West Virginia Book Festival

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: Can it work?

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Photo from Paramount Pictures.

When Lee Child came to last year’s West Virginia Book Festival, the news was still pretty fresh that Tom Cruise had signed up to play Jack Reacher, the protagonist in Child’s long-running series, in a movie based on the novel “One Shot.” Since then, the film’s title has been changed to just “Jack Reacher.” Filmed in Pittsburgh, it premieres in that city on Dec. 15, then goes into wide release on Dec. 21.

Reacher is a former military policeman who, after leaving the Army, has lived as a drifter, moving around with not much more than the clothes on his back. He’s also a physical specimen: six foot five, as much as 250 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes. None of these physical characteristics applies to Cruise; he’s five foot seven, with brown hair and green eyes (at least, that’s what the Internet tells me, so it must be true).

For those reasons, many of Child’s readers were less than thrilled with the choice of Cruise to portray Reacher. A couple of people managed to bring this up, tactfully, to Child at the Book Festival. He didn’t seem bothered about it; he spoke glowingly about Cruise, and said he was confident that Cruise could play the part.

Lee Child, who just happens to be six foot five with blue eyes.

Of course he did. What else is he going to say? Tom Cruise is all wrong for Jack Reacher? He’d be sabotaging the movie (to some degree, anyway), and that holds no benefit for him. The only author I remember taking that tack — just savagely attacking the choice to play one of her characters in a movie — is Anne Rice, who went ballistic when it was announced that her “Interview with the Vampire” antihero Lestat was going to be played by — wait for it — Tom Cruise. (She changed her tune after the movie came out, for whatever reason.) So of course, the author isn’t going to bash the actor who’s playing the character, even if the actor is totally unsuitable.

These were some of my (unvoiced) thoughts during last year’s Book Festival. Since then, I’ve come around a little.

Child insists that there’s much more to Jack Reacher than just his size. This is true, of course. In fact, for a character whose physical presence is so overpowering, descriptions of Reacher are pretty rare in the books. As Child told The New York Times in advance of the movie’s premiere: “There’s also the menace, the intelligence, the silent, contemplative nature.” For his part, Cruise said, “The height, the size — those are characteristics, not a character.”

Tom Cruise, Lee Child and Rosamund Pike, in a scene from “Jack Reacher.” Photo from Paramount Pictures.

Cruise wouldn’t be the first actor to take a character and remake it in his image. Humphrey Bogart, as noted before on this blog, doesn’t look anything like how Dashiell Hammett described his private eye Sam Spade — but after seeing “The Maltese Falcon,” it’s very hard to read the book and not see Bogie in your mind’s eye. Also, Sean Connery was certainly more suave and debonair as James Bond than anything Ian Fleming ever put on the page.

And yet … I’m still not sure I’m buying it. If you ask Jack Reacher fans to describe him, words like “big” and “powerful” and “intimidating” are going to come up pretty quick. No matter how good an actor Cruise is, I’m having a hard time seeing how he pulls that off.

I do know one thing: Jack Reacher is a character whose fans have waited nearly two decades to see him on the big screen. I hope he gets the portrayal he deserves.

In a recent conversation with someone preparing to delve into the Jack Reacher series, by West Virginia Book Festival headliner Lee Child, I suggested his latest novel, “The Affair,” as a starting point. After all, it’s a prequel, the first chronologically in the series, so why not?

After finishing “The Affair” earlier this week, I think that’s not the best idea. It wouldn’t be terrible; as Susan Maguire noted yesterday in her paean to Jack Reacher, any of the books can be an entry point to the series. But you’d miss out on a nice level of contrast with the previous books.

The setup of the new book: Reacher is told by the Army to investigate a murder in a small town outside an Army base. There’s an official investigation inside the base, but Reacher is undercover in the town, in civilian garb with unkempt hair and beard.

If you’re a new Reacher reader, and you’ve heard about what a lone wolf he is, you might read “The Affair” and think, yeah, that guy sure is a lone wolf.

Old Reacher readers might have the exact opposite reaction.

In “The Affair,” Reacher is in the Army, in a hierarchical command structure. He works with other people, and sometimes even seems to enjoy it. He takes orders from people. Longtime Reacher fans may find those things incredible.

So if you’ve already chosen “The Affair” as your first Lee Child read, don’t stop. But after you’ve read a few more in the series, go back and take another look at “The Affair.” It may look very different.

Could Jack Reacher come to West Virginia?

Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel, “Killing Floor,” takes place mostly in small-town Georgia. His latest, “The Affair,” is set in northeast Mississippi. The first Reacher book I read, “One Shot,” finds the ex-MP in Indiana, and the one I’ve liked the best, “61 Hours,” is set in an isolated South Dakota town.

Hmmmmm … those are some pretty rural settings. And Reacher is a drifter, so he doesn’t stay in one place for long. As Child told Bill Lynch for a story in Thursday’s Gazette:

“One of the smart things I did was I decided in the beginning Jack should have no job and no location. He’s not a cop in L.A. He’s not a private eye in Chicago. He can do anything anywhere.”

So, when can we expect Jack Reacher to visit West Virginia? It could happen, Child said:

“West Virginia is definitely a very Reacher type of place … It’s a no B.S. place where people are very real. I’ll be there for two or three days, so maybe those first impressions will get filed away and pop again in a few years.”

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy having Jack Reacher’s creator with us. He’s at this weekend’s West Virginia Book Festival at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.

In anticipation of his upcoming appearance at the West Virginia Book Festival this weekend, and because they are great, I have been recommending Lee Child’s books to friends and readers of all stripes.  I find myself saying, I know, they’re not the kind of book I normally read but trust me, they’re amazing.  And my friends read them (because my friends do everything I tell them to) and they’re all, I can’t believe how good these books are!  And I’m all, seriously?  I’m the best book recommender ever!  And they’re like, we never should have doubted you!  And I’m like, that’s OK, buy me dinner!

So, faithful readers of this blog, let me do the same for you.  Read Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books.  They’re not the kind of books I normally read but trust me, they’re amazing.Even the author is handsome!

Let me explain:

First of all, it is a series that you don’t have to read in order, which is the best kind of series, I think.  Just pick one up and get sucked in, then read whichever one is handy next.  Because you will want to read more than one.

Second of all, the premise is terrific:  Jack Reacher, ex-military policeman, is a drifter.  Since he’s left the military, he left all attachments behind – he has no car, no wallet, no suitcase.  He only carries a toothbrush.  He pays for his hotel rooms in cash.  He doesn’t wash his clothes; he buys new ones every few days.  He travels where the whim leads him, and he travels by bus, which lands him in some pretty random places – small towns in the middle of nowhere.  These towns usually have big secrets, and Jack Reacher has a habit of running afoul of local authorities.  But once he knows something is up, he can’t rest until he rights the wrong and saves the day.

Third of all, Jack Reacher is my boyfriend.

Yes, I am aware that he is a drifter, has commitment issues (to say the least!), and does not seem to change his underwear every day.  And that he is fictional.

But you cannot stop me from loving a man with a moral code that outweighs his sense of duty to the law, or who can use silence as a weapon as effectively as his fists.  And, as we are repeatedly told in every Jack Reacher novel, he is 6’5” and 250 lbs.  Which, I’m just saying.  He’s big.

There is this weird thing with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels.  I was introduced to them by my sister-in-law, who brought one down to my parents’ house because it seemed like the kind of book my dad would like, and it is: tough guy, ex-military, twisty plot, spare prose, gear, action! suspense! etc!.  All the hallmarks of a Guy Book.  Also, coincidentally, all the hallmarks of a Book I Don’t Really Like.  I once tried to read a Tom Clancy book and I got to some technical description of gun mechanisms and my brain melted with boredom.  (Also I think there was something about Yeltsin and vodka, but I might be misremembering.)  But it’s boring at my parents’ house (no offense!) so I picked up the Reacher book.  And now here I am.

So why do women like Jack Reacher?  I don’t want to get into a gender dichotomy thing (Women like feelings!  Men like guns!  Gag.) – especially since Jack Reacher is neither emotional nor romantic.  I think his appeal crosses gender boundaries because, quite simply, he is a great character.  Strong of fist and of heart.  Never met an underdog he wouldn’t defend.  Drinks his coffee black.  And I have to throw in an appreciation of the women in the books, who are smart, competent, strong, and quick – maybe not as good as Jack Reacher, but good enough to help him nail the bad guys.  This is not something you always see in thrillers (Clive Cussler, I’m looking at you), and it warms my feminist heart.

I could go on, but I won’t.  Well, just a little more:  Read these books.  Jack Reacher is a Great American Hero – strong, independent, (handsome!), upstanding in his own way.  Which is pretty amazing considering his creator, Lee Child, is British.  I know!  It keeps getting more interesting!

