The Adventure of the Angry Employee
Every thriller novel starts with a dream. An insurance agent named Tom Clancy wanted to kick commie ass. A puzzle fiend named Dan Brown wanted to solve the mother (and Holy Father) of all riddles. Lee Child's dream was simpler. He wanted to kill his boss.
This was 1995. Child — the pseudonymous writer who has created Jack Reacher, sold 50 million books, and inspired the new Tom Cruise movie (which opens Friday) — didn't exist yet. Child was Jim Grant, a 40-year-old British union man. And every day, Jim Grant went to battle against his boss at a TV station.
"I'd have these horrendous meetings and want to break the guy's leg," Child says. "But obviously you can't break the guy's leg. So how would you have it done? Where could you find the kind of people to do it for you? How would you pay them? How would you pay them in an untraceable way?
"You're working out all this narrative," Child says, "and it's great training."
The mystery we're here to solve is how Jim Grant, angry employee, turned into Lee Child, revenge novelist. And how the newly minted Child became — as the mystery writer Michael Connelly calls him — "distinctly American." It's an odd thing when a British writer, powered by British rage, creates the ultimate Tom Cruise vehicle.
But first, Jim Grant's boss. Back in the 1980s, Granada Television in Manchester was a dreamland. Viewers flocked to the studio to see the replica of Sherlock Holmes's 221B Baker Street home and the public house from the long-running soap Coronation Street. On his first day, Jim Grant sat down to a picnic with four actors. "Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson," he remembers. "That was my first working lunch."
For a decade, the studio cranked out classic middlebrow fare: Sherlock Holmes, Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown. Grant, a presentation director, made sure the right shows got on air at the right time. But as the '90s began, Granada found itself a target of the Thatcherites who ran Britain. New management, led by Charles Allen — "an ugly, twisted little man," Child says — came in to break Granada's union.
Grant saw his friends sacked, TV shows canceled, his career going pear-shaped. "I was furious at this wanton destruction of what was a magnificent industry," he says. "Two generations of very decent, talented people had built this edifice. And it was being vandalized, just destroyed, by these know-nothing idiots who were chasing a short-term buck."
Granada's shop steward retired. Grant's boss put it around that the next man to lead the union would be fired within a week. "I had that blaze of annoyance, like, I'm not going to take this shit anymore," Child says. Or as Jack Reacher would later put it, "Attacking me was like pushing open a forbidden door."
Jim Grant became the new shop steward.
Lee Child, as Jim Grant is now known, sits in his office in Manhattan. He's 6-foot-5 and has a blandly handsome face. It recalls a line Child once wrote about Jack Reacher: "His face looked like it had been chipped out of rock by a sculptor who had ability but not much time."
Child created Reacher from the smoldering embers of his own rage. It might seem like a simplistic theory, but it's true. Like the author, Reacher was workplace surplus: He was a military policeman in an era of Army downsizing. The act of leaving his job turned Reacher into a protective figure, an avenging angel. He hitchhikes across the country, with a travel-size toothbrush in his pocket, and finds noble causes.
Like Lee Child, Reacher likes to stick up for the little guy. In the books, his wards have included a single mom who works as a cocktail waitress, an elderly librarian, a young African American boy in Mississippi, and small-town Coloradans.
Like Lee Child, Reacher does not tolerate bullies. In the books, they have included a Texas district attorney, a crooked Army general, al-Qaeda agents, a Mexican drug lord, and a mob boss named the Zec (played in Jack Reacher by Werner Herzog).
"These are postmodern Westerns," says Connelly, who writes the Harry Bosch series. "They're Shane. A stranger comes to town and sets things right. Then he leaves town."
"At a very simple point, the Reacher stories are revenge stories," says Child. "Somebody does a very bad thing, and Reacher takes revenge." When Reacher gives the bully his comeuppance — in the way Jim Grant longed to do — Child's prose seems to slow down, so that we leisurely savor the act of the enemy's kneecap exploding or his nose caving in. "Smashed the boss man's balls like I was trying to punt a football right out of the stadium I jammed my thumb into his eye. Hooked the tips of my fingers in his ear and squeezed."
"The guy is just obliterated," Child says. He smiles. "That's certainly cathartic for me."
As Granada's new shop steward, Jim Grant readied for battle. "It was a street fight," he says. "It was a brawl every single day." Grant became a secret agent within the studio.
"Television is a 24/7 operation," he explains. "But management is only there nine to five Monday to Friday. And so the whole rest of the time, I had a kind of guerilla team going.
"The cleaners would bring me anything from a trash can that looked like a memo or a draft," he says. "I had people who did an entire circuit of the building every single night looking under photocopier lids for documents that had accidentally been left there. We steamed open the mail. We hacked into their computers. They realized we were doing that, so I had engineers unscrew their hard drives, take them home and copy them, and bring them back. It was guerilla warfare!"
One Granada manager was so lazy that he had an assistant draft the speeches he'd give to employees as he fired them. Grant's team got hold of the speeches. By the time they were fired, they had nearly memorized the words.
