The latest Jack Reacher novel begins just as you would wish it to: Reacher, walking west through the desert, no particular destination in mind, poised for the fates. There’s a border nearby, and a border town. Before all that he finds a car accident and a woman with a strange story about a wayward brother. As much as any Reacher novel, Better Off Dead is a western, brooding and brutal and sunburnt in that fine tradition. In anticipation of the book’s release, I caught up with Lee Child and Andrew Child, brothers and now co-authors of the Reacher series, to ask them a few questions about borders, villains, and how a Reacher novel comes together in 2021.
Dwyer Murphy: There’s a long tradition of border towns in crime fiction. What drew you to telling a story located in that kind of liminal space?
Lee Child: Andrew and I are both immigrants from a physically tiny country, and we remain fascinated by the vast dimensions of the U.S., and its consequent variety and diversity. We know New York and Chicago well, but also love exploring the left behind, half forgotten empty spaces too. In a sense everywhere is liminal – great word, by the way – in that everywhere teeters on the edge of good and bad, rich and poor, clean and dirty.
Andrew Child: Border towns can play an important practical role in crime fiction, as well as a more metaphorical one. The mechanism of the border presents challenges and opportunities for your heroes: How do they get across? What can they smuggle with them? What are the rules and regulations? And the border’s physical presence implies division – one country from another – which is reflected in the opposing groups or individuals that typically feature in the books: The hero and the villain, the cops and the criminals, rival gangs or agencies, etc. Plus in the case of Better Off Dead, we were intrigued by the possibilities presented by an unusual legacy of the WPA…
DM: How does Dendoncker stack up in the world of Reacher antagonists? Is there pressure with each new book to design or explore new shades of villainy?
AC: Dendoncker is the physical villain but I always look to include a parallel ‘villain in principle’ that acts as the catalyst for the characters’ behavior. In Better Off Dead it’s the sense of injustice that stems from the unfair treatment of some wounded servicepeople.
LC: The antagonist is always a finely balanced issue. Yes, we want to explore new and different flavors of villainy in each new story, but I’ve found it very important to avoid what you could call year-on-year “villainy inflation” … if your bad guy is threatening to explode a nuclear bomb in the heart of downtown, what are you going to do next year? Two bombs? Then four, eight, ten? We try to keep it plausible, and we tend to come up with characteristics that would enrage us personally, as individuals – bullying, cruelty, smugness. (One of my great pleasures in life is watching someone try to bully Andrew – never ends well.) By that metric Dendoncker came out just about perfect.
DM: How is the collaboration evolving, now that you’re onto the second book? Any course corrections from the first outing?
LC: The first time out, we aimed quite deliberately at a specific flavor for the plot – cybercrime, servers, software – to push Reacher toward modernity, because we felt it was time to do that. With Better Off Dead we just let it rip, in the traditional Reacher way … no plan, no outline, let’s just see what happens. So yes, this time was different – freewheeling and improvised, but it didn’t feel like a correction. Just a different target. It felt natural.
AC: We didn’t aim to produce a particular kind of book this time which made for a different experience while we were writing, but the practicalities of the way we found to collaborate when we wrote The Sentinel worked really well for us so we saw no reason change it.
DM: Did you know from the outset that Better Off Dead would be a first-person Reacher novel? How is that decision made typically?
LC: Typically that decision just emerges from the initial thinking. The first book was first-person, and I switched to third for the second book, and swapped back and forth a few times during the course of the series. I’m glad I established that freedom early. It has been useful. When people wonder how the series has endured so long, I’m sure that’s part of the answer.
AC: The decision was driven entirely by the kind of story we wanted to tell. We didn’t sit down in advance and plan to use the first person, but when we started writing we realized it was necessary to see events unfold through Reacher’s eyes.
DM: Reacher exists on a slightly different plane than our own, fairly unmoored from current events, but I wonder how he might operate in a pandemic situation. Have you considered what he might get up to, how he might conduct himself?
LC: I’m not sure Reacher would even notice. One day he might wake up and realize it’s been three months since he saw or spoke to anyone, instead of his usual three days. Otherwise, no major difference in his life. But he would wear a mask, for sure. He’s a rational creature – if you break your leg, you get it put in plaster. If there’s a respiratory disease, you wear a mask. I love wearing mine – distance, anonymity, no need to shave.
AC: I’m starting to fantasize about Reacher in all kinds of post-apocalyptic situations now…