At the age of 65, the thriller writer is hanging up his pen as his younger brother takes over the bestselling series. Nick Rufford tracks down the British-born author in the hills of Wyoming to ask why.
The end of a dirt track in the American wilderness is not where you’d expect to find a British-born writer whose gritty thrillers top the international bestseller charts. Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, about a US military police veteran turned itinerant crime fighter, is ranked among the world’s most valuable publishing franchises. Every 13 seconds someone buys one of his books in one of 101 countries. In total, an estimated 100 million copies have been sold.
Yet for the past seven months Child, the second of four brothers, who grew up in the Birmingham suburb of Handsworth Wood, has been pumping his own water from a borehole and driving three hours to collect groceries from the nearest store. Moose and elk wander up to the door of his timber house, and raptors hang above the distant Snowy Mountains. “It’s just breathtakingly beautiful,” he says. “The mail is left ten miles away in a locked box on the shoulder of a road, so it is unbelievably remote. If I go back to New York, I can walk one block to the store at midnight and see more people than I’ve seen here in two months.”
Child turns 66 later this month. He retreated to Wyoming in February with his American wife, Jane, to the same tract of wilderness where his youngest brother, Andrew Grant — also an established thriller writer, albeit with a smaller audience, and 14 years his junior — lives. At first Child’s move was temporary, to recharge his writing batteries and bring some respite from the rush and crush of life in New York, where he moved to from Britain in 1998. Then he got snowed in. Then lockdown happened. Then he fell in love with the place.
“When I open my front door in the morning I see thousands of square miles of conifer forest,” he says, without a trace of an American accent. “Wyoming is larger than the United Kingdom and yet it has way less than 1 per cent of its population. Most of it is uninhabited, except for the wildlife.”
Child’s new surroundings may be idyllic, but there’s a problem … and it’s Reacher. The get-out-of-my-way drifter has taken on a life of his own. When Child moved to Wyoming his intention was to take his foot off the pedal. Instead sales have accelerated. He’s the only bestselling author who has piled on readers each year since 2013. There have been two Jack Reacher films, which earned US$380 million, and there’s a forthcoming television series on Amazon Prime. Which would all be great, if Child didn’t want out.
“I’m running out of energy, I’m running out of ideas and, crucially, I’m getting old,” he admits. “The world is moving on without me and you’ve got to be sensitive to that. You can’t be arrogant and gloss over it. The culture is moving ahead of where I am. From day one I promised myself I would never give less than 100 per cent, purely out of respect for the readers. The readers have created a fabulous life for me and I owe them a lot. It’s a bit like being an athlete or a football player. I did not want to be the embarrassing guy who sticks around for a season too long.”
He had planned to put down his pen three years ago, after 21 books, but his publishers had other ideas and persuaded him to write three more. One long winter, Child pondered how he could kill Reacher off. “Initially I had the idea that in the last book he would die in a blaze of glory or bleed out on some filthy motel bathroom floor.” The final book even had a title, Die Lonely. But when he mentioned it to fans they would “groan in dismay”, so he had to rethink.
His mind turned to his brother Andrew. He could help him keep Reacher alive. The brothers have uncannily similar CVs. Both graduated from Sheffield University, both met and married American women and emigrated to the US — Lee to New York, Andrew to Chicago, before he upped sticks to Wyoming in 2017. When Lee followed suit and bought a place three miles down the road (“It was about the price of a spare bedroom in New York City”) they became next-door-but-one neighbours.
“I got this fantasy — suppose I could wake up years younger with all that energy I used to have, with all the ideas, with the connection to life itself. Then I thought, I should ask my brother Andrew to do it. It sounds stupid, but literally we are the same person, just 14 years apart. He’s the best tough-guy writer I know, so I just thought, could he do it? Would he do it? The ‘would’ part was more important. Andrew is very self-directed. To be blunt about it, he’s the most stubborn and obstinate person I know and does not work well with others.”
Child eventually popped the question on a road trip with Andrew to Denver. “I remember tentatively introducing the question, ‘What do you think about this?’ ” The result of that journey is The Sentinel, the 25th Jack Reacher book, which is published later this month and written jointly by Lee and Andrew Child — a double pseudonym.
Born James Grant, Lee Child was an affectionate nickname he and Jane had for their daughter, Ruth (Lee, a deliberate mispronunciation of the French “le”). He’d met Jane at university in 1974. They married the following year and relocated to New York when his literary career took off. “I was in love with America, she was in love with England,” he recalls. “She was such an Anglophile, it took me 24 years to get her back out of there.”
Ruth, 40, the Grants’ only child, is a dog trainer who lives in Colorado, an hour south of Lee and Jane in Wyoming. “Once the world’s greatest kid, now a woman I’m proud to call my friend,” her dad wrote in a dedication in the Reacher book Tripwire.
