“We are a tale we tell ourselves.”
–Heidi James, So the Doves
It wasn’t just that they were the only two people I’d heard use the phrase “gussied up.” It wasn’t that they both wrote books that kept you turning the pages right to the end and then wish you hadn’t got there. It wasn’t their imperious command of the opening sentence, or their acute evocation of time and place. It ran deeper than that, and resonated more profoundly. It was something profoundly human.
On the face of it the differences were more obvious than the similarities. He eschewed the semicolon in his fictional writing, whereas she used it freely; his mantra was to track a single point of view moving strictly forward through time, an aesthetic seamlessly enacted in the relentless forward motion of his billion-dollar brand protagonist, whereas she moved back and forth and round-and-round switching point of view and voice according to need and desire; he was more austere; she was more extravagant, more lush, more figurative—it was a different kind of risk and a different kind of poetry.
Sometimes the genealogical connection seemed elusive and fanciful, a figment of my over-active imagination, but I had only to return to the books for it to seduce and persuade me. I was projecting, true, but only because I was reading, and like Lee always said, in his flattering, reader-centric way, a book is fifty per cent the work of the reader. I hadn’t written a biography of Heidi James, as I had of Lee Child; I hadn’t spent hours talking to her, as I had to him. But both were autobiographical novelists. I knew that because they said so (she despite her academic immersion in poststructuralist critical theory), but also because I could see it for myself, more veiled in his work and closer to the bone in hers.
Although each of her books was distinct, in her own genre-subverting way James too was life-writing a single character series. Tamara from multi-generational epic The Sound Mirror (2020) and Melanie from love story-thriller hybrid So the Doves (2017) were iterations of Heidi herself, just as Reacher was Lee, or rather Jim Grant, with, as he liked to say, “the violence toned down to make him more plausible.” You could hear it in their characters’ words, sense it in their thinking, trace it in their history, and see it in their behavior.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Reacher is not his physical stature, but rather that he is too big for the books he inhabits; he exceeds the fictional world, stepping off the page into everyday lives in a way unquestioningly accepted by readers and fans. James distributes this power among a range of female characters, but once read, they too—in her own words—took root in my head.
French playwright Jean Genet, channelling Shakespeare, provides an epitaph to The Sound Mirror: “It’s a true image, born of a false spectacle.” Fictional characters can seem real to us. We fictionalize the people we know (and are). So I make no apology in this case for treating real and fictional characters as equals: it’s precisely the dissolution of that boundary that intrigues me. All quotations are taken direct from my conversations with the writers themselves, from their books, or from The Reacher Guy.
Broadly speaking, both Child and James write for the same reason they read books growing up: escape. Escape from an external to an internal reality, from restlessness and dissatisfaction, from adults who didn’t want them or wanted them for the wrong reasons, from people and places they both loved and hated, that both defined and constrained them, that not only made them what they were but also what they transformed themselves into. Heidi’s characters suffer from a sense of “unbelonging”; in creating Reacher, Lee, who as a “lost and lonely boy from Birmingham” felt like a changeling in the Grant family, sought to explore the experience of alienation.
Both had haunted their local libraries; their families were too poor to buy books, and even had they been able to afford them, could not conceivably have catered to that insatiable hunger. It went beyond the already sufficient goals of distraction and entertainment: like Claire in The Sound Mirror—one in the Midlands and the other in Kent, one in the 60s, the other in the 80s—they read and read, they “gorged” themselves, but there was “never enough.” In So the Doves, when Melanie (Mel) is called out for stealing books, she answers simply: “I need these.” Which was exactly how Heidi and Jim felt when, as teenagers, they did just the same thing, and justified it in just the same way. Escape is not trivial, as any survivor knows. Escape is salvation.
Like the young Jim, Claire reads for thrill and adventure, to escape the “shrinking greyness” of her world. She would have devoured the Jack Reacher books: “She loves the words that make pictures in her mind and the way a story makes sense and tricks along like a journey made easy by good grub and song.” Lee wrote the kind of stories he himself liked to read, with what he describes as “a rhythm that trips forward, where the beat is always falling just ahead, that subliminally pulls people along by a chain, so it’s like riding a bike downhill.” Claire has other things in common with Jim: a postwar childhood, a grandfather who’d missed out on both wars and therefore the chance to prove himself, a near-fatal illness (both Lee and Heidi had rheumatic fever as children, and “heart things” or “dodgy tickers” as a result), a sneaking suspicion that her mother felt let down by her survival, the intelligence to win a scholarship to grammar school (that unlike Jim she was prevented from attending). She’s a smoker too, “to fill the dark hollows of the self.”
Two generations later, it’s hardly surprising that Tamara, Claire’s granddaughter, “raised mostly by books,” is little more than a bundle of stories.
