Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Child of His Times

Another year brings another chance for me to break bread with Lee Child, the British creator of series protagonist Jack Reacher. My annual encounters with the astute Mr. Child have become an unofficial tradition of mine. As a longtime reader of his Reacher thrillers, and an admirer of what this author does for the crime-fiction genre, it’s good to meet him annually and discover what’s new in his world.

I usually bump into Child several times each year. In 2008, for instance, I saw him when he toured the UK with his with his 12th novel, Nothing to Lose, and then again at Bouchercon in Baltimore. This year, I’m likely to meet up with him on several occasions, first as he tours throughout the British Isles to promote yet another Jack Reacher novel, Gone Tomorrow (also available in the States). Then again, when we both attend the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in July, and at Bouchercon in Indianapolis this coming fall.

There’s something special about seeing him this year, though, because Gone Tomorrow--the 13th entry in his Reacher series--is his most tense and thought-provoking work of fiction yet. And considering how consistent these books have been in quality, that’s a huge achievement. As enjoyable as Nothing to Lose was, it was almost an update of his blistering debut work, Killing Floor (1997). Gone Tomorrow, though, is a ground-breaker. Written from Reacher’s first-person viewpoint, it finds the former U.S. military policeman failing to save a woman, Susan Marks, in the New York City subway system early one morning. Instead of simply jumping in front of the oncoming train, Marks first catches Reacher’s eye by showing the outward characteristics of being a suicide bomber. Only then does she jam a handgun into her mouth and pull the trigger. Reacher, feeling a touch of guilt about not having saved Marks, sets out to investigate why she took her own life. The trail leads him to her adopted brother, a middle-ranking cop, then to John Sansom, a U.S. politician, and Sansom’s ambitious wife, Elspeth. It seems that Sansom is reaching for the top of the American political ladder, and needs to avoid any blemishes from his past coming to light. Which makes his long-ago work with the elite Delta Squad something of a problem. As Reacher follows his trail to Cold War-era West Germany and two refugees from the old Eastern Bloc, the stunning Lila Hoth and her mother, Svetlana, appear in the plot to link Sansom with some dodgy dealings during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

With its brief chapters, short sentences, and staccato-style narrative, Gone Tomorrow charges along as rapidly as the subway train that appears in its opening chapter. The story is violent, hip, and bang-up-to-date, a dive into the post-9/11 world of dark politics and conspiratorial forces. Action-adventure stories are rarely better concocted than this one.

After sending me a review copy of Gone Tomorrow, Patsy Irwin, the publicity manager at Child’s UK publisher, Transworld, invited me to share a meal with the author in the wake of his scheduled guest appearance at the Waterstone’s Deansgate store in Manchester, England. (We had reservations at Manchester’s celebrated Gaucho Grill--Child surely does like his red meat!) First, however, I would have a chance to interview him--again.

Child looked remarkably well when I saw him, considering that he was midway through his UK/Ireland book tour. Then again, he’d just returned from a vacation, which had obviously recharged his batteries. Armed with questions about some modifications in his writing style, the new book-selling competition presented by his younger brother, and an anecdote from critic-author Mike Ripley, I switched on my tape recorder and began our latest exchange.

Ali Karim: I really enjoyed Gone Tomorrow. But it provokes the question of why you returned to the first-person voice in this book.

Lee Child: I want to do first-person every time; that’s the default position. ... But the way it’s worked out, in nine of the books I haven’t been able to do first-person, because of the way the story unfolds in terms of alternate viewpoints and parallel tracks and the intervention of other characters--which all meant I needed to deploy third-person. I would say, as a generalization, that for most thriller fiction third-person works best, so you can get the “meanwhile back at the ranch” [perspective], and the obvious collision course of the two narratives [moving] toward the conclusion. But for some stories you can use first-person, and if I get a chance I will always try and use first-person. It’s very natural, very personal, and once in a while it really refreshes the Reacher character, because the reader can get close to him, as they are in his head, and it is a very pure voice.

AK: One of the reasons I think Gone Tomorrow is among the strongest entries in your series is its writing style--it appears to have a “beat,” a rhythm if you will.

LC: Thank you, I’ve always tried to be rhythmic. And without being too pretentious about it, there is a strong parallel between prose and music, linked to a time-base or beat as you move forward. ... I work very hard at the propulsive aspect of the words, to build a beat, if you will, but you also need light and shade. In Gone Tomorrow, the whole of the book was very fast to write, and it built up a beat. The first third is the set-up, and then the last two-thirds is the conclusion; so it not only was written fast, but when I re-read it and re-edited it, it was a very fast read.

AK: Without giving away the ending, were you concerned about involving Reacher in what appears to be a story heavily linked to the “war on terror” and politics surrounding that issue?

