machine. He’ll go to great lengths to avenge a murdered comrade, save a kidnapped woman or merely help out a law enforcement agent he’s taken a liking to. Is he standing up for the little guy? ‘I don’t really care about the little guy,’ he says. ‘I just hate the big guy. I hate big smug people who think they can get away with things.’ You only half believe him: at bottom he’s a knight errant or a one-man A-Team, though in keeping with his goal-oriented posture he says his motives ‘don’t really matter’.
He also has a streak of learning. Language is a bit of an obsession: he knows off the top of his head that Archibald is a ‘Lowland Scottish’ name, ‘via Old French and Old High German’, and that ‘boulevard’ derives ‘from the old French boullewerc’. He can identify ‘a voiced palatal glide morphing into a voiceless alveolar fricative’, and speaks good French: his mother, Josephine Reacher, was Parisian and a precocious Resistance heroine. ‘If you read the words sideways,’ he says of an army newspaper, ‘you sometimes hear a real sardonic tone between the lines.’ ‘Better than Tennyson,’ he says of Wordsworth to a sceptical friend; ‘you have to give me that.’ He absorbed many un-American idioms, and a respect for Aston Villa, while serving overseas. In Persuader he taunts a psychopathic giant by calling him ‘a big girl’s blouse’ – ‘a term of abuse I had picked up somewhere. England, maybe.’ And he’s considerably less right-wing than you’d expect of an American ex-military vigilante, standing up for illegal immigrants, quoting Trotsky with approval, and sneering at evangelicals and pickup truck-driving suburbanites. In The Enemy he takes aim at a villain who’s transparently modelled on Dick Cheney. Andy Martin, reviewing Nothing to Lose (2008), called Reacher ‘a liberal intellectual with … arms the size of Popeye’s’. It wasn’t much of an exaggeration at either end.
Make Me, the latest Reacher novel, is a return to form after Personal (2014), which sent him to Paris, Ealing Broadway and Chigwell without getting much excitement out of any of those locations. (One of the main villains, another psychopathic giant, had expanded his house by 50 per cent in every dimension, a mildly psychedelic detail that failed to make up for a backdrop of routine international intrigue.) Make Me reverts to a surefire formula: Reacher getting off a train in a one-horse town called Mother’s Rest, where the unfriendly locals, we know from a short prologue, have recently done away with a private eye called Keever. Michelle Chang, a former FBI agent who’s ‘long-limbed and solid, but not where she shouldn’t be’, is looking for her missing colleague there, and Reacher decides to help her. The first punch-up takes place as they’re heading off through the wheatfields; their attackers are consistently referred to thereafter as ‘the Moynahan who had gotten kicked in the head’ and ‘the Moynahan who had gotten kicked in the balls’. Reconstructing Keever’s journey takes Reacher and Chang to Oklahoma City, LA, Chicago and Phoenix, the body count ticking upwards, and finally back to Mother’s Rest to clean the place up. Child’s plan for the last four sections – a plan he stuck to – went:
1 get down there (south to the isolated farm)
2 oh my god, look at this!
3 kill all these guys
4 wrap it up.
This scrap of outline appears in Reacher Said Nothing, a companion of sorts to the novel put together by Martin, a lecturer in French at Cambridge and a writer on surfing who got friendly with Child off the back of his Popeye bon mot. His book jokily documents the writing of Make Me, some of which he sat in on, notebook in hand, counting the number of Camels smoked and cups of coffee drunk. It’s called Reacher Said Nothing partly because Martin enjoys discussing Reacher in the language of phenomenology and existentialism, but mostly because ‘Reacher said nothing’ has long since eclipsed ‘That was for damn sure’ as the series’ catchphrase. (Child had it translated, Martin reports, by a team of Oxford Latinists and inscribed on a sundial which now stands in the garden of one of his houses and bears the legend nil dixit adeptus.) The phrase appears 21 times in Make Me, excluding such variant forms as ‘He said nothing,’ and Child amuses himself by finding different uses for the same three words. They can hint at reservations:
Reacher said nothing.
Chang said: ‘What?’
They can signal that Reacher is feeling uncharacteristically groggy:
Reacher said nothing.
Chang said: ‘You OK?’
They can allow him to function as a comic straight man, as when Chang explains to a sceptical journalist that she and Reacher are happy to give him a scoop:
‘We don’t want the book rights.’
‘Why wouldn’t you?’