"He knew they were heading full speed toward a brick wall," says Child's younger brother, Andrew Grant, who's also a thriller writer. "The question was, how far away was the brick wall?"
One day, Grant's guerilla team found the answer. They discovered the order to fire Grant.
Grant had one last-ditch brainstorm. "In order to fire anybody, you had to inform the shop steward," he says. "I was the shop steward! They couldn't fire me without informing me. I trumped their ace with that." When Grant took the union job, he'd been given a week to survive. He wound up lasting for more than two years.
"Eventually," he says, "I took a week off and went to Spain for a vacation. May 1995. When I got back, there was a message on my machine saying, 'You're fired. Don't come back. Your swipe card will not work.'" Grant was 40 years old, jobless for the first time, and royally pissed off.
Many years after he became Lee Child, he ran into David Morrell, the author of First Blood. Morrell, who knew of his rage, told him, "Lee, if you ever adjust to the anger you feel at these people, you'll run out of stories."
"Lee looked at me with very steely eyes," Morrell tells me, "and said, "I will never stop being angry at them."
"A" Is for American
Jim Grant, the man who would become Lee Child, didn't have a computer in 1995, so he wrote his first novel in longhand at his dining-room table. Grant was furious — the anger still leaps off the page — but also savvy. He realized his sacking offered him a chance for reinvention. Grant decided to write thrillers like an American.
Although he'd never lived in the U.S., Grant had visited frequently, had lapped up American TV, and had even married an American woman. "It was really a question of mimicking," he says. "If you're familiar with the rhythms and the word choices of the country and you can put them down on paper, it actually becomes their nationality." British drollery metamorphosed into a kind of hypnotic, Eastwoodian growl. Killing Floor, the first Reacher book, opens like this:
I was arrested in Eno's diner. At twelve o'clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
Grant's wife, Jane, read his drafts and clipped out Britishisms. She called herself the Committee on Un-American Activities.
The Americanness of Lee Child's novels did not come from granular detail, from a novelistic sense of place. "You know you're in Nebraska because he says, 'We're in Nebraska,'" notes Otto Penzler, the owner of New York's Mysterious Bookshop. "You don't smell the cornfields."
No, Child aims to deliver a different American vision. When Reacher goes to Nebraska, as he did in Worth Dying For, Child borrows images from movies and TV shows — it's a "Nebraska" of our collective imagination. As Child puts it, "If you stick to that mental image, everybody says, 'That's a well-researched book.' If you actually supply the reality, people say, 'The guy's never been there.'" It's as if Child is feeding back to us the images America once beamed to England.
There are plenty of genre heroes, like Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus, who patrol British soil. But the modern British mystery can be as claustrophobic as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Child wanted Reacher moving through space, through Nebraska and the Dakotas and Colorado, as "the drifter, the lone stranger, the mysterious knight-errant."
The knight would be a blank canvas. Reacher has no ex-wife. No teen daughter who hates his guts. No partner who's a swell guy when he's not on a whiskey bender. There are few recurring characters in the Reacher books, which deprives them of soap-opera reunions.
Reacher is a Luddite. In Gone Tomorrow, which was published in 2009, he hunts for clues in free newspapers and the Yellow Pages. Reacher carries no cell phone, which has become as essential to the thriller novel as a Colt was to Mike Hammer, and no iPad. The Reacher books are an answer to the "techno-thriller," that '90s object of fascination in which the main characters were an intel agent and a computer.
Child offers little of Reacher's background. Few details have slipped out: He was injured in the 1983 Beirut bombings; his mother was French; his favorite president is Harry Truman. Holmes's classic line is, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Reacher's classic line is silence. From The Affair:
The driver said, "Who are you and where are you going?
I said nothing.
He said, "Do you speak English?"
I said nothing.
He said, "We're talking to you, asshole."
I said nothing.
Reacher is an emotional ice cube. "I find it very refreshing," the writer Vince Flynn says, "that Lee isn't one of these authors that try to get into the psychological guilt a man has over killing a scumbag." After offing five men in Killing Floor, Reacher is asked how he feels. He replies, "How do you feel when you put roach powder down?"1
But Reacher isn't just a mindless vigilante. He can also be a liberal do-gooder. He has expressed sympathy for gays in the military and undocumented immigrants. In Child's latest book, A Wanted Man, Reacher worries that the Patriot Act will lead to all sorts of "national security bullshit." Child has invented a kind of progressive vigilantism. The scumbag is killed, but usually for the right reasons.
Reacher is physically invulnerable. He's 6-foot-5 — the same height as Child — and weighs more than 200 pounds. (This makes Tom Cruise a very odd choice for the part.) "The greatest paradigm in history is David versus Goliath," Child says. "I thought Suppose the good guy is actually Goliath."
A Goliath who wanders the land in search of causes, who has a short memory and little baggage, who has a noble bent and an itchy trigger finger. Rooting for Goliath was Child's most American idea of all.