LC: Not really, as the novel’s theme is more about the security apparatus that is a feature of our lives now. If you are at the airport and there is a problem, you are less willing to make a fuss about it, because by making a fuss you might end up on some list, and that kind of thing. The security apparatus affects all our lives, and Reacher is no different, as you can’t mess with these people.

AK: You pepper your narrative with plenty of technical trivia, such as the engineering background of the New York City subway trains. Where do you get all of that information?

LC: Just natural observational reading. Some of that stuff I might have read about 20 years ago, or I might have read it last week. I have a mind that is a trivia magnet. I know nothing of any real value, but I’m brimming with useless trivia.

AK: Tell us about your recently heightened role with the Mystery Writers of America.

LC: Well, they elected me president for 2009, which is great honor. And I am very happy to do it, because the MWA is a wonderful organization and the oldest in its field. Some of the previous presidents are amazing--Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon--so I feel very honored to follow behind them. But 2009 is a very tough year, as we will have to act almost like a trade union, more than a normal trade association would do, due to the poor state of the economy. We will have to watch out for our people during these tough times. Of course things will pick up, but we have to make sure that as many of us make it through the choppy water of the economy as we can.

AK: As president of the MWA, I assume you have a lot of work behind the scenes in regard to the Edgar Awards and such.

LC: Yes, the Edgars are a big thing. I had to MC the awards night [last month]. In fact, the British tour [for Gone Tomorrow] was just a little tight, because I [had] to catch the red-eye to be back in New York for the banquet.

AK: And I see that you’ve recently been revisiting your alma mater, the University of Sheffield.

LC: I was invited to be a visiting professor last year at the university, and in fact I’m [going] back this summer, just before Harrogate, because they are giving me an honorary doctorate.

AK: “Dr. Lee”? Wow, that’ll be rather cool.

LC: Yes, I’ll be a Doctor of Letters. I think universities are trying to open up a bit and recognize the alumni who have been recognized not in the traditional academic fields.

AK: I notice every now and then that Mike Ripley, who serves as a columnist for Shots and Deadly Pleasures magazine, pulls your leg in print. Can it be true that on your visit to Sheffield University, you went to your old digs, only to find that Ripley’s daughter was one of the students living there?

LC: Hey, that was 100 percent true. And, yes, give me the odds on that type of coincidence, and I’d even consider entering the lottery. Very weird. And what was weirder was that via Beth Ripley, I got a copy of Mike’s latest novel, Angels Unaware. I read it and thought it was very good, very funny, and even passed a quote to Mike Ripley. So things can go full circle; [they] just need a little fate I guess ...

AK: In your latest book, Jack Reacher has a “fling” with a female character. In light of Reacher’s proven amorous nature, are we ever likely to see any little illegitimate Reacher Juniors crawling about?

LC: That would be a good plot idea, I guess. But I would have to avoid the obvious plot clichés, as [I’d be getting] into territory that other people have covered very well, such as Mike Connelly; when Harry Bosch got a daughter, it changed Bosch’s character. I believe this happened around the same time Michael had a daughter of his own, when he was well established in his own writing. I am much older than Michael. My daughter was already grown up by the time I started writing. So maybe I will go there, or maybe I won’t go there. Who knows?

AK: I just read a tremendous debut novel by some bloke who calls himself Andrew Grant. Would you care to comment?

LC: It’s called Even. It’s probably not as good as Gone Tomorrow, but still a fine book. Andrew Grant is my little brother, and it’s a strange experience for me, as he’s 14 years younger than me and he’s starting writing 13 years after me. So it’s almost like watching a repeat of what I did at the start of my career. He’s a smart guy, it’s a great book, and even if he only gets half the fun out of writing that I’ve got out of it, he’ll be a very lucky guy.

AK: As Mike Ripley mentions regularly in Shots, you are a voracious reader. Can you mention any important recent finds?

LC: Well, I’ve just finished last night a book by Sean Doolittle called Safer. People into the American scene will know his work, but he’s not published in the UK [yet]. He was a cult writer (i.e., with the independent press), but he’s in the big league with Safer, published by one of Random House’s imprints. In the last month that has to be the best book I’ve read, and if you’ve not read Doolittle, you need to, as I am sure he’ll get a UK deal soon. But until then, you can always order online from the U.S.

AK: Thank you for your time, Lee.

LC: Always a pleasure. And I’m impressed that after all these years, you always manage to come up with new questions.

READ MORE:The Brothers Grant,” by Sarah Weinman (Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind).


Paul D Brazill said...

Very good stuff. I knew almost nothing about Lee child and haven't read any of his books but will try to rectify that, I think, fairly soon.

Unknown said...

Child's hero, Reacher is always a welcome read. Good guy comes to the rescue, kills all the bad guys (almost all the time), and then rides off into the sunset. A modern day Shane, but a good read nevertheless.