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Lee Child’s Little Gold Book

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—Heather Martin is the authorized biographer of Lee Child and the author of The Reacher Guy (Constable at Little, Brown in the UK and Pegasus Books in the US)


It was nicely put together. Especially from a biographer’s point of view. The biographer is (perhaps dangerously) accustomed to making sense of any given set of data.

I was reading A Little Gold Book of Unconsidered Trifles (out from Borderlands Press on May 14), which as titles go, with its cheery echo of the Little Golden Books of childhood, was about as far removed from Reacher as I expected Lee Child to get. But that was alright. It made sense that it should occupy the opposite end of the spectrum to Killing Floor, since it was produced in semi-retirement, as a kind of coda to the author’s virtuosically sustained theme and variations in twenty-four blockbuster parts.

Lee described this new addition to the canon as an exercise in tidying up, a chance to clear out his hard drive by gathering together some overlooked odds and ends that fans might enjoy dipping into. Which pleased me, because it chimed perfectly with the forty-first and final chapter of The Reacher Guy, ‘Blue Moon’, which considers the ways he was putting his house in order in advance of stepping back from the franchise and putting his feet up with a book in the sun. This book would be part of a (multi-author) series, which was good, because he’d always liked series, and he got to choose the color, so it was obviously gold, for which—as ‘a poor man with a lot of money’—he had acquired a particular taste. Perhaps this refined choice also colored the contents: this was no kiss-and-tell, no catalogue of political aphorisms or blacklisted industry insiders, simply a glittering assemblage of Lee Child gems.


Lee’s autobiographical writing is short, sketchy, succinct: like his fictional hero, he packs a hefty punch with a few well chosen words. The Reacher Guy cites three examples: one from a personal email to an old friend (forty words), one written in honor of his Irish grandfather on the centenary of the Great War (two hundred and seventy-seven), and a fragment of pure fantasy (fifteen). The little gold book begins with a fourth (six hundred and ten) from the UK’s Guardian newspaper. But the title of this introductory entry, ‘Made in Birmingham’, shows he can do it in three. It’s Birmingham that shapes Jim Grant, accounts for his transformation into Lee Child, explains his worldview and underpins his aesthetic. He may have left it behind at eighteen, but like the man himself, this little book is bounded by the city of his boyhood.

What makes this book special, and unique in the archive, is that it juxtaposes both fiction and non-fiction (including two Reacher stories, the previously anthologized ‘Everyone Talks’ and the hitherto relatively inaccessible ‘The Fourth Man’, which postdates the 2017 publication of No Middle Name), with each selection contextualized by a minimalist introduction from the writer. But the title doesn’t lie. It’s a little book (though two and a half times as long as his 2019 monograph, The Hero), and I therefore reasoned that it must have been compiled in line with a rigorous principle of exclusion. Naive. Lee had blithely applied his usual method, making sure he had a good start and letting the rest take care of itself, trusting that his storytelling instincts would steer him through to a satisfactory conclusion. Job done, a quick read through, hit send. Not only was he renowned as the man with no plot, he was also a pragmatist, and though tidy in his personal habits, ‘chronically careless’ when it came to electronic filing. There was some stuff he might have included if he could remember where he’d saved it, and some other stuff that made the cut because it happened to pop up on his screen at the right moment. As soon as he told me this it rang true, but I also recognized it as a characteristic case of him sticking a pin in even the faintest bubble of pomposity or authorial self-importance. If you’re from Birmingham and someone pays you a compliment, he liked to say, you ‘look a bit awkward and shuffle off’—an ‘implacable horror of anything grand or pretentious’ was a defining element of the Midlands legacy.

I was frustrated. Where was that brilliant essay on Ian Fleming? And what about ‘I Heard A Romantic Story’, available in audiobook but not print, which effectively erased the fact that it had been written as a single long sentence? ‘Lost forever, as far as I know,’ he wrote back gloomily, though I knew I myself had found both in the past.