About the pen name. Renault used to sell a hatchback called Le Car, and Grant once heard an American mispronounce it "Lee Car." Around the Grant household, calling anything "lee" became a gag — his daughter, Ruth, was "lee child." But the name turned out to be perfect for Grant's self-invention. Back when people actually browsed Barnes & Noble shelves, "Child" fit snugly between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. Grant also calculated, with eerie precision, that 63 percent of New York Times best-selling authors had last names that began with "C." "Think about the people from my generation who have done well: Harlan Coben, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly," he says. "Before me, there's Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell. Tremendous number of C's."
Thus, Jim Grant became Lee Child.
Child's writing life is both regulated and relaxed. He rises late and arrives at his office around noon. He has two computers. One is just for writing. The other is for checking e-mail and Yankees scores. Child writes from noon until six or seven p.m. During that period, he drinks around 30 cups of coffee, eats stingily, and chain-smokes. "A lot of literary writers, I've heard, celebrate writing a sentence," Child says. "We've got to do a bit more than that." He can usually crank out 2,000 words a day.
Child doesn't construct outlines for his novels or write second drafts. In a typical year, he starts a Reacher book around Labor Day and turns in the finished product in March. "I'm never late," Child says.
I ask him if he could imagine not being happy with a novel when it's time to ship it.
"That opens up a whole 'nother can of worms," Child says, "a second psychological question, which is, 'Are you ever happy with it?'
"I was on a panel at one of these conferences once and was asked a pretty interesting question: If you could go back and revisit your first book, would you change it? The first three panelists were saying, 'Yes, of course, it's horrible.'"
"I said, 'Yes, there's plenty wrong with it, but, no, I wouldn't change it.' Because then you've got to imagine being asked the same question another five years down the track. Would you change it again? Of course you would change it again."
"You look back at an early book," Child continues, "and it's like looking at those photographs you have in your drawer from the 1970s, with the horrible clothes and the terrible hair. You think, Oh my god. But there's nothing you can do about it. That's who you were. It's the same with a book."
"And so I never imagine getting into a situation where you finish a book and then you agonize about it. You finish a book and you just say, 'That is this year's book.'"
Child is drinking coffee at the Four Seasons. He looks as out of place as Jack Reacher did when he stumbled in here in the adventure Gone Tomorrow. For even though Child is rich, he wears a single, ascetic uniform: black blazer (brass buttons removed), button-down shirt from Lands' End, jeans, shoes made in England. "He has everything he needs," says his webmaster, Maggie Griffin. "He has this unbelievably gorgeous apartment with nothing in it. He flies first class for the legroom. Eats takeout. Smokes cigarettes. He likes a nice glass of wine. And a joint."
Child isn't just the sum of his commercial instincts. James Patterson has great commercial instincts and writes like a 12-year-old who has just read his first copy of Playboy. Child can really write. Boy, can he write. "Voice" might be a hackneyed concept, but Child has perfected his: sardonic, hypnotic, lacking in self-consciously writerly flourishes that would break the spell.
"We just made fools of ourselves and wasted a lot of time," a cop says to Reacher in 61 Hours.
"Not really a lot of time," Reacher growls.
At the Four Seasons, Child tells me, "If I wanted to turn you into a character, having talked to you for a couple of hours a couple of times, I could absolutely put you down on paper. Just by the sound of your voice."
So do it, I say.
"You've got a fairly low-pitched monotone," Child says. "It's slightly hesitant from one word to the next."
Curtis says nothing.
A while later, Child and I walk out the back entrance of the hotel and follow the path of Reacher. In Gone Tomorrow, Reacher scours 58th Street for the secret lair of al-Qaeda agent Lila Hoth. He fixates on three decrepit buildings, "like three rotten teeth in a bright smile."
The buildings really exist, next to a pan-Asian restaurant called Tao. Child and I walk across the street so we can get a good look. "They've gone and changed it," he says, disappointed. The sagging lintels and weedy cornices Reacher spots have been replaced by awnings for Osteria Serafina and Green Café.
Child wrote another New York adventure, The Hard Way, in which he worked to nail the precise details of the city's streets. "Then I read it through and thought, This is ridiculous.," he says. "It looks like a MapQuest page on acid. So I thought, Sod it, I'll make it wrong deliberately. You get down the West Side Highway, make a left onto Houston "
In Gone Tomorrow, Child says, "I had him shooting from over there." He points to 58th and Madison. The geography, of course, is beside the point. We want Reacher to ascend the stairs of the rotten buildings, shoot a couple of al-Qaeda agents on the way, and then finish off Hoth — the bully, the authority — with a long knife.
As we stand there, it occurs to me that Child's genius was shoehorn very genuine emotions, anger, and humiliation, in an utterly fanciful universe. Put another way: His is pulp we can believe in. The reason we'll follow Jack Reacher anywhere — to Nebraska, to a terrorist hideout in midtown — is because, even before we knew him, he earned the right to our imaginations. When Lee Child declares "It's like he's a real person," it isn't an empty boast.