Writing a bestseller ‘on the verge of a stroke’

Andy Martin describes the many months he spent observing Lee Child — fuelled by coffee and Camels — complete his 20th Reacher novel

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

Reacher Said Nothing Andy Martin

Bantam Press, pp.303, £18.99, ISBN: 9780593076637

Every four seconds, somewhere in the world, a Lee Child book is sold. This phenomenal statistic places Child alongside Stephen King, James Patterson and J.K. Rowling as one of the world’s bestselling novelists. But what makes the Jack Reacher books so successful? This is one of the questions Andy Martin, a lecturer in French and Philosophy at Cambridge, sets out to answer in this intriguing and uniquely unclassifiable book. Reacher Said Nothing, however, isn’t a work of literary criticism or a how-to guide. Martin contacted Child and asked whether he could observe the entire writing process for the 20th Reacher novel, Make Me. Amazingly, Child said yes.

‘So far I have no title, no real plot…. I don’t have a clue about what is going to happen,’ Child tells Martin on the first day. This, for most novelists, would be a startling admission, especially in crime fiction where plotting is paramount. Martin perches on a couch as Child sits down, lights a cigarette, and begins to write. By the end of the day, Child has smoked 26 Camels, drunk 19 cups of coffee (‘I’m writing on the verge of a stroke,’ he quips) and written 2,000 words. It’s fascinating to watch the process of writing unfolding in real time — the hours Child spends agonising over a particular word choice, the weighing up between different types of POV, the slow accretion of plot and forward momentum. It shouldn’t work — after all, writing is a predominantly mental activity — and yet it does in a way that makes you wonder why no one’s thought of doing this before.

Throughout the seven months it takes to write the novel, Martin continually questions Child over the choices he makes, whether it’s regarding the placement of a comma or the ethics of assisted suicide. Martin’s presence should be distracting, but instead it allows Child, always one of the most self-aware and articulate of novelists, to explain his decisions with a steely logic that Reacher would certainly approve of. There are master-classes on creating suspense (‘we don’t want to know too much too soon’), a debate on the non-existence of characters and a trashing of the concept of genre.

Along the way, Martin performs a running act of literary criticism, situating Child in an existential framework or, as he puts it, ‘Lee Child is like Camus, only with more fights.’

Martin takes a broadly structuralist approach to identify the typical Lee Child narrative: the lone hero riding into town and rescuing the locals from marauding bullies. It’s the beating heart of every Saturday afternoon Western and a good reason why Child is so successful. Martin goes further though, stating:

By the end of every book Reacher has negated the narrative and returned the world to its incoherent meaningless default mode. That was the whole point of Reacher. Not justice, not violent retribution, but killing off the plot.

He spends a long time analysing Child’s use of negation and the deliberate repetition of negation as both a narrative tool and an allegorical one. There’s a great discussion on verisimilitude, in which Martin quite rightly points out: ‘You have to be unrealistic in order to achieve realism.’

But, even though this is a book about writing novels and the inherent problems faced by the novelist, one of the most illuminating anecdotes has nothing to do with writing. Child recounts how he regularly used to outwit judges over parking fines and always got off scot free — a revealing slice of anti-authoritarianism and razor logic that the author shares with his protagonist.

Andy Martin has created something new here: a fusion of literary criticism, biography, and fly-on-the wall meta-novel which serves as a remarkable insight into the creative process.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Still can’t accept Tom Cruise in the film role.

    • Too much of a reach. Or not enough.

    • MathMan

      Quite right. Cruise is a good actor but isn’t physically what you expect Jack Reacher to be – 6′-4″ and 240 pounds. The role would suit someone like a younger Tom Sellick.

  • It was a stroke of genius!

  • ossettian

    When is Jack Reacher going to change his underpants?

  • Hamburger

    I have never heard of Lee Child until today. Have I missed something?

  • Carol Sundahl

    Lee Child’s Reacher novels have been going downhill for years. I’d only recommend an early one, “Echo Burning,” from 2001.

  • Smoking is cool!

    The books stink. Slow pace, zero character development, conveniently isolated locales. Why have I bought and read 15 of them?

    • Ted Schrey Montreal

      For exactly the same reason you think smoking is cool, I suspect.

      • Smoking is cool!

        Good ‘un!

    • jackguthrie

      Me too!

  • Ted Schrey Montreal

    Sorry to say I’ve read all of Child’s books. They are innocent bits of sadism, and unputdownable. After finishing reading one I always feel I would need a complete blood-transfusion, but I return to an even keel, mentally speaking, within minutes. So, enjoy.

  • Freddythreepwood

    I read one once and thought it was twaddle. Ho hum!

  • schizuki

    Keep your booger hook off the bang switch, Lee. That’s Gun Handling 101.

  • Polly Radical

    Wriggling out of parking tickets is the extent of Lee Child’s experience of crime.