He chose to use a pen name for the first book, 1997’s Killing Floor, because he thought it would boost sales: Lee Child fitted perfectly between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie on bookshop shelves. He has written a new Jack Reacher novel every year since, twice hitting No 1 in the paperback and hardback charts simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic — a record.
A former military police major, Reacher roams America, not looking for trouble but finding it. With no goal or destination, just a toothbrush and a few dollars in his pocket, he pinballs between hick towns, diners, seedy bars and down-at-heel motels. He takes on bent cops, drug barons and biker gangs, while briefly falling in love, and then moves on. He has made his creator hugely rich. As well as the Wyoming ranch and the Manhattan apartment, which overlooks Central Park, Child has a home near St Tropez and a house in East Sussex set in 45 acres of farmland (he owns a whole postcode).
The brothers will co-author the next few books before Andrew goes solo. Employing a Greyhound bus metaphor, they will “ride together for a few stops, then I’ll get off, adopt a dog and, yeah, Andrew will sail on into the future without me”, Child says. “I’m imagining there will be a transition period of two to three books, and then I’m going to be left behind, which is perfect.”
Will Reacher survive the transition? At stake is one of the world’s most lucrative literary brands, worth an estimated billion dollars from book sales alone. It has always relied on Child’s two-fisted prose and attention to detail. There’s sex and sadism, as there is in Chandler and Fleming, but what makes the books so distinct is the slow-burn intrigue set against his depiction of forgotten America. If it works it won’t be the first time a series has changed hands — and thrived. Felix Francis published nine books as Dick Francis after his father’s death in 2010. The Bourne series, invented by Robert Ludlum, was extended by a dozen books, first by Eric van Lustbader, then by Brian Freeman. In theory there is no reason why Reacher can’t carry on indefinitely.
One sticking point may be the critics. Back when Reacher became too popular to ignore, Child attracted plaudits from the literary establishment. He was even interviewed on stage by Bill Clinton, a fan. But it’s a fragile acceptance. Child is at heart a pulp-fiction writer. Reacher is a laconic loner who never admits frailties and uses brute force to settle arguments — not what you’d call a modern man. It wouldn’t take much for Reacher to be reclassified as a symbol of toxic masculinity, even though the series is surprisingly popular with women.
The books aren’t meant as a model for how to behave, Child says, but as therapy for the lack of justice people encounter in their daily lives. “In real life, everything drags on for ever and never gets resolved. If your house gets broken into, you’ll never get your stuff back. Fiction supplies what we don’t get. A bad thing happens and is put right, neatly tied up in 400 pages. That is consoling.”
The fast-paced plot of the new book, devised by Andrew, chimes with next month’s US election. Reacher hitchhikes into a backwater town where nothing works. A ransomware attack has disabled everything from traffic lights to police radios. It turns out to be a practice run for a plot to throw the national election and undermine American democracy. Nothing that can’t be solved by Reacher with a few well-aimed blows to the gut, obviously.
Child is no fan of President Trump, but he won’t be voting in the US election. “Andrew is a citizen, but I’m not,” he says. “I was eligible as early as 2001, but George Bush was president and I felt I’d be endorsing his presidency. I’d rather not be a citizen of anywhere, to be honest. I’m an Irish citizen through my father. When getting in and out of the EU gets tedious [because of Brexit], I’ll apply for [an Irish] passport.”
Contrary to popular belief, Reacher is not a Republican, Child claims. “He has a lot of [Republican] characteristics — ex-military, his lifestyle, his mannerisms, what he does — they seem to be red [the Republican colour] characteristics, but really he’s a liberal who, instead of arguing with you for four hours over something, he’ll just punch you in the face.”
Reacher a liberal? That may surprise fans, although the clues are there. When Reacher talked about his disillusionment with the military in Nothing to Lose (2008), some readers saw it as unpatriotic. They showed their dissatisfaction by ripping out the offending pages and sending them to Child smeared with excrement. “It wasn’t soldiers who objected to it,” Child says. “It was hypocritical armchair warriors.
Child’s own anti-establishment views are informed by his background. At four years old he moved with his family from his birthplace of Coventry to smoggy 1950s Birmingham. “If you fell in a canal you’d need to get your stomach pumped,” he says. “Sometimes the river near us caught fire.” Aged ten, he won a place on academic merit to a direct-grant grammar school — the now independent King Edward’s School — where he became known as a scrapper and quickly earned the nickname “Grievous”, short for grievous bodily harm. At times he carried a knife for self-defence, “as did every other boy that lived in my area, where posh school pupils were disliked”, he says.
