It ought to be possible to find lots of Lee Child novels at car boot sales and charity shops. After all, he has millions of fans. (For those few not in the know, he writes insanely popular crime thrillers about an US ex-military policeman called Jack Reacher, a kind of cross between Dirty Harry and Jack Kerouac.) And crime thrillers are, after all, generally easy to pick up second-hand, 50p a volume.
But not Child’s. Not as often as the strength of his readership – 60 million sold and counting - would imply.
So maybe… maybe people buy his novels, read them … and hang on to them.
Which would also be odd, because genre fiction is supposed to be disposable. The sort of thing a person buys at an airport, reads on their way to a hotel, then gets rid of. What is going on?
Arguably, above all, the writing. Maybe after that, the structural elements: story, characterisation, attention to detail. Child’s prose pulls you in to the point where, after a while, you get to know and like his central character.
Curious, and gratifying, that a Brit – real name, James D Grant - has replicated a certain type of US ‘voice’ to the point where many Americans view it as unambiguously theirs. Somehow, for all the differences, it reaffirms the intimate ties between the two nations. Ian Fleming was once complimented for convincingly imagining America in Diamonds are Forever, but Child does it much more consistently.
In that sense, he reminds me of Raymond Chandler, the person, coincidentally, who paid Fleming that compliment. Chandler may not have been British born, but he was British bred – schooled in Croydon and naturalised as a British subject in 1907. And Chandler went on to create another great first-person ‘voice’ of American literature: that of Philip Marlowe, PD.
Nowadays, of course, Chandler is feted as a ‘classic’ writer; someone who once belonged among the dubious commercial types, but whom time and judicious criticism have restored to a semblance of respectability.
Could Child one day follow? I think it highly likely. Those people hanging on to his books aren’t keeping them for no reason. Whatever happens, they’re unlikely to forget Jack Reacher. And that is probably how classics are born. Protagonists and their stories that “the world will not willingly let die”.
But of course, the whole literary-fiction/ other-fiction divide is a mistake. There are good and bad writers on both sides, and calling one half ‘literary’ (an evaluation rather than a straight description), only serves to perpetuate the untruth. Writers like Child will continue to hammer nails into its coffin.
The long-term consequences of that process - to the extent that readers and publishers allow it to run its course - ought to enrich us all.