A classic Reacher that packs all the punches
The brothers Child have done it again. Reacher is in fine fighting form in Better Off Dead; Lee and Andrew explain why to Jennifer Platt
The first chapter is classic Jack Reacher. The action is slowed down and there is a play-by-play sequence of what is happening. The Stranger is standing under the only working streetlight in a compound near a metal fence that separates the US from Mexico. In front of him is an abandoned lot of rows of locked-up garages. “He was alone. And unarmed. As agreed.” Four men get out of a car, which was not agreed.
We naturally assume The Stranger is Reacher due to the description: “They’d been told to expect someone big and this guy sure fit the bill. He was six feet five. Two hundred and fifty pounds. Chest like a gun safe and hands like backhoe buckets. And scruffy. His hair was coarse and unkempt. He hadn’t shaved for days. His clothes looked cheap and ill-fitting, except for his shoes. Somewhere between a hobo and a Neanderthal. Not someone who was going to be missed.”
The Stranger then does his stuff. Punches, blocks, calculates and knocks the guys out. But there’s someone else in the shadows ...
Then we go back to the beginning of this new adventure. Reacher is heading to the Pacific Ocean but gets waylaid when he finds himself on a road outside a small dusty desert town on the Arizona-Mexican border. This time it’s Michaela Fenton he helps. She is looking for her twin brother Michael, thinking he could be dead. The bad guy Dendonker is an illegal arms dealer and Michael knows how to make bombs. Reacher, who has a big heart figuratively and probably literally, offers his help and a plan to get Dendonker.
Better off Dead is number 26 in the series, and the second one that Lee wrote with his brother Andrew, who is set to take over the series. A daunting prospect, seeing how Reacher fans are quite particular, to put it nicely. The first one they did, The Sentinel, got great reviews.
I spoke to the brothers via Zoom, Lee in New York surrounded by his guitars, and Andrew in Wyoming.
Lee says of the new book: “Every once in a while you have to take stock and recalibrate. We felt that Reacher needed a push into the future in terms of technology with The Sentinel. So not only was it the first time but it had a specific kind of purpose behind it. For Better Off Dead we felt that we achieved that, so now we just let it rip in the traditional Reacher fashion and it was great.”
Andrew says it took them a while to work out the rhythm of their writing: “We only just started with it and then the pandemic hit, so we had to change how we worked and really had to invent it twice. But also, I was sort of standing back taking a look over the 24 books that were there before I got involved. There was one thing that I felt that had happened to Reacher — he became incredibly terse. The expression, “Reacher said Nothing” had taken over and I remember some of the earlier books where Reacher was hilarious. He was sarcastic, he was witty, which is not only enjoyable to read — I remember laughing out loud at some of the earlier books. To me, it’s another string in his bow.
“We know he can beat anybody up and escape from anything, outwit anybody. Sometimes doing it verbally as opposed to doing it physically is a nice change of pace. At the same time we were sort of nudging the technology forward, I wanted to nudge the dialogue part of it a step back to reconnect the Reacher we had in the early days. With those things being done, we just had a riot with Better Off Dead. We felt all bets were off, all rules were off and we could just do what we wanted and go where we wanted and that’s what we did. It was fun.”
Some writers love to plot and plan and know where the book is going. In some collaborations, each person writes a chapter and so on. But with the Childs (whose real surname is actually Grant) they seem to have fun, as Lee says, with no plan or outline. “It’s not like we sit down and produce an outline with 35 bullet points that are going to represent the chapters and then we divvy them up. It just doesn’t work that way. In my experience, the only way to write a Reacher book is to see what happens in a very unstructured way. With no plan, no outline, nothing.
“The way it works for me, is that the daydreaming part is continually distributed throughout the whole writing. It’s chaos really. Andrew actually took charge of writing the actual text. Sadly for Andrew, he wrote a great chapter three and then he says ‘all right, what happens in chapter four’, and then we have to start all over again.”
Blue Moon (book number 24) was the sign for Andrew to take over
Lee: “Blue Moon: I felt it was kinda bleak and nihilistic and Reacher was in despair really. He managed to solve the problem for the individuals that were suffering but he couldn’t solve the larger issue because it was just too big. So it was a bleak book and I worried about it, in a sense. I thought it was a fine book and was proud to publish it. I thought people would be happy with it. But there was a kind of an end-of-the-road feeling to it that alerted me to the fact that this was the time to do the handover so it continues into the future with energy. And the energy that Andrew has brought to it is fantastic. I thought I wished I could be 15 years younger and have that old stamina and ideas that I had back then. And Andrew is like me 15 years ago and so it is like I have woken up 15 years younger.”
