‘I don’t like Jack Reacher that much’: Lee Child and fellow crime writers on their creations

“I’ve been doing it 24 years now and I couldn’t do it any more,” says Lee Child as he hands over the reins of his Jack Reacher series to his brother Andrew Grant. He’s not the first to tire of his most famous creation. By 1938, Agatha Christie had grown entirely sick of Hercule Poirot, asking: “Why did I ever invent this detestable bombastic, tiresome little creature? Eternally straightening things, eternally boasting, eternally twirling his moustache and tilting his egg-shaped head.” And nearly 50 years earlier, Arthur Conan Doyle was equally wearied by Sherlock Holmes: “I think of slaying Holmes . . . winding him up for good,” he told his mother.

Creating a long-running series featuring a much-loved character can be both a blessing and a curse. As time passes in the real world, the writer has to decide how to deal with a fictional timeline. Is it best to age a hero in real time – Ruth Rendell had Inspector Wexford still solving crimes in his retirement – or to let the world move on but keep your hero young, as Patricia Cornwell does with Kay Scarpetta, who remains around 40 years old for ever ? And how does the character develop as social mores change? Writing about police can be a challenge now. As Attica Locke says of her Texas ranger in her Highway 59 series, “writing a cop is something I thought I’d never do”.

How do authors coexist with their characters over years – sometimes decades – and what lies ahead?

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, John Connolly argues that “a mistrust of the police – a mistrust of the establishment, really – runs through the private eye genre”.

“The police represent the law, but the private eye represents the possibility of justice, particularly for those for whom the forces of law and order refuse to stand up: women, minorities, immigrants. For me, a conception of social justice lies at the very heart of the genre.”

Sara Paretsky sees crime fiction as the form “where law, justice and society come together in a natural way – that is, you can write about them without being polemical or didactic”.

Child says his plots have always “included corrupt, negligent and deficient police departments and federal agencies”. Twenty years ago, though, “people would write to me and say, c’mon, that wouldn’t happen. Now no one says that. Clearly reality is slowly dawning.”

Then there’s the question of how, or indeed whether, to draw a series to a close. Christie kills off Poirot in Curtain, and Conan Doyle did his best to wave farewell to Holmes, sending him plummeting to his doom down the Reichenbach Falls. Readers were distraught; the author quietly rejoiced – “I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defence, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me” – but by 1903, he’d resurrected him, with fans discovering in a new short story that Holmes hadn’t really died – he’d merely been fooling his enemies.

To avoid any such reversals, the late Andrea Camilleri wrote the final novel in his Inspector Montalbano series 14 years ago, giving it to his publisher for safekeeping: “When I get fed up with him or am not able to write any more, I’ll tell the publisher: publish that book. Sherlock Holmes was recovered . . . but it will not be possible to recover Montalbano. In that last book, he’s really finished.” But what of today’s detectives? How do their authors co-exist with their characters over years – sometimes decades – and what lies ahead?

Luca Zingaretti as Salvo Montalbano in the RAI series of the books by Andrea Camilleri. Photograph: Fabrizio di Giulio/BBC
Luca Zingaretti as Salvo Montalbano. Photograph: Fabrizio di Giulio/BBC

John Connolly on Charlie Parker

18 books
The spark for Charlie Parker was an image of a man going to visit the grave of his wife and child, flowers in the back of the car. For me the big thing was letting the characters grow older. You can take the Patricia Cornwell route, which is to keep your characters a certain age all the way through but the series can’t really develop if you do that because you’re just going to keep repeating certain tropes, the character is set in aspic. The other option is to do what somebody like James Lee Burke has done with Robicheaux, who ages with the writer effectively. Robicheaux is into his early 70s, so the books become meditations on mortality.

As the characters age, the nuances, the textures of the books change. There’s a misapprehension about mystery fiction, which is that people read for plot. They don’t – the plots really don’t change much. There’s a murder. There’s an investigation. There’s a solution, however partial. Plot is what characters do and language is the expression of that, and so for a mystery series what keeps people coming back is the pleasure of spending time with those characters.

If my doctor said don’t go booking any holidays after November, I know how I would choose to end the series. For the moment, though, I still like looking at the world through his eyes.

Lee Child on Jack Reacher

24 books
If you study English literature you’re taught the character must change and go on a journey. I want very much the opposite. As a reader I love series for the familiarity, so I’ve put effort into stopping Reacher from changing.

The best thing to do is not to get too close to the character. I need to like him less than you’re going to like him. That’s what keeps him alive and honest and authentic. There are many series where the author clearly falls in love with the character and starts to be too protective. I’ve always been very hardhearted. I don’t like Reacher that much; I’m in total control of him. I’m the only person in the world he’s scared of.

Initially I had the idea that in the last book, he would die in a blaze of glory or noble self-sacrifice. I even had a title, Die Lonely. But it dawned on me that would be gratuitously cruel to the reader who had supported him for so long.

Tom Cruise as the title character in the 2016 film Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Photograph: Chiabella James/Paramount Pictures
Tom Cruise in Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Photograph: Chiabella James/Paramount Pictures

So I thought maybe we could have a metaphorical version, where he’s heading for the bus depot to leave town but stops and thinks, “maybe I’ll stay here and adopt a dog”. But I moved through that and thought: “Let’s let Andrew keep it going.” He really is me 15 years ago, still full of energy, still full of ideas, and so I think this is the perfect solution. I will always continue to tell these stories in my head.