‘I’m too busy and he can barely write his own name with a crayon.’
Reacher said nothing.
And they can serve as a laddish wink at the reader, as when Reacher and Chang plot their next investigative move after having sex in a hotel room:
She said: ‘We should shower first. And get dressed. I feel weird doing this with no clothes on.’
Reacher said nothing.
Child, it turns out, spends more time fine-tuning the percussive rhythms of his sentences than casual readers might suspect, and in his wide-ranging discussions with Martin – who presents himself as the kind of academic dissident who might have read Proust but at least ‘read the volumes out of order’ – has interesting things to say about managing a series and about writing in general. Unembarrassed about what he calls his ‘low-falutin’ ways, Child nonetheless quotes Shakespeare, Ezra Pound and James Wood, obsesses about the ugliness of certain words (‘onto’, ‘uni’), and mentions that he’s seen Waiting for Godot ‘about forty times’. He’s also a trivia and anagram fiend who was once struck by the simultaneous revelation, while watching the Super Bowl halftime show, that ‘Britney Spears’ can be rearranged into ‘Presbyterians’ and ‘Pepsi-Cola’ into ‘episcopal’. You get the feeling he’d be handy on a pub quiz team, except that he might argue stubbornly for facts he’d invented on the spot.
He puts these skills to use in the books by making the stories up as he goes along, scattering conflicting clues from which he later concocts a resolution. ‘I’m going to have to smoke a helluva lot of weed,’ he tells Martin as he gets to grips with the problem of what Reacher is doing in Mother’s Rest in the first place. He writes like that because he believes that if he’s surprised by what comes next then the reader will be too, which goes some way to explaining the unguessably odd twists the novels sometimes end on. (The events of Never Go Back, for example, are driven by an opium ring run out of a gentlemen’s club in Washington by aides to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) It’s less helpful in explaining Child’s ability, in a good year, to improvise fast-moving, twist-filled plots in which the resolution turns on a hidden theme instead of coming out of nowhere. Martin is volubly awed when that starts happening in Make Me, but Child keeps his cool. Does his unconscious guide him? ‘It could … but that’s all unfalsifiable, and it doesn’t feel like it.’ It’s more like diving into the sea and coming up with a pearl, he says: the trick is to go out earlier and cover the seabed with them.
Plots, anyway, are less important to him than character and pacing. ‘Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast’ is his maxim, and Martin gives a cackle-by-cackle account of Child’s remarks as he works on Make Me’s central fight scene: ‘We’re unashamedly jacking up the testosterone … Time for the scholarly digression … People are going to like some of this. It’s picturesque.’ Reacher’s sex life gives him more of a headache. Because the hero can’t change, such character development as there is needs to happen to the women, who typically use his example to make some sort of life choice before regretfully saying goodbye. So it’s easiest to make them younger than Reacher, but not so much younger as to make him seem creepy. (‘I believed in equality,’ Reacher tells us. ‘I believed in it big time.’) Child has evidently got tired of calibrating all this and some of the books drop sex altogether. But his readers – two thirds of whom are women – grow restive if Reacher’s latest partner doesn’t take him to bed. Martin shows him seeking help from a former romantic novelist: as Child sees things, the main difference between the genres is the word count. And there are signs, in the finished product, that Reacher’s relationship with Chang will be the longest-lasting yet.
‘Deep down I’m very shallow,’ Reacher says, and Martin’s jeu d’esprit gives a pretty good snapshot of the skills and temperament required to walk the line between clever and stupid with such aplomb. Child has lots of the right wounds for a big-name novelist – a life-threatening illness in childhood, a sense of class displacement from his time at grammar school – and brings them up in the tones of someone who’s been interviewed many, many times. But in the throes of the writing process he displays a wider range of moods. ‘The character does not exist,’ he snaps at one point. ‘It’s just a way of mediating the wants of the reader.’ Elsewhere it’s more a case of Reacher, c’est moi. ‘I know what people want,’ he says indignantly when his publishers query his choice of title. ‘I am people.’ Of his work living on, he says: ‘Ha! It’s all moonshine. As soon as I stop writing the front list, the back list will curl up and die.’ There are also some sideswipes at David Baldacci, the writer of a knock-off series starring a beefy military cop called John Puller. Reacher has already had his say, ambushing a thug called Baldacci in an aeroplane toilet and breaking both his arms. After the plane has landed Reacher helps him to his feet: ‘It seemed the least he could do.’