Saturday, March 26, 2022

The Reacher Guy: The Authorized Biography of Lee Child, by Heather Martin - Review

The Reacher Guy: The Authorized Biography of Lee Child, by Heather Martin

(Amazon India, Kindle)

Heather Martin’s authorised biography of Lee Child, ‘The Reacher Guy’, is the story of James Grant the person, Lee Child the author, and Jack Reacher the character.

James Dover Grant goes out on 1 September 1994 and buys “three pads of lined paper, one pencil, one pencil sharpener and an eraser for a total of £3.99.” In March 1995, he sends out his first ever letter pitching his novel. Writing as Lee Child, his first book, Killing Floor, is published in 1997. It is the first book to feature Jack Reacher as the protagonist. Two decades later, by 2018, it is estimated that approximately 400 Lee Child books, on average, sell every hour of every day. Night School, published in 2016, sells 18,000 copies a day. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books have sold well over a hundred million copies.

Heather Martin’s authorised biography of Lee Child, The Reacher Guy, is the story of James Grant the person, Lee Child the author, and Jack Reacher the character. Detailed, authorised, and frank, it grew out of detailed feedback she sent on one of Child’s Spanish translations with which she found issues.

James Dover Grant, born in 1954 in Coventry, was the great-grandson of a miller, and the grandson of John Grant—the first one in the family to receive a formal education. Lee Child himself spent the better part of two decades working at Granada TV, involved with the creation of thousands of commercials, shows, and news stories. Then he was laid off on 21 June 1995, at the age of 39, with only “seven house payments left in the bank”. All he had the confidence that he could tell a story.

“‘My motto,’ Lee wrote to me, quoting Sid [S.D. ‘Sid’ Jones]: ‘I can’t grow any more talent, but I can out-work you.’” He wrote Killing Floor in seven months, “twice by hand, in pencil and blue ink and red ink, Tippexing and revising and annotating.” By the time his first book was published, he had the drafts of two more novels ready.

He got detailed feedback on his first book from Elizabeth Wright, who had him cut the 600-plus pages of the draft to 425 pages. Lee wrote back to his editor, Putnam’s David Highfill, agreeing to his suggestion to cut back some scenes—“‘I’m on course to lose around 125 pages.’” The same Lee Child would say 20 years later: “‘I tell my editor she can make three comments and I’ll act on one of them.’” The title itself was number 19 on a list of choices—My Only Friend, The Weimar Drop, Country Road, Blue Creek, and others.

Child’s agent, Darley Anderson, approached Irwyn Applebaum, boss at Bantam, only to get a response that Jack Reacher “isn’t even worth taking on editorially”. A few short years later, Applebaum was ordered by Peter Olson, CEO of Random House, of which Bantam was a part, to “Go get me that author”. As the bidding war started, Putnam found itself outgunned by Bantam with Applebaum’s offer of an advance “more than 50 per cent bigger” and which went “up by $100,000 per book”, and where the marketing budget was a “‘minimum total of one million dollars.’”

Lee Child knew what would make people buy a book. He listed three elements: “Can you deliver the reader to the end of the story? Can you write dialogue? Can you become a reader of your own book?” If one were to add a fourth, Child maintained that he as an author “had the length of a television commercial to make himself unforgettable, unputdownable.” Sage advice for most writers of the fiction genre, I say. 

There are dozens of photographs at the end of the book, including of Child’s handwritten drafts, and where you can see the first line of Killing Floor, “I had slept on the bus right through the long haul from…” become, “I was arrested in Eno’s diner.”

Child wrote in a 2013 email to a friend, “‘I like to pepper my manuscript with the illusion of knowledge.’” Irrespective of whether he was being modest or not, he did obsess over detail. He calculated how much a dollar bill weighed, how many one-dollar bills would add up to one kilogram, to one ton, and how much cash would an air-conditioner box fill. The answers are 1,064 dollars; 1,083,345 dollars; and $96,000, respectively. All because Child had an image of “‘a warehouse full of cash. That was where I was heading. I didn’t care how I got there.’”

Part of Reacher’s persona—peripatetic, unsentimental, with at best a distant relationship with his father and brother—flows from the author himself; unsurprising, since writers often take inspiration from the world around them, of which they are a part. In a 2016 essay in the New Yorker about his father (then ninety-two years old), he wrote, “You’re a good man, and you lived a good life.” He later shared, “In fact, neither thing was true. But what else could I say?” The description of his dying father as a “‘purse-mouthed bigot whose instinct was to prohibit, not encourage’ had been cut from the original copy.” This autobiographical streak leaches into his books where what Reacher says about his dead brother: “The truth was I didn’t love him very much at all.” was changed to “The truth was I never knew for sure if I loved him or not.” 

Even his novels’ plots grew from what he had read and seen. “His second book drew on his reading about separatist and militia movements, the third on his reading about Vietnam MIAs… the fourth was a blend of the locked-room mystery and a serial killer novel, and the fifth was inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that ‘three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead’.”

There are several other nuggets in the book. Like it was with “Bad Luck and Trouble” that Transworld, the UK publisher of Child’s books, agreed to his suggestion of using a “shadow figure of Reacher on the cover”. Or that Child was offered a chance to take over the James Bond franchise, twice. He refused both times.

So why did Child decide to retire and hand over the Reacher franchise to his younger brother, Andrew Grant, with book number 25, The Sentinel? Part of the reason was the grind of a quarter century where he had written a book every year, done the promotions, interviews, traveling, everything. Part of it was also his incredulity with the “new, ugly politics” of a changed world where the “discourse of toxic masculinity ‘makes Reacher look worse’,”and where Reacher’s ability to “distinguish unequivocally between right and wrong” was being called into question. Child remarked, “‘I’m all in favour of an open mind, but don’t keep your mind so open your brains fall out.’”

Heather Martin’s is the definitive and detailed biography of Lee Child. At over 500 pages, Jack Reacher fans will appreciate the insights into the making of the character, while fans of the fiction genre in general will a great deal about the making of the world’s bestselling fiction author.

This review was first published in Sunday Guardian on 12 March, 2022.

© 2022, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.