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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.

  • Ohklahomey

    What an awesome article – and overnight I find myself having become a proper Child / Reacher creature. I got introduced to Child and Reacher only a week ago having listened to an archived interview Child had with Elaine Charles host of the Book report radio show (got it on their website by recommendation of a friend). After that innitial introduction I found another interview that revolved around ‘Bloody Scotland’, Scotland’s International Crime writing Festival – and from that point onward I was hooked. This little article: Little John, Travis McGee, and The Lone Ranger – given the reasoning – I think it’s brilliant!

    • Rico Gagliano

      Right? Never thought about the narrative function of a sidekick, but Child nails it. Edified!

      • Joanna

        I always think of Reacher’s little travel toothbrush as his sidekick…I He loves it, and it really is his only permanent companion!! ( I named mine Jack Reacher, in honor of him, and the whole family knows what I’m talking about, when I say that I can’t find my Jack Reacher!)

  • Claire C Miller

    Travis McGee was a great character as is Reacher. Kind of messed with me when you used the wrong actor for the part, but that’s going to stop me from your books and my own personal impression of what he looks like.
    Loved the article and looking forward to your new one.

  • AJKohler

    Oh, come ON! Is Jack Reacher REALLY tougher than Chuck Norris???

    • Vera Donato

      Chuck Norris is a wimp compared to Jack Reacher. You’ll know that after you read the reacher books.

    • blight14

      Well, ask yourself this, could Chuck Norris survive a .38 slug to the chest? (Granted, that WAS a bit of a stretch)………….lol

      • AJKohler

        Chuck Norris would simply give the pistol his steely stare and the barrel would melt. The bullet would never reach his chest. You KNOW that. 🙂

        • Balaji Kartha

          movies can never capture the atmosphere of a book on tough guys. if it does, then it becomes dark and slow. then of course Jack Reacher is in league of his own. just love the character.

          ironically it was the movie that got me to the books and now I hate the movie!

        • blight14

          Yep, you’re right, I never thought of that! LOL

  • G. Pandrang Row

    Super. Travis McGee was amazing. Reacher is a great character and I just read the latest and enjoyed it thoroughly. Unfortunate about Tiny Tom, but I would rather pay attention to your descriptions than the cinematic version.

    • Joanna

      Whose idea was it to cast Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher?That’s like casting Richard Simmons as Mr. T!! Not quite, but, almost!!

  • Jacobite

    I’d add Doc Ford from Randy Wayne White to the list, Paladin as played by Richard Boone and William Wallace.

  • Martin L Greenhalgh

    Why ask me? since reading Never go Back I am 50/50 on everything…cannot flip a coin lest the wrong side starts the sequence…Help!!