New Zealand was the first country to propel Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books to number one on the bestseller lists, in 1998, way ahead of the UK and US around a decade later. They were his ideal readers. All the name ‘Lee Child’ meant back then was the guarantee of a good read: another Jack Reacher story. This was as it should be, Lee told me when I was working on his biography, The Reacher Guy. His books were the thing, he said. The book writer didn’t, or shouldn’t, matter. His job was simply to make the book according to specifications and deliver it on time to the consumer. Lee was content to be the shadow in the machine. He was thin and shadowy by desire, as elusive in his own way as his bigger, heavier fictional alter-ego.
Lee had always loved books, and had taught himself to read and write. It was surprising to hear him assert that violence was “the language of his youth”. Jim Grant – Lee’s real name – grew up in Birmingham. “A lot of it is me when I was nine,” he said, when I asked him about Reacher’s fight scenes. “Birmingham was a hard, hard city.” He showed me a scar from where he’d been hit above his left eye with a half-brick in the playground, and explained how it was in Birmingham he first learned you never really fight five guys, because two always run away. He told me how he’d head-butted a guy in Sheffield who was threatening to make off with his fish and chips, and how in his mid-50s he’d knocked out a drunken frat boy on Broadway in defence of a struggling taxi driver.
It was incumbent on me as biographer to test out his tall stories. I went in search of eyewitnesses, and found plenty of contemporaries who corroborated Lee’s claim that knife-carrying was commonplace among tribal groups on the Birmingham mean streets. But it was his best friend from high school who gave me specifics.
Andy Saunders, a bright, biddable boy destined for medicine, had been uprooted from his home in Leeds and dropped mid-year into King Edward’s – he felt out of place, at odds with the world, and vulnerable. It was Jim Grant, he said, who stood up for him, who would accompany him on the walk home to see off the bullies, sometimes simply staring them down, other times getting stuck in with his fists. “Me and Jim would be going to my house and we’d meet them, and Jim – who’s this skinny, weedy, pale guy – would just stand there and push out his chin. He had these enormously long arms and was kind of fearless.”
Jim and Andy went their separate ways after school and didn’t meet again until 2016, but one day Andy stumbled across a copy of Killing Floor and recognised his old friend on the cover. He read the book, and when he came to Reacher’s first fight immediately thought: “This is Jim standing up to Arthur Bates.”
The name resonated. I’d heard about Bates, a thick-set reprobate who was a skilled and vicious cartoonist. King Edward’s admitted boys on academic merit, but the social advantages they enjoyed were dispiritingly disparate. According to Andy, Jim had been a peripheral member of a heavy-metal gang headed up by Bates, but had split when they unjustly sought to scapegoat him for a series of thefts from the music school designed to fund their rockstar lifestyle. There was no love lost between them.
Lee doesn’t see himself as anyone’s saviour, and though he told me plainly that he “won’t see anyone bullied”, didn’t especially remember standing up for Andy. It was this divergence of memory that most fascinated him about the biographical process, the way different kids had experienced the same circumstances in distinctly personal ways.
There was a sadness about Jim, Andy told me. “I saw it in his eyes. This guy’s been damaged in childhood and taken on the world.”
For once playing it down, Lee recalls only one fight with Bates. He caught him fiddling with the combination padlock on his locker. He knew Bates wasn’t planning to steal anything, because Jim didn’t have anything worth stealing, only to cause mischief – trash his possessions or set them on fire – but, Reacher-style, he got his retaliation in first and punched him hard in the right side of the face. Which gave him the advantage, which he needed, because this was a big guy. He’d gone on punching and kicking Bates, he told me, until he had him laid out on the floor, then walked away while some “puny acolyte” went off to fetch a teacher.
Bates left King Edward’s at the end of that year. Rumour has hovered over his fate thereafter. There was talk of drugs, a stretch as a guest of Her Majesty, an untimely demise.
The beating reminded me of Reacher’s rule that it wasn’t enough to beat your opponent: he also had to know he was beaten. Reacher never analyses the nature of evil, never justifies his own actions, and never gives the bad guy time to justify himself either. He simply acts and moves on.
There’s a lot of Lee in Reacher, and vice versa. The self-sufficiency, the ability to reflect and talk smart, but to say nothing too. The fascination with numbers and punctuation. The readiness to use his fists and play dirty if required. The compulsion to see more and know more. The compulsion to win. “It’s my greatness weakness,” he told me. But would he have got where he is – the apartments overlooking the Empire State Building and Central Park, the Bentley, the Renoir on the wall, homes in France, Sussex, Wyoming and Colorado – without it?
Reacher is a big guy who needs big spaces to roam in. As an Australian, I asked Lee whether he’d considered setting a Reacher novel in Australia. He answered that the geography was perfect but the market was too small. What about New Zealand? No, he said: “Reacher wouldn’t find enough bad stuff going on.”
Heather Martin’s authorised biography of Lee Child, The Reacher Guy (Little, Brown, $ 37.99) is available in bookstores nationwide.