Reacher’s physicality origins
Lee: “When I was a little kid I was obsessed with the story of David vs Goliath. I loved Goliath and wished him to be the good guy. I really believed that, to the point that when I was the youngest kid, and my next brother was born, I wanted to name him Goliath. But my parents wouldn’t do it. They called him David instead, which was totally wrong.”
How to write good skop, skiet en donner?
Andrew: “It’s a combination of things. We both grew up in areas where it was best if you just stayed in your house. If not, you were always going to get involved in some kind of trouble. So we both have a reservoir of memories to use. That helps with the choreography.”
Lee: “I only have one principle in terms of the theory of writing. You write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow. If you have to get Reacher from one city to the next, you don’t painstakingly show him travelling all the way. He’s just there. But if he is going to get into a fight, you slow it all the way down. What people love about reading the Reacher books is thinking along with him. Instinctively Reacher thinks I could A, I could B, I could C, but probably D would be the smart thing because the other guy is going to be anticipating ABC. The reader get’s like four scenarios instead of one. The reader is just loving that. It’s a sophisticated response because readers are generally civilised people, educated and thoughtful. They know that they must not punch somebody in the face. It’s not allowed, it’s not moral, it’s not ethically right, it's not part of their world view and they’re completely decided on that. But the entire appeal of Reacher is based on the fact that everyone in the world has a list of 10 people they would cheerfully punch in the face. They are not going to admit it, because they are too civilised, but they would love to see it happen. This is the larger purpose of fiction. What you cannot get in real life you can get in fiction and that’s the enduring appeal of it.”
Andrew: “It takes everything to the extreme. Even though Reacher might cheat, he might lie, it’s all in the service of the greater good. He’s not tricking people so he can make money. It’s necessary for the right to prevail. In real life sometimes it’s hard to see where right is prevailing. Having it happen for you on the page is very satisfying.”
Lee: “Dendonker, the bad guy, I love that name which is a sort of onomatopoeic representation of someone falling down the stairs, which is obviously what should happen to him on a regular basis.”
Andrew: “Michaela felt at the beginning that she got her brother Michael killed so you needed that connection and the way it worked for the twins was to have similar names. For the surnames, what we often do for fun is to name the characters that we like after players of our favourite football team — Aston Villa. I had just rewatched a fabulous cup final back in the 90s where Aston Villa were playing Manchester United. All of the experts said we had no chance of winning and Villa triumphed. One of the things was what the manager did, in a complete surprise, he brought in Graham Fenton who completely nullified one of the biggest Man United stars. Everyone was gobsmacked at how great his performance was. I happened to watch this game for fun when we needed a character’s name and I thought about Fenton (this became Michaela’s married surname). And the brother’s last name became Curtis — one of Villa’s players in the 70s.”
Future of Reacher
Lee: “Well, Andrew has been involved all along. When I wrote the first one, the Killing Floor, about 25 years ago, I was unsure. I couldn’t tell if it was any good. Andrew was the only person I knew who had a reading taste similar to mine and also he was the only one I knew who would have the courage to tell me if it was rubbish. So he read while it was still written in pencil. Andrew knows Reacher. He has lived with Reacher as if Reacher is an imaginary brother. Actually, Reacher is an extra brother. We thought a four-book transition would be conservative, but I think it’s gonna go quicker than that. The third one and the forth one will be more and more Andrew. I’m going to gracefully take a step back and become an old person, just hobbling about with a stick and reading other people’s books.”
Is Andrew ready to take over?
Andrew: “When Lee first suggested it, I thought it was a huge responsibility because there are so many passionate Reacher fans. I understand how passionate they are because I was the first one. I know what it’s like waiting 11-and-a-half months for a new book to come out. So I do know what they want and I do feel the pressure to deliver it to them. That’s really the reason I agreed to do it.
“Over the years, before the pandemic, when you could have in-person events I would go to as many of Lee’s events as I could. And I remember — it was probably on the third book where it was clear that Reacher was going to be a series that lasted — someone in the audience asked: ‘How many books will there be and how is it going to end?’ I remember Lee said that there are going to be 21 books, which I think was a nod to John D MacDonald [The American author wrote 21 books in his popular Travis McGee series from 1964 to 1985].
“Lee continued: ‘In the final book, Reacher is going to die. He is going to bleed to death on his own. On the filthy floor in a motel bathroom somewhere in America.’ You could see people doing the sums and they were like ‘so we are three books down, there'll be 18 more — that’s plenty to look forward to’. Every year, with the next book, sure enough, someone asked exactly the same question and Lee gave exactly the same answer.
“As we got closer to 21 books, and then went past 21 books, every time the answer came, you could see the fear and the worry on people’s faces because they didn’t want Reacher to end. I was the same. I didn’t want Reacher to end. I’ve got big shoes to fill, but I’ve got to try because I don’t want there to be a world without Reacher.”