Source: Own copy
Publication: 21 October 2021(p/back) from Constable
Jack Reacher is only the second of Jim Grant’s great fictional characters: the first is Lee Child himself. Heather Martin’s detailed biography elucidates the complex, ever-shifting relationship between the three.
Lee Child is the enigmatic powerhouse behind the best-selling Jack Reacher novels. With millions of devoted fans across the globe and more than a 100 million copies of his books sold in more than 40 languages, he is that rarity, a writer who is lauded by critics and revered by readers. And yet curiously little has been written about the man himself.
The Reacher Guy is a compelling and authoritative portrait of the artist as a young man, refracted through the life of his fictional avatar, Jack Reacher. Through parallels drawn between Child and his literary creation, it tells the story of how a boy from Birmingham with a ferocious appetite for reading grew up to become a high-flying TV executive, before coming full circle and establishing himself as the strongest brand in publishing.
Heather Martin explores Child’s lifelong fascination with America and shows how the Reacher novels fed and fuelled this obsession, shedding light on the opaque process of publishing a novel along the way.
Drawing on her conversations and correspondence with Child over a number of years, as well as interviews with his friends, teachers and colleagues, she forensically pieces together his life, traversing back through the generations to Northern Ireland and County Durham and following the trajectory of his extraordinary career via New York and Hollywood until the climactic moment when, in 2020, having written a continuous series of 24 books, he finally breaks free of his fictional creation.
Heather Martin’s authorised biography of Lee Child/James Dover Grant is certainly both comprehensive and authoritative. I now know a lot about this best-selling author, including I think, that he is not an easy man to know.
Though the similarities between Lee Child and me are ludicrous, nevertheless there are so many aspects of his life that reflect my own path. Sadly however, I have not ended up a huge success and massively wealthy…but that has not stopped me identifying with some of his background.
We were both born in the same year. Both of us had early years in and near Otley, Yorkshire. We both had spells in theatre before going into broadcasting and we were both office holding trade unionists.
So when Heather Martin talks about the impact of the Beatles on a young Jim Grant, I understand what that felt like and how refreshing and ground-breaking their attitude to music was and what a significant moment that was in his life.
Heather Martin’s biography is a scholarly work, and immensely readable. Exceptionally well researched and thorough, she does not follow a linear timeline but uses interviews with friends, colleagues and former teachers interspersed with relevant passages from the Reacher books to illustrate and contextualise the life of the man who would become so successful. She deftly segues from the recollections of people and incidents to passages in the Reacher books that illustrate perfectly the events in Grant’s life she is recounting.
Rightly, the first part of the book focuses on Grant’s early years which were so clearly formative. Grant was a child who felt unloved by his parents; who became a man who would not attend his mother’s funeral. Yet this same man has also endowed an assisted place in his old school, King Edwards, in his parents’ name, to honour them. All the way through this book, you get a sense that Jim Grant was a good friend and great ally to have, but perhaps not an easy man to know and understand.
Loyalty is one theme that runs through this book; loyalty to his friends, to his team (Villa) and to his family. Another is storytelling. From early on Jim Grant could tell tall stories with an absolutely straight face and make them believable. A voracious reader, he can tear through a book a day without pausing for breath. A prodigious memory helps his storytelling, too. He’s got the sharp recollection that others may have more fuzzily and that all helps in persuading that his is the right version – even when it isn’t.
I loved reading about his days as a Transmission Controller in Granada and how his fierce negotiating skills were what inevitably led to him losing his job. And you can’t help but admire the drive of a man who will single-mindedly go out to write an ‘airport book’ in order to provide for his family. Killing Floor is the story of a tough, ex-military cop whose services are no longer required by the US Army and who gives no quarter. The parallels are clear even if the location has shifted from Kirby Lonsdale to Margrave, Georgia.
Heather Martin charts the story of Jim Grant to Lee Child showing us just how Grant’s experiences fed into his novels and how his background and upbringing made him who he is today. Her interviews with Grant are clearly deep and honest – almost too honest sometimes and you don’t always warm to him because of this. When his friends tell a different story to the one Grant has told it’s not a lack of honesty behind it; it’s a showman’s natural gift for embellishment.
Verdict: The Reacher Guy is a fascinating and thorough piece of work, contextualised by the social, economic and cultural background as Jim Grant was growing up, showing us all the influences that led to making the man. It’s as definitive as you could hope to get and it is a deep and amazing piece of work. Grant has clearly enabled Martin with all the access she could have hoped for and then she’s gone out and found out more. The result is a compelling story of one of the world’s most successful authors. I now know more about this author than I ever expected to, though, like his hero, I don’t think you ever really get to know the man without being part of his close inner circle and I respect that. The Reacher Guy is a fantastic biography; rich and full of pearls.
Heather Martin was born in West Australia. She grew up in Aix-en-Provence, Paris, and Perth, where she would fall asleep to the sound of the Indian Ocean. She left Australia for England to become a classical guitarist but found herself singing with a Venezuelan folk group and learning to speak Spanish instead. She read Languages at Cambridge, where she also did a PhD in comparative literature, and has held teaching and research positions at Cambridge, Hull, King’s College London, and most recently, the Graduate Center, City University New York. Heather is a long-time Reacher fan. While waiting to get her hands on the next in the series, she once read a Lee Child book in Spanish and wound up writing to the author about the fate of his character in translation. The Reacher Guy is her first biography.