Shelf Life: Lee Child

The Jack Reacher author on evolution, writing technique and why he always checks his boots for scorpions, as we discuss five books that have shaped his life.

Lee Child with a balanced meal. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019
A balanced meal. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019

When I was six or seven I found a copy of the Eagle Annual 1961 at a jumble sale. One of the comics in it was about jungle explorers, and how every morning they would shake their boots upside down to make sure there were no scorpions in them. I was so impressed by that as a little kid, I started doing it myself and I have done ever since. So that was the first book that changed my life.

There were no scorpions in Birmingham where I grew up. You’d have to go a long way even to find a tree big enough to climb. But we did roam about all day, usually with a book in one pocket and a knife in the other just in case we had to walk through Handsworth Park, which was sort of a gang territory. I wasn’t a well-behaved child, I was an absolute thug. It was a rather inarticulate type of society where any dispute, especially amongst kids, would be settled with fighting. That was the only way up the pecking order. 

My parents weren’t voracious readers because of course, they had plenty of other things to do. But they respected books. We got most of ours from the library and we had a system where any relative who came to our house had to apply for a ticket so we could get more books out each week. Even our dog had one. We frauded our way into literacy.

'Even our dog had a library ticket'

I didn't read too many of my parents' books – although I do remember larking about in their bedroom one day and finding the orange Penguin Lady Chatterley’s Lover under the wardrobe. Clearly, they bought it because of the trial to see what it was all about and hid it from us. But like most aspirational families, we also subscribed to book clubs which meant we got these cheaply produced, hardback novels delivered every month. I always ignored them, until I was off sick from school in bed one day and picked up a copy of The White Rajah by Nicholas Monsarrat. 

In it, this minor aristocrat type dies and leaves his estate and title to his eldest son while all his younger brother gets is a wooden box containing two pistols. So the younger brother sets out on this journey around the world full of pirates and all this kind of stuff, then ends up on this remote island where he became the ruler – the White Rajah. He’s doing a pretty good job of it, but then the British Empire arrives to claim his island and, of course, the putative governor they send to take over is his older brother. 

The surprise of this knocked me out. Today I would see it coming, but back then it was the first time a book gave me a genuine ‘oh my god!’ moment. I was thrilled by the fact that an author could do that to you. Did reading those adventure stories plant the seed for Jack Reacher? It’s a good question. I was definitely drawn towards action and adventure rather than anything more stale or contemplative. We’re talking 35, almost 40 years before I would start writing so it’s impossible to say, but I guess what goes in comes out eventually.

Lee Child with a balanced meal. Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019
Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019


A few years later I discovered Ice Station Zebra by Alistair MacLean. It was a really good book, except that it had a dishonest narration. I don’t mean what we’d now call an unreliable narrator, I mean he simply manipulated the suspense by omitting certain things towards the end. 

The reason this is significant is that it nagged at me for a long time. I thought the fact it was an unsatisfactory experience had to be my fault, that I had read it wrong in some way. It took me a really long time, until I was probably in my 30s, before I could say no: he just cheated. He did it wrong. If the book doesn’t work, it’s the author’s fault. Coming from a time and place that so revered books, the idea that there could be something wrong with one was a huge conceptual step for me.

'Nazi Germany was a cloud that hung over everything'

It was transformative. And now, I feel a responsibility to my readers not to give them that experience. I’m very, very conscious that nothing in any of my books is a random surprise or isn’t extensively foreshadowed. You’ve gotta play fair.

A book I always recommend is Sophie’s Choice by William Styron. My wife is from New York and I discovered it in a book shop there quite early in our relationship. I was 22, in my final year of studying law at university. I knew I wanted to be in the entertainment business and ended up going to television, but still, at that point, I had no conception of being a writer. 

'We’re all descended from feral savages. Reacher included'

Did it tempt me to write non-fiction? No. Although I have just written a book called The Hero for the Times Literary Supplement. One of the points I try to make in it is about our evolutionary inheritance, the stuff baked in from millions of years of survival. It fascinates me that the last huge climate emergency we experienced as a species was the last Ice Age which ended around fourteen thousand years ago. It went on for about eight hundred generations, and somehow, a very small number of people survived from whom we are all descended. 

My question is: who were those people that killed and stole and battled and clawed and kicked their way to survival? We have all come from these feral savages, so it’s not really a surprise that the veneer of civilisation and decency that we imagine is actually paper-thin. With Jack Reacher, you know he’s someone who has the genetic inheritance of a tribal protector, but he doesn’t really have a tribe except himself, so if he sees a deserving case, he will take it up.

Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019
Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2019


My favourite reading spot is my living room in New York. I actually have three living rooms in that apartment, and at the non-fiction end of my main library, I’ve got a sofa that’s nine-feet long. So I stretch out with a couple of hits of Sativa-dominant weed, which calms me down and filters out the distractions, and I can get the most intense reading experience. Given the chance, with an ashtray and coffee, I could stay there for hours. I don’t want to stop, even to eat, so I’m often very hungry. It's perfect.

Blue Moon, the 24th book in the Jack Reacher series, is out now.

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