Lee Child: One of the Great Motoring Journalists?

It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a few years now. The thought that Lee Child is, in addition to being a damned fine crime writer, one of the world’s greatest motoring journalists. Bob Harper investigates.

Most of us have guilty pleasures and while I’m not going to let you into the worst of mine I am quite happy to own up to being a sucker for Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. And with over 100 million books sold it would seem I’m not the only one. The temptation to roam the world, setting wrongs right like Child’s iconic hero is strong. Technically I lack Reacher’s height, bulk, and military training but in my mind, those are minor details.

Reacher’s primary form of transport is hitch-hiking, which inevitably brings plenty of automotive content into his stories and this got me thinking: Could Lee have made it as a motoring journalist? He has, after all, a concise style, getting right to the heart of a situation with only a few carefully chosen words. But, does he know his Fiats from his Alfas? And could he get to grips with the nuances of the way a car rides and handles?

There’s no doubt in my mind that Child likes cars and his astute observational skills are borne out in the vehicles that feature in Reacher’s adventures. A description of Los Angeles traffic in Bad Luck and Trouble shows he knows his onions: “He saw a new Rolls-Royce and an old Citroen DS, both black. A blood-red MGA and a pastel blue ’57 Thunderbird, both open. A yellow 1960 Corvette nose to tail with a green 2007 model. He figured if you watched LA traffic for long enough you would see one of every automobile ever manufactured.”

When Reacher makes a trip to England it’s all about the Minis, Rolls-Royces, Jaguars, and Land Rovers, and once again Child’s keen observational skills and succinct style come to the fore. In The Hard Way, a farmer’s well-used Land Rover Defender is “bluff and square, an appliance more than a car,” while his description of the vehicles found outside a minicab office in Personal immediately transports the reader to Dagenham in the late ’90s: “A ragtag selection of sedans – old Fords, Volkswagens and Skodas. A scraped-up Ford Mondeo the colour of sewage.”

Child’s equally lucid when talking about newer machinery though; a Rolls Royce in Personal is described as “big and ugly, with weird suicide doors on the back” but even though it doesn’t sound like Child’s a fan he can still elucidate on its finer points: “It was very hushed, and it was very smooth. It was deep wide and soft. The rear bench was built like an armchair in an officer’s club.”

When it comes to the new car market Child establishes once again that he has his finger on the pulse. While many of his books were written in the ’90s and early noughties, some go back in time so he’s not always talking about what we’d recognise as new cars, but even then his points are as salient as ever. In Echo Burning he discusses the merits of the iconic Crown Victoria: “Ford builds Crown Vics at its plant up in St Thomas, Canada, tens of thousands of them, and almost all of them are sold to police departments, taxicab companies or rental fleets. The Mercury Gran Marquis is the same car in fancier clothes for about the same money, so it mops up private sales.”

And from his description in Worth Dying For it looks like he’s not a big SUV fan: “It was a Chevy Tahoe, which seemed to Reacher’s untutored eye the exact same thing as a GMC Yukon. The cabin was the same. All the controls were the same. All the dials were the same. It drove just the same, big and sloppy and inexact.”

But perhaps it’s the way Child paints a picture of some of the older cars within his books that are most convincing, especially when he is describing those that are not in their first flush of youth. His description of an old Cadillac in Echo Burning drops you straight into the interior so vividly you can almost smell it: “It was as long as a boat and very fancy. The leather was the colour of old bones and the glass was tinted like an old bottle of French wine.”

In Killing Floor Reacher briefly swaps a Bentley for a Cadillac and finds it: “Full of puffy black leather and fake wood. It looked like a Vegas whorehouse after the stern walnut and old hide in the Bentley.” He often describes the typical old American V8 engine – “the wet, muffled beat of a worn Detroit V8” and “the hammer heavy V8 beat” – and there’s no doubt in my mind that Child must have spent plenty of time behind the wheel of these cars, such is his succinct summing up of a big yank motor past its prime.

And then there is this exchange between Reacher and an old guy driving a beat-up pick-up in Past Tense: “Reacher thanked the guy for the ride, and got out, and watched the truck squeal away, each tyre insisting the other three were wrong.”

I’m also guessing that Child has been on the losing end of the hire car lottery because he’s often quite vitriolic in his summing up of the typical fare in airport rental car lots. In Worth Dying For: “The Malibu was like half a Cadillac. Four cylinders instead of eight, one ton instead of two, and about as half as long,” while Reacher’s rental in Never Go Back is summed up thus: “Plastic where there should have been chrome. Vinyl where there should have been leather.”

Modified cars also attract his attention and in Bad Luck and Trouble Reacher decides to use a series of ‘rice rockets’ for a stakeout in a less than salubrious part of Los Angeles, reasoning they were so ubiquitous as to be nigh-on invisible: “Small Japanese sedans and coupes tricked out with loud big-bore exhausts, lowered suspension and cotton reel tyres and blue headlights. And black windows.” And by the sounds of it Child’s not a fan of the way those cars drive: “Reacher’s was a silver Prelude coupe with a chipped and nervous four-cylinder motor. It had wide tyres that tramlined on bad asphalt and a throaty muffler note that entertained him for the first three blocks and then started to annoy him.”

While Child has all manner of descriptions of the cars in his books he does tend to shy away from the minutiae of the driving experience. A Toyota SUV feels “a little tippy on the turns” while the ride in a Buick Park Avenue is “soft as a marshmallow and twice as buttery.” There’s often talk of “howling round turns” while steering wheels tends to be “hauled” and cars “glide”, “jink”, and “patter” down the road. But perhaps it’s just that Child knows his audience – they don’t want to know about understeer or oversteer or the nuance of steering feel – they just want their hero Reacher to hit some more baddies and get out of Dodge before the feebies arrive!

There are some silly bits too. In Worth Dying For Reacher is on foot and being chased by a GMC 4×4 whose driver attempts to crush him to death against a huge rock in a field. Somewhat unbelievably Reacher manages to shimmy his way underneath the GMC and disables it by undoing the sump plug with some cutlery he happens to have in his pocket. Anyone who has ever changed the oil on their car will tell you how unlikely that is.

But, this is a rare lapse in an otherwise flawless performance, and I’m convinced that he could have made a living from being a motoring journalist, even though he’d now be a whole lot poorer. His eye for detail and his uncanny knack of being able to explain even the most mundane of objects and actions in incredible detail mean he could have even written about the latest Ford Focus and made it engaging; the world of motoring journalism is the poorer for Child having opted to write thrillers instead of first-drive reports.

Either way, I’m going to leave you with Child’s simply wonderful tale in Personal of an old Ford Bronco pick-up truck.­ I don’t think I’ve ever read a finer description of someone trying to get an old automatic into gear and every time I read it – and yes, I revisit my guilty pleasures again and again – I feel like I’m in that truck with Jack Reacher.

“The engine started, eventually, after a bunch of popping and churning, and then it idled, wet and lumpy. The transmission was slower than the postal service. She rattled the selector into reverse, and all the mechanical parts inside called the roll and counted a quorum and set about deciding what to do. Which required a lengthy debate, apparently, because it was whole seconds before the truck lurched backward. She turned the wheel which looked like hard work, and then she jammed the selector into a forward gear, and first of all the reversing committee wound up its business and approved its minutes and exited the room, and then the forward crew signed on and got comfortable, and a motion was tabled and seconded and discussed. More whole seconds passed, and then the truck slouched forward, slow and stuttering at first, before picking up its pace and rolling implacably forward.”

Simply magnificent.

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Bob Harper

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