But in the words of his first-ever editor, David Highfill, then of G.P. Putnam Sons, Lee Child’s ‘instincts and choices and decisions were all right’. Haphazard as the curation might be, taken collectively, the twelve pieces tell their own overarching story, indirectly acknowledging key stages in the writer’s life: where he was born and went to school, and what type of school it was (you learned Latin), early influences (Theseus and MacLean), the bread-and-butter series (Reacher), new wealth (the Renoir), old ethics (the exoneration project), career highs and benchmarks (Simenon), experiments in genre and form, a fast-forward scroll through his second-act writing career right up to the moment when, in 2018, ‘the plain old Brummie’ donates fifty boxes of accumulated papers to the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Such is the biographical illusion.

It made sense that, chronologically speaking, he jumps straight from beginning to end, from Birmingham to Norwich, before rewinding in flashback to fill in a few gaps. After all, the look-where-he-came-from and look-where-he-is-now story in which the hero outwits fate and defies the odds stacked against him was indisputably one of his favorites. Not merely for its supreme entertainment value, but because that was the kind of empowering and emboldening narrative that had got us out of Plato’s cave in the first place, enabling us to defeat the sabre-tooth and outlive the otherwise superior Neanderthal and ensuring our relative success as a species. Conversely, he was similarly preoccupied by how close we remain to our evolutionary ancestors, how far we appear to have travelled yet how little we have changed, how subject we still are to the lizard brain. Drag Reacher into the twenty-first century if you must, but nothing can change the fact that he is closer to the Stone Age than the stars. As though to make a point, nowhere is this aspect of human nature more insistently emphasized than in the last of the sole-authored Reacher books, Blue Moon. Lee would deny any conscious intentionality on his part, no doubt truthfully. But he would respect the right of the reader to her own views, because until his book was read it did not exist, and without the reader, the writer was nothing.

All of which makes what comes next, Lee’s foreword to a reissue of Alistair MacLean’s Fear Is The Key, feel just right. I loved this elegantly miniaturized biography, which begins with a boy born in 1922 into a Gaelic-speaking family in ‘a tiny village southeast of Inverness, near the remote northern tip of the British mainland, closer to Oslo in Norway than London in England’, with no running water, no electricity and no wireless and only a handful of neighbors, and axiomatically speculates that ‘historical precedent suggested such a boy would go on to live his whole life within a ten-mile radius, perhaps working a rural white-collar job, perhaps as a land agent or country solicitor’. But the conditional tense that ends the first paragraph—‘Such would have been his life’—prepares you for a classic Child jump cut at the start of the second—‘But Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, and the isolated boy turned 18 in 1940, and joined the Royal Navy in 1941’—a compressed, telescopic view that briskly imparts the essentials while also anticipating something of the nervy restlessness of the postwar period that dominated his own boyhood, the well what now question that rushed into the vacuum when what felt like the world’s biggest story had finally come to an end.

Jim Grant devoured MacLean as a young teenager, relying on Birmingham Central Library to get hold of the books his school was in those days too snooty to hold, and the first-person narrator and protagonist of Fear Is The Key, John Talbot, is a clear precursor of the Jack Reacher of Killing Floor. Through one of those coincidences so pleasing to biographers—and by no means displeasing to authors—it was in 1954, the year Jim was born, that MacLean won a short story prize that helped launch his postwar career. ‘Legend has it the prize was a hundred pounds, which if true was an enormous sum of money—half of what my dad earned that year, as a junior but determinedly white-collar civil servant.’ MacLean was a model of success as much as craft.

The penultimate entry in the little gold book, by contrast, is fiction, a story optioned for a movie that sadly was never made. But ‘Safe Enough’, which dates from 2006, begins in exactly the same way, reading like Jim’s own rough, tough upbringing transposed from Birmingham to the Bronx (and very much like his bio on IMDb).

Wolfe was a city boy. From birth his world had been iron and concrete, first one city block, then two, then four, then eight. Trees had been visible only from the roof of his building, faraway across the East River, as remote as legends. Until he was twenty-eight years old the only mown grass he had ever seen was the outfield at Yankee Stadium. He was oblivious to the chlorine taste of city water, and to him the roar of traffic was the same thing as absolute tranquil silence. […]

The road had started winding twenty-three years earlier in a Bronx public elementary school. Back in those rudimentary days a boy was marked early. Hooligan, wastrel, artisan, genius, the label was slapped firmly in place and it stuck forever. Wolfe had been reasonably well behaved and had managed shop and arithmetic pretty well, so he was stuck in the artisan category and expected to grow up to be a plumber or an electrician or an air conditioning guy. He was expected to find a sponsor in the appropriate local and get admitted to an apprenticeship and then work for forty-five years. Which is precisely how it turned out for Wolfe. He went the electrician route and was ten years into his allotted forty-five when it happened.

