May 2002

Lee Child’s Knight Errant

By Lee Child
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Lee Child's improbable odyssey from British television executive to best-selling American novelist began in London in 1989. With businesses downsizing, he found himself at a cocktail party with colleagues from work discussing what they'd all do after the ax fell. Child told his friends, I'm going to write novels, but not while I'm working full-time. It was 1995 before he was finally fired, but by then Child was more than ready to move on. Seven years later, with the publication of his latest book, Without Fail, Lee Child finds himself well into a successful career as a novelist.

Without Fail is the sixth appearance for Child's appealing lead character, Jack Reacher, a downsized military police major. Reacher, a man in early middle age who grew up as a well-traveled Army brat and subsequently spent 18 years overseas in the military police, has a parochial view of the country he served. Now a rootless and reluctant civilian, he finds himself back in America, seeing his country for the first time with an immigrant's eye, much like his creator, who moved to the U.S. in 1998.

As a very young boy in England in the late 1950s, American popular culture consisted mainly of fragmentary artifacts left over from World War II, Child explains from his home in suburban Westchester County, New York.

Child's love affair with American popular culture continued and, by the time he went to work in British television in the mid-1970s, he was deeply immersed in it. He married an American woman and began devouring American mystery/suspense fiction and noticed a paradigm shift in the genre that disillusioned him. Except for the works of authors like Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald, the protagonists of many novels seemed to have figurative, if not literal, bullets near their hearts, Child says. Damaged people with a lot of self-doubt and even self-loathing. He was determined that any protagonist of his would not be one of those wounded souls.

At the same time Child committed himself to becoming a novelist, he was reading MacDonald's Travis McGee novels. He found McGee, a physically imposing man of action who never hesitated to do what he thought was right, tremendously appealing. Inspired by that model, Child created Jack Reacher, very much his own man of action, albeit one who has broad-based appeal to men and women alike.

According to the fan mail Child receives, many male readers admire the fact that Reacher isn't afraid to take drastic and sometimes deadly action, always on the side of the underdog and always for the right reason, while a significant number of female readers find his combination of physical strength and fundamental decency attractive. Men want to be him, and women want to be with him, Child explains. Reacher is heroic without being a caricature. I've often been asked to categorize Reacher, Child says. And I really can't call him a private investigator, because he doesn't have any real structure to his life. Child finally decided that Knight Errant, a wandering knight seeking adventure to prove his chivalry, was the only appropriate category for his character.

Without Fail finds Knight Errant Jack Reacher enlisted by the Secret Service to help its agents protect the vice president-elect against a credible threat on his life. Reacher assists the Secret Service in tightening up its protective tradecraft while seeking the identity of the potential assassins.

While the novel's many Secret Service personal protection details have an authentic feel to them, they aren't the result of agency cooperation, Child reveals. Anyone who says they've gotten official Secret Service cooperation regarding personal protection isn't being truthful. As its name implies the Secret Service doesn't divulge trade secrets. Finding no useful secondary sources to work with, Child decided the best way to create a believable setting for his novel was to accurately portray the institutional memory of the Secret Service. The thing that haunts the Secret Service is the JFK assassination, and virtually everything they do is predicated on making sure nothing like it ever happens again, Child says. Toward this end, he fabricated details of how they might go about protecting someone. Add the able assistance of Jack Reacher, and it all makes Without Fail a convincing and compelling read. British writer Lee Child features a uniquely American man of action in his Jack Reacher series.

Michael Grollman is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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Without Fail

Without Fail

By Lee Child
ISBN 9780399148613

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