A lady in the audience wanted to know if Jack Reacher would ever own a smart phone. Moments earlier, one person’s smart phone rang three separate times and everyone at the Lee Child reading on the Upper West Side wanted their favorite fictional character to appear at that moment, assess the situation, confiscate the phone and deliver a quick blow to the owner’s head with it. Instead several people loudly told her to turn it off and one man sitting one row in front of her turned and said, “Stomp on that thing!”
That’s life in the real world. Life in Jack Reacher’s world is so much more satisfying.
Tuesday night I crammed into the Barnes & Noble at 82nd Street and Broadway and listened to Child talk and take questions for about an hour. At the end he signed copies of his new Reacher novel, Never Look Back, which came out yesterday.
I only discovered the Reacher series five or six years ago but I quickly caught up on all the books, which started in 1997 and now number 18. Jack Reacher is an all-time character — a 6-5, 250-pound ex-military policeman who now wanders the country with no possessions but inevitably finds himself in a bad situation. He never loses a fight, always kicks ass, always saves the day, can analyze any situation, beat up anyone with his fists, kill a man with a knife, is a marksman with a rifle, only travels with a toothbrush and loves diner food. He’s Sherlockian in his ability to dissect a mystery and never doubts himself. Child has said before Reacher is arrogant and it’s part of his appeal. He’s not a flawed, damaged hero moping around. He simply travels and kills bad guys and sometimes gals. Even after 18 books the books always entertain. Last year Tom Cruise starred in an adaptation, upsetting many fans of the book because Tom is short and Jack is tall. I enjoyed the movie but they certainly don’t compare to the books.
Reacher never disappoints — and his creator didn’t disappoint on Tuesday night.
I’d never seen Child — real name Jim Grant — at an event, although two people I know in publishing have talked about their interactions with him and how generous he was to them. Like other best-selling authors, he’s used to speaking at these types of events, is comfortable in front of a crowd and I’m sure many of his stories or lines have been said in front of other adoring crowds in other packed bookstores. But they were still new to me. He proved funny, warm and insightful, self-deprecating but totally confident in his skills and his creation.
I arrived at the 7 p.m. event at 6:15 and almost all the seats had been taken, although I found a spot in the back row. Beside and in front of me, two men held their seats for late-arriving spouses, marking their territory with a bag and glasses holder. When a Barnes & Noble employee approached and asked them if the seats were taken, they said yes. Ten minutes later, same question, same answer. Finally a warning: If the women hadn’t arrived in 10 minutes, the seats must go to some of the people who stood in the back or on the side. The place was packed; people peeked around shelves to get a glimpse of the action. One man got quite agitated — didn’t the worker know, didn’t we know, that his wife “went out of her way to meet me here” — and instead of wishing for Reacher to appear, I wondered if I could put the man down if things got testy. A shot to the knee could floor him, followed by a punch. Or maybe a kick to the groin, an always-effective Reacher technique.
The man’s wife arrived five minutes later. I stayed seated.
An older woman introduced Child, noting that one of his books had been turned into a movie starring Tom “Cruisey,” ruining her chances of being the next Mrs. Cruise, opening herself up for an investigation by Scientology and delighting those audience members who were eager to latch onto anything that made the actor who can’t match up to Reacher sound inferior, even if it was a quickly corrected mispronunciation.
Child has a fascinating life story. He grew up in Birmingham, England and worked as a director on British TV for years. He eventually got fired. Famously, he started writing his first book — The Killing Floor — knowing he needed to make it work in order to support his wife and child. That book became a hit and the series followed, along with the millions of fans and even more dollars. He still delights in savaging the TV industry and you can see that two decades later he still gets satisfaction from knowing he won in the end.
Before taking questions he talked about the new book, which has Reacher finally meeting a character he’s only spoken to on the phone in previous books — Susan Turner. Child talked about Turner being named after a man who put in a large bid at a charity auction. The man wanted a character named after his wife, and “wanted her to have sex with Jack Reacher.”
When an audience member also asked about Reacher’s romantic life — there really never is much of one — Child said he didn’t really write sex scenes because you’re supposed to write what you know…”and I’ve been married for 38 years.”
One person in the audience wanted to know how Child came up with Reacher’s fighting techniques. He talked about growing up in Birmingham and how he lived what he wrote. As a kid he got into numerous scuffles, including being confronted by five boys in an alley as he made his way to the library. In true Reacher fashion, Child first took down the ringleader, a boy whose name he still remembers — Donald Cooper.
I actually got called on for the last question of the Q&A, the benefit of being tall and extending my arm from the back row. I asked if he ever felt boxed-in or restricted by fans’ expectations of Reacher and his behavior. Did he ever worry that fans might think, “Reacher would never do that.” It’s something I imagine any writer or creator of a popular character occasionally struggles with. Child gave a lengthy answer, but only after making my night by saying it was a fascinating question, although with as many events as he’s done it very well could be a question he’s heard two dozen times, most recently at a reading in Topeka. But it did my journalism blood proud.
He talked about how it brought up many issues writers and audiences face, although he initially joked, “What do you mean Reacher wouldn’t do that? He just did it.” Eventually he admitted a writer could feel paralyzed by those types of reader expectations, while also mentioning how fortunate he felt that he’d written a character who could spark those types of feelings (it was similar to his talk about the movie and Tom Cruise, when he said he tried imagining what it would have been like when he started writing if one of his big worries 18 years later would be about who was cast in a movie based on his books).
Finally he wrapped up his answer and the evening’s Q&A, sending the audience home with a laugh by looking back at me and saying he really didn’t have any control over what happens in the books. Reacher does what he wants, he said. “If you don’t like it, take it up with him.”
Maybe I won’t ever have the opportunity to unleash my inner Reacher on a villain or cell phone user. But getting my ass kicked by Reacher? That sounds fun too.