By Dawn Ius
Lee Child admits he sometimes wonders what it might be like to write a novel without Jack Reacher, something unexpected—a new character, maybe a new genre. Like most authors, he has at least 99 ideas he’d like to pursue.
But he won’t.
“It’s all about having a contract with the reader,” he says. “They want Jack Reacher every year, and for me to deliver anything else would be weird and puzzling. My business is, I’m the Reacher guy.”
And business is very good.
This month, Child releases his 22nd novel featuring the gritty—and swoon-worthy—Jack Reacher, a tall tough guy with no roots, a nose for danger, and a fighting spirit that has spawned dozens of fast-paced action scenes and a sprawling fan club of “Reacher Creatures.”
Picking up where Make Me left off, THE MIDNIGHT LINE begins with Reacher in a more vulnerable state than readers might be used to. Still feeling the sting of rejection after a woman he was “really into” leaves, Reacher wanders into a Wisconsin pawn shop and stumbles across a class ring from 2005—it’s small, for a woman, and her initials are engraved on the inside.
What begins as an act of kindness to return the item to its rightful owner takes Reacher—and readers—through a harrowing journey over dangerous terrain that leads to a much more dangerous destination than Reacher could have imagined.
Of course, much action ensues.
That’s not flippant—it’s one of many things fans expect from Child, and as usual, the author delivers.
An unabashed pantser, Child says each scene is choreographed in the moment, transferred to the page as if he is living it himself. This not only makes each sequence unique, but it gives the “fight” an authenticity that is rooted in the author’s childhood.
“Basically I’m remembering when I was nine and ten years old,” Child says. “I was pretty much Reacher at this point. Fighting was a daily thing—I was good at it, and I enjoyed it.”
While Child isn’t so much a scrapper anymore, he’s tall and confident, projecting a kind of “don’t mess with me” attitude that comes to life in Reacher. Child recalls a time in the not so distant past when he considered crossing the street to avoid confrontation with a somewhat sketchy individual—and instead, it was the other man that ducked out of the way.
That “fighter instinct” is perhaps woven into Child’s DNA—much like Reacher, who even after 22 books remains much unchanged from the rugged guy readers met in Book 1, Killing Floor.
“My personal belief is that characters should always be the same,” Child says. “The concept of character arcs is very academic, and it doesn’t have a place in modern fiction. But on the other hand, you have to have a nod toward realism.”
Hence the need for books like THE MIDNIGHT LINE, where Reacher begins in a more contemplative mood. The subject matter doesn’t help, either—despite the fact that Child has no “plan” when he sits down to write, the book has a bit of a “ripped from the headlines” appeal, tackling two issues in the news right now—increased alarm over opioid usage, and the need for adequate support of the country’s war veterans.
Child hadn’t planned on hitting on those hot button topics, but, true to his process, they were on his mind as he set to writing this story and the plot unwound on its own.
It’s perhaps an unorthodox way of writing, but much of Child’s career has been like that. He tends to steer clear of offering aspiring writers advice, believing that the best advice is to ignore it all—and instead, write from the heart.
“What makes a book work is how organic it is,” he says. “If you go into a project with the mindset that you’re going to do ‘X’ like Stephen King, but ‘Y’ like Steve Berry, that novel will be DOA. Nobody in the world is better at writing your book than you—and there is nothing worse than trying to fake it.”
For Child, that means allowing Reacher to guide him into his next story. His 2018 book will begin with Reacher wandering aimlessly through New Hampshire, and going to see where his father grew up—except there is no record of his dad ever living there.
Of course, much action will ensue.