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Tough-as-Nails Heroes from Lee Child

The author of the "Jack Reacher" thrillers traces the lineage of hardboiled types from Sherwood forest to the mid-century Florida Keys, and wonders why a certain masked man bothered with the mask.

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As the author of the best-selling Jack Reacher thriller novels (which also spawned a 2012 movie), Lee Child knows about creating a tough readers love: “Never Go Back” is the eighteenth book chronicling his protagonist, a hard-edged former military police officer who goes rogue.  He stopped by the studios to list three other fist-swinging characters who contributed to Reacher’s hardboiled DNA.

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Hi, I’m Lee Child. I’m the author of the Jack Reacher series, which reaches its 18th installment with “Never Go Back,” the latest book.

Jack Reacher is fundamentally a tough guy. He shows up, he solves the problem – pretty much always outside the conventional legal parameters – cleans up the mess, and then rides off into the sunset.  Which is an enduring theme; that’s how tough guys have operated through the centuries.

So here’s my list of influential tough guys that I remember well.

1. Little John

It starts a very long way back, deep in the mists of history and fable, with Robin Hood.  But not so much Robin Hood himself. My favorite in the Robin Hood myth was Little John.

Robin Hood as a story, has a narrative, was really the first great example of the sidekick. Why do we have sidekicks? It’s to do the kind of underhanded dirty work that the hero can’t be seen doing. Little John was not noble like Robin Hood was, not principled. Little John was just a hooligan basically.  But he was the one that attracted me most of all.

I decided as a matter of narrative theory that I was gonna make Reacher his own sidekick. In other words, all those characteristics – the brutality, the violence, the cutting corners and so on – that would actually be the character. So he is Robin Hood and Little John, all rolled up into one.

2. Travis McGee

The next tough guy I remember was Travis McGee from the John D. MacDonald series.

John D. MacDonald was a pulp writer, and in the 60’s he started a series featuring this guy Travis McGee.  Who was a Korean War vet, and who was somewhat disaffected, and he lived on a houseboat down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

But the job he did, he called himself a “salvage consultant,” which meant that if you had lost something or you had had something stolen, he would get it back for you. He would charge you a 50% commission, but he would get it back for you. And then after the big score, he would settle down and do nothing until the next time.

You know, he wasn’t sort of mythic and fable-ish like Robin Hood and so on. This was a thoroughly realistically-written modern character. But he had those old mythic attributes; he was the white knight. He called himself, actually, ‘a knight in slightly tarnished armor.’

There are 21 books in the series, and there’s only one of them where anything actually happens on page one. All the other 20, nothing ever happens on page one, nothing happens on page two… but by page three you cannot put it down. Now how does he do that? I’m still trying to figure it out.

3. The Lone Ranger

So the third one would be – and I’m not all that sure how tough he is, really – was The Lone Ranger.

Do you remember the old TV series with Clayton Moore, with Jay Silverheels as Tonto? The Lone Ranger was so curious in a way. He was so straight-laced. He was so… normal. I mean, he looked a bit like my dad, and he was a little portly, you know: that belt, and the costume was pretty tight, and there may even have been a corset involved for all we know.

The stories were just captivating. The idea that the guy would just ride into town, sort out trouble, ride out of town, and the opened-mouthed townspeople at the end: “Who was that masked man?” I just love that idea of the transience of it, the fact that people could blow into town and disappear the next day. And obviously again, that was a huge influence.

The other thing that really worried me as a kid, actually: Did he really think that mask made him unrecognizable? It was kind of token, wasn’t it? Just this little tiny mask over his eyes and that was supposed to disguise him completely? The logic problem in that always worried me as a kid.