So let me encourage you firstly (and again) to read a Jack Reacher book.  Any one will do, but the latest, The Affair, is blowing up the bestseller lists, so why not.  And then come see Lee Child at the Book Festival on Saturday.  I’ll see you there!  You’ll recognize me:  I’ll be the one in the back asking desperately if Jack Reacher is based on a real person and if he is could Lee Child please pass on my phone number.

A landmark thriller marks 40 years

In 1944, on this date (Aug. 25), Charles de Gaulle spoke from the Hotel de Ville in Paris after the Allies had driven the Nazis from the French capital. The date became a holiday in post-World War II France — and a central plot point in one of the landmark thrillers of the 20th century, Frederick Forsyth’s “The Day of the Jackal.” Earlier this year, readers celebrated the book’s 40th anniversary.

When Forsyth wrote his debut novel, he was a former foreign correspondent who needed some cash. He had thought of the idea a few years before, while covering de Gaulle’s presidency — at a time when it seemed a real possibility that the French leader could be assassinated.

Forsyth sat down at his typewriter and banged out “The Day of the Jackal” in just over a month. Four publishers turned it down before one agreed to print a trial run of a few thousand copies, in the hopes that it might catch on. High marks on that one.

As Charles Cumming wrote in the Guardian newspaper earlier this summer:

It is no exaggeration to say The Day of the Jackal has influenced a generation of thriller writers, from Jack Higgins to Ken Follett, from Tom Clancy to Andy McNab. Before, thrillers were self-evidently works of the imagination. Forsyth changed all that; never before had a popular novelist created a world that seemed indistinguishable from real life. His debut had a documentary sense of realism that all but convinced the public they were reading a work of non-fiction.

Forsyth didn’t have any aspirations to write a great work of literature; his authorial heroes were John Buchan, author of “The 39 Steps,” and H. Rider Haggard, creator of the great Victorian adventure hero Allan Quatermain. Those page-turning influences are apparent in “The Day of the Jackal,” which I read for for the first time earlier this year. It holds up pretty well, four decades later.

A look ahead at summer reading

Memorial Day is, of course, the unofficial start of summer. Last week, the Los Angeles Times helpfully published a list of some of the top books coming out over the next few months. Among those that caught my eye are “The Greater Journey,” David McCullough’s history of Americans in Paris, and new thrillers by a couple of old favorites, George Pelecanos and James Sallis.

A few more upcoming books that look promising to me are listed below (all descriptions from the LA Times list). What are some books you’re looking forward to this summer?

| “Busy Monsters, ” by William Giraldi: When a mediocre writer’s bride-to-be leaves him to search for a legendary giant squid, he treks across the continent seeking counsel from nefarious creatures on how to win back her affections.

| “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever,” by Matthew Cronin: An account of the thrilling battles between two tennis legends on Wimbledon’s Centre Court and at the U.S. Open.

| “The First Detective: The Life and Revolutionary Times of Vidocq — Criminal, Spy and Private Eye, ” by James Morton
Was Eugene Vidocq the 18th century’s James Bond? The author tracks the shadowy figure whose exploits inspired novelists.

| “Embassytown,” by China Mieville: The harmonious society between humans and an enigmatic race of aliens on a distant planet is upset by political machinations in this latest tale by a first-rate builder of imaginary worlds.

| “The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,” by Earl Swift: Travelers hitting the highways this summer might better appreciate the asphalt beneath their tires thanks to this engrossing history of the creation of the U.S. interstate system.

This week, as you may have heard, Lee Child was announced as the headliner for this year’s West Virginia Book Festival. So there was not a lot of debate over the subject of this Video of the Week.

Here’s the man himself, interviewed on North Carolina television a couple of years ago on “the writer’s craft”:


Lee Child

Laconic drifter Jack Reacher doesn’t want trouble, but it sure knows how to find him. Kirkus Reviews says, “Reacher is the best butt-kicker in thriller-lit.” And Lee Child, author of the 16 Jack Reacher novels, will speak at the West Virginia Book Festival at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 22, in the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.

Child is the author of the New York Times best sellers “Persuader,” “The Enemy,” “One Shot” and “The Hard Way,” and the #1 best sellers “61 Hours,” “Gone Tomorrow,” “Bad Luck and Trouble” and “Nothing to Lose.” All his titles have been optioned for major motion pictures. A native of England and a former television director, Child lives in New York City. His latest title is “The Affair.”

The West Virginia Book Festival will be held Oct. 22 and 23. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and panel discussions. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, Wal-Mart and Borders Express at Charleston Town Center. For  information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.