It’s a good image for a hard-boiled thriller writer, but it doesn’t quite square with Child’s main recollection of that period, that “the biggest gift of those formative years was reading. I haunted the library.” He also smoked pot and played guitar in a band called Dark Tower, until it broke up because “I stole the bass player’s girlfriend”.
After a law degree he took a job in television production in Manchester, cueing programmes from behind a control desk. He was sacked after 18 years of service, his bosses singling him out partly because he was shop steward for the technicians’ union.
They may have done him a good turn. He wrote his first book at his dining room table soon afterwards, naming his first villains after the Granada managers who fired him.
“Revenge is a great motivator,” he says, “and fundamentally the Reacher stories are revenge stories. Not necessarily taking revenge for something that’s happened to him, but revenge on behalf of a third party against some terrible injustice.” He reasoned that Granada wouldn’t sue because “nobody’s going to get up in court and say, ‘You know that lying, cheating, backstabbing weasel on page 100? That’s me.’ “
Child’s insubordinate leanings haven’t mellowed with age. He was appointed a CBE last year, but politely declined to bow to the Prince of Wales during the ceremony at Buckingham Palace. “I was delighted to get it, but I wasn’t going to go as far as bowing because I’m an egalitarian. I don’t think Prince Charles really cared one way or another.”
At 6ft 4in, Child is only an inch shorter than his musclebound creation, albeit much skinnier and without the scars. He’s an enthusiastic smoker. “Every year my new year’s resolution is to keep on smoking,” he says. He smokes enough — “maybe 20 a day” — to make it financially advantageous to live in Wyoming, where cigarettes are cheap. “This house pays for itself on that alone.”
Does he worry about the effect on his health? “I’m sure if I was hit by a truck tomorrow and they did an autopsy, they would figure out, yeah, this guy is a smoker. But I’m perfectly all right. I don’t have any diagnosed or current problems from it.”
He can indulge his other smoking habit over the border in Colorado, where cannabis is sold legally. He doesn’t write while high, but over the years he has used cannabis when reading back his first drafts to give him perspective. “Not long ago I passed 51 years as a pothead,” he says. “It’s a great clarifier. On Wednesday I did the moonshine run. Colorado has a one-ounce limit per visit. So, yeah, I go in and on Wednesday I bought an ounce of what they call Rocket Fuel, which is a particularly strong blend. I grind it myself and smoke it in a pipe.
“When I think back to the squalid circumstances that I used to have to deal with — walk down to Union Square [in Manhattan] and find some guy, take whatever he had, for whatever price he wanted — this is just spectacularly civilised. And it’s really not a risk. Sadly an old white guy in a decent car is never going to get stopped and searched. It’s students from the University of Wyoming, who are zooming down there in a crappy Honda Civic and there are four of them, they’re an obvious target.”
Up here among the rabbits and raccoons, Child is dug in. It’s the longest he has slept under the same roof since he was a child, and something in him has crossed over, he confesses. He really is adopting a dog. He has found his “inner John Dunbar”, the soldier from Dances with Wolves who in the 1860s heads off to look for the American frontier, meets the local Sioux and goes native. “It’s been an extraordinary experience from that point of view.”
He has no plans to move on, or to take on more work, and has twice turned down the chance to take over writing the James Bond books. Now that he has cut back the trees, he can see the peaks of the Snowy Mountains from his office window. At 8,400ft up, is he the highest thriller writer in the world? He laughs: “Sadly the altitude is so extreme that only native stuff will grow up here, and marijuana isn’t native.”
The access road over the mountain pass is closed by snow for eight months a year and it’s 16km over dirt tracks to reach the main road. What if he needs a doctor in a hurry? “I almost never go to the doctor for anything, but I know that if I had a broken leg, say, I’d go to the doctor and they’d say you need to give up smoking. It’s pointless.”
Living in the thin air of Wyoming’s high country has made him slow down and lose weight. “There’s a huge amount of medical science about how living at altitude suppresses your appetite,” he adds. “I’m the same weight as I was when I was 19. People get jealous about it, but that’s their problem.” He writes better when he’s hungry, he says. “The creativity centre in your brain sparks up because, in an evolutionary sense, you’d better start hunting for food or find a better way of getting it.”
Does he keep guns? Maybe a deer-hunting rifle with a scope in case those Granada bosses come looking? “If I had a gun then I guarantee you within a week I would have shot somebody or shot myself. I’m too irresponsible. But there are lot of people here who have their grandad’s deer rifle and go out in the autumn and shoot two deer. That feeds their family for the winter.”
The phone reception is patchy in the back of beyond, so it takes a while to get the brothers, Lee and Andrew, together on a conference call from their respective ranch houses. When I finally do, they sound so similar that I have to ask them to introduce themselves each time they speak. I ask them about their childhood. There’s a scene in The Sentinel where Reacher is about to be set upon by assailants. As he prepares to defend himself, he recalls the days when, as children, he and his brother would fight off bullies together. Did Lee and Andrew share a similar bond growing up?
