You can usually rely on The New Yorker for some fancy critical action, and this piece, by UK writer John Lanchester about the American thriller writer Lee Child, is no exception. Here we are, about half way through:
According to Graham Greene, Henry James once said that “a young woman with sufficient talent need only pass the mess-room windows of a Guards’ barracks and look inside in order to write a novel about the Brigade.” The Reacher novels often have that feeling, of being constructed around half-longing insights into the lives of others.
The writer whom Child most recalls, in this respect, is Georges Simenon, whose Maigret novels are the work of a man who travelled around France observing strangers and their mysterious routines. Simenon spent a lot of time in the kinds of places where travellers spend time. As a result, he set entire novels in cafés and bars, in fuggy interiors populated by secretive regulars, where the detective is an intruder. Readers find it easy to identify with this perspective: we ourselves are outsiders peeking into another world, like Reacher or Maigret.
Graham Greene and Henry James may hardly be names you’d tend to throw about alongside that of Child, author of the bestselling Jack Reacher novels, but then neither is Simenon, the writer behind the wonderfully glum and mundane detective Inspector Maigret, who features in a incredible 76 detective novels – which sounds like a lot until you realise the French writer’s bibliography runs to over 350 novels and novellas.
It’s an interesting comparison, because Maigret is as unremarkable – plump, a bit glum – as Reacher is extraordinary – a “six-foot-five-inch former military policeman” with a keen facility for violence. Lanchester suggests that Reacher is not far from Superman in his human abilities. But what links them is their (or their creators’) ability to make ordinary, mundane detail count, on the page, or in their investigations.
As Lanchester points out, the greatest creation of Lee Child is not Jack Reacher, but Lee Child himself. The author was born Jim Grant, in Coventry, in England. He had a good career in television before being made redundant, only then turning to writing novels as “the purest form of entertainment”. As Lanchester has it:
On September 1, 1995, he went out and bought three notepads and a pencil, and used them to work on the book that was to become “Killing Floor”—and he has begun work on a new novel on the anniversary of that day every year since.
There’s the real mystery. Not the who, but – as with Simenon’s superhuman productivity – the how.