In sharp contradistinction to the glamour of Alistair MacLean, all that lay ahead for young Jim was to live in a two-family house instead of a rowhouse, to drive a two-year-old car instead of a five-year old; the words Lee routinely invokes to describe his boyhood are ‘pinched’, ‘grey’, ‘miserable’, ‘stifling’, ‘suffocating’ and ‘dour’; he was constantly ‘knocking up against limits’. He went the technician route at Granada Television and was eighteen years into his allotted forty-five when he reinvented himself as Lee Child much as Wolfe reinvents himself as a country landowner, inhabiting a home not a million miles from the bosky Pound Ridge property the Grant family moved to when they emigrated to the US in 1998. And despite this spectacular metamorphosis, on reaching the end of his allotted forty-five in 2019 Lee resolved to retire, as historical precedent determined that he should. Didn’t matter if you were sweating on the factory floor or writing bestselling novels, your job was done, and it was time to step aside, ‘it’s someone else’s play’.

‘Safe Enough’ is not a Reacher story. But that titular phrase appears at least once in every Reacher novel except The Enemy, peaking at nine in 2016’s Night School, and therefore seems by allusion to encapsulate them all. What distinguishes it, however, and makes it perfectly adapted to a little gold book, is the element of romance, with the impossibly tall, straight woman with straw-blonde hair and pale delicate hands variously a princess, goddess or angel, a dryad and ‘vision of loveliness’.

‘Safe Enough’ got me thinking about titles. How much trouble Lee had with them back at the beginning (the wrangling over Killing Floor vs Bad Luck and Trouble, Tripwire vs The Hook, Running Blind vs The Visitor), how when readers complained they couldn’t make sense of them he said he might as well label the books Reachers #1 through #24, how New York Times critic Janet Maslin identified them by key attributes, with The Midnight Line being the one that breaks your heart, how The Sentinel departs from this tradition and allies itself with the novellas and short stories, whose titles by contrast tend to be apposite and descriptive (High Heat, Second Son, Not A Drill, Safe Enough).

And suddenly, as if by sleight of hand, the strangeness of ‘A Little Gold Book of Unconsidered Trifles’ had dissipated. It wasn’t a Reacher title, but then this wasn’t a Reacher book. I wasn’t even sure it was a Lee Child title. With a (previously unpublished) seven-sentence story featuring a laconic female protagonist as jewel in the crown, this was more of a Jim Grant book, perhaps his first, pulling back the curtain to allow a glimpse of the books—literary, experimental, even academic—that he might have written had he not plighted his troth to Reacher. The taste for gold, the quintessentially English dessert that would appeal to his sweet tooth, the allusion to Shakespeare, likewise a man of Warwickshire, born in Stratford-upon-Avon, just down the road from him in Coventry: these accidental details were signature Jim Grant.

In Act 4 Scene 3 of The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus, etymologically revealed as the Platonic Wolfe, refers to himself as ‘a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’. Autolycus is an entertainer, just as Jim had always dreamed of being, a teller of tales with the power of metamorphosis, a fiction maker, servant of Prince Florizel just as Lee is the servant of his readers. And Lee’s methodology is that of the roving peddler and pickpocket, too. Both particularist and generalist, combining the minute attention to detail of the anthropologist with the big-picture view of the sociologist, he is an obsessive collector of information, relying only sparingly on the rigour of research, but rather the accumulated knowledge of books well read and a life well lived.


That-Reacher-Guy-200x300.jpg reacher-guy-uk-196x300.jpg

Heather Martin’s authorized biography of Lee Child, The Reacher Guy, is published by Constable at Little, Brown in the UK, and in the US by Pegasus Books.

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Michael Neff
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We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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