“I’ll let Andrew answer most of that,” Child says. “But let me just say, yeah, if it comes to it, if I need $1,000 in cash, an unregulated handgun and a trip to the border, then Andrew would absolutely be the person I’d call.”
“I remember when we were living in Birmingham and I got into trouble, for some childish indiscretion,” Andrew says. “I was in disgrace and everyone in the family was down on me apart from Lee, who was visiting from university. He said, ‘Listen, I’ll stick up for you, you stick up for me.’ That was the pact and we’ve kept to it ever since — no questions asked, whatever is needed.”
So how does the writing process work? “I’ve always had a detailed story plan, but Lee takes a more unstructured approach,” Andrew says. “If the story is going down a cul-de-sac, he can find a way out. He always says that writing without a plan is arduous, but with a plan it’s boring. So Lee is the one who suggests how to get convincingly from A to B then C.”
“Working together was a bit of an experiment,” Lee says. “I was really happy with how it went and I’m certainly really happy with the book. It’s as good as I could have done on my own. Better, in fact, because it has that extra energy.”
Andrew’s book jacket biography (he’s 52 and has written nine thrillers) says he spent 15 years in the telecommunications industry before turning to writing full time. Asked what he did, he’s vague. “Most of the time I worked for BT. Actually, while I was there, some of the things that I did were covered by the Official Secrets Act.”
Lee interjects: “What Andrew is not telling you is that, when he finished university, he did the civil service exam, which apparently he failed. Then he got this mysterious letter saying would he come to a meeting in this particular hotel. It turned out to be MI6. So there was obviously something in his civil service exam that said, yeah, this guy would be bloody hopeless as a civil servant, but we might be able to use him as a secret agent.”
So did he actually work for MI6? Andrew sidesteps. “There was a great line in House of Cards: ‘You may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.’ “
Now that his brother is doing much of the heavy lifting, Child has time to dabble in other things. After winning author of the year at the 2019 British Book awards, Child was invited to be a judge for the Booker prize — further evidence, if needed, that if you sell enough books you can storm the ivory towers of the literary world.
Child also had a hand in selecting the lead actor in the forthcoming Reacher television series. It was a long process, he says — “like looking for Cinderella, only with an army boot instead of a glass slipper”. He was keen to avoid a repeat of the backlash that happened when Tom Cruise was cast in the role. The films were successful at the box office, but fans complained that at 5ft 7in Cruise was ten inches shorter than the character he portrayed. “There are very few tall actors around,” Child sighs. “Daniel Craig was suggested, but he’s only knee high to Reacher.” Last month Child and the producers finally settled on Alan Ritchson, a 37-year-old actor who has appeared in The Hunger Games and CSI: Miami. And, most important, is 6ft 2in.
Between occasional moonshine runs for Rocket Fuel in his Toyota 4Runner 4×4, Child is planting a wildflower rockery and playing his guitars, which, since you ask, include several Fenders and a vintage Martin. Is he happy to be on the glide path to retirement? “It’s more a case that I’m retiring because I’m happy,” he says. “I always had a fear of being mediocre. I hope I’ve put that ghost to rest.”
The brothers won’t be giving Reacher a modern makeover to please critics, Child insists. He’ll remain an itinerant with an anger management problem and a mistrust of information technology. This, in the end, could be the biggest challenge. Reacher supposedly has no digital footprint and leaves no trace. He makes calls from payphones and uses old-fashioned telephone directories and paper maps — things that are becoming obsolete. If the brothers give Reacher a smartphone to bring him up to date, he’ll no longer be off-grid and the mystique may start to fade.
The Childs get round this problem in The Sentinel by having Reacher borrow a phone then hand it back at the end of the story. It’s a fix and it works. But the Americana that has always been Reacher’s backdrop is also slowly vanishing. In the 1970s and 1980s Child crisscrossed America soaking up material: biker gangs were a fact of life, armed with chains and guns, and running drug and protection rackets. Now boutique bikers pay $30,000 for Harley Davidsons. If you see a man in a leather jacket in a biker bar he’s unlikely to smash you in the teeth — because he’s probably a dentist.
Asked in Bad Luck and Trouble (2007) why he wanders the country with no belongings, Reacher replies: “Slippery slope. I carry a spare shirt, pretty soon I’m carrying spare pants. Then I’d need a suitcase. Next thing I know, I’ve got a house and a car and a savings plan and I’m filling out all kinds of forms.”
The modern world is closing in on Reacher. Eventually there may only be one way out: a cabin in Wyoming. Next door to Lee.
The Sentinel by Lee Child and Andrew Child is published on October 27.
Written by: Nick Rufford
© The Times of London
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