The stories that thrilled Jim most were about orphaned children fleeing the family home. Both his parents were undemonstrative and withholding, but his mother, he told me, was “mean and malicious,” at times to the point of cruelty. In this account of Tamara’s mother, I could not help but recognize Lee’s description of his own: “Her mother says, you have ruined my life. You’ll be the death of me, you will. She also says, I wish you had died instead,” Tamara is told that she is “very difficult to love,” Jim that he is “dog shit brought into the house on someone’s shoe.” Both children learned fast never to tell their mothers what they actually wanted, because that was the quickest way to ensure that they wouldn’t get it. “Obviously,” Lee commented (I’d heard him say it both in public and in private), “I’m writing with an idea of getting people to love me.”
Child is quick to play down any suffering in his life, and though a permissive biographical subject, would never allow me to apply the word “trauma” to any of his experiences. This was mostly out of respect for the facts and the suffering of others, but also had something to do with that particular brand of masculinity with which life had burdened him, along with a dogged perception of himself as a rational rather than an emotional being. None of this applies to James, for whom the trauma was clearly all too real. Yet each in their own way is driven by anger, a heightened sense of injustice, specific memories of betrayal and the intermittent appetite for revenge.
But don’t all writers want to be loved? Don’t they all seek escape in their work, aren’t they all fueled by frustration? Isn’t this all just a matter of degree?
The Sound Mirror was my first encounter with Heidi James. And the unexpected kinship with Lee Child hit me before I reached the end of the first page. It’s an astounding opening paragraph: echoes of Camusian detachment in the eight-word opening line; short, crisp sentences mirroring the unfussy blue of the sharp winter sky; a brisk introduction to a compelling lead character; the immediate posing of a moral problem; the teasing promise of a dead body—and as if all that were not enough, a plot twist in the final three sentences expressed in a breathtaking shift from the indirect third person to the first-person plural. It even ends on a question, thereby adhering to the number one, frequently cited, principle in Lee’s thriller-writing playbook, which is “to pose a question at the beginning and not answer it until the end.” It was a paragraph so good that I almost stopped reading, except I couldn’t, because I had to find out the answer.
From then on, that disembodied plural voice would intrude on Tamara at will, possessing and at times almost erasing her. “Of course we’re along for the ride. How could we not be? […] Our mothers and mothers’ mothers containing us, we, in their bellies, seeds of each in the cells and the breath.” Tamara is not merely herself, barely herself at all, but “the sum of all us women, the total.”
You wouldn’t stumble across syntax like that in a Reacher book, and mothers aren’t the first thing to spring to mind either, though they do feature and are written with empathy: from Charlie Hubble in Killing Floor to the elderly Mrs Shevick in Blue Moon via the Hobies in Tripwire, Kate Lane in The Hard Way, Dorothy Coe in Worth Dying For, and in The Enemy and Second Son, Josephine Reacher herself, the idealized corrective to Audrey Grant. But in reading that mind-blowing first page, it wasn’t a Reacher book I was reminded of. It was Lee’s only non-fiction book, written immediately after Blue Moon, completed on the day Shakespeare is supposed to have died, and published to launch the new TLS imprint at William Collins: a ten-thousand-word monograph that gave free rein to Lee’s professorial alter ego.
The opening sentence of The Hero (2019) is “Let’s start with opium” (recalling his darkly comic non-Reacher short story “My First Drug Trial” from 2014’s The Marijuana Chronicles). The book riffs on themes close to Lee’s heart: etymology and linguistics, our taste as a species for risk and experiment, the origins of the hero figure, the purpose of fiction—a “false spectacle,” however true the image it delivers—and the challenge of how to fit it into “evolution’s merciless logic.” The most startling conceit of the text, however, is that he chooses to measure time in mothers: the inspired culmination of his increasing preference for the feminine over the masculine pronoun in discussions of reading and writing.
The last common ancestor we had with anything else was seven million years ago. Since then we have been evolving on our own, for perhaps 400,000 generations. I could picture my mother, with my grandmother standing behind her, not very different, and her mother behind her, again not very different, and behind her an endless line of 399,997 other women, each very similar to the one in front and the one behind, but cumulatively receding toward a small, apelike appearance. […] Collectively and personally that line represents unlikely and astonishing reproductive success – every one of those 400,000 women survived long enough to have a female child, who survived long enough to have a female child of her own, and so on, through Ice Ages and million-year heatwaves and famines and epidemics, until it got to my mother.
Here is a first-person plural passage from The Sound Mirror that elucidates that poetic “we, in their bellies” mystery of the opening page and reveals a similar brain at work.
Did you know that a female is born with all the eggs she will ever produce in her ovaries, and that those eggs developed when she was in her mother’s womb, and that the quality of her mother’s health and care in pregnancy will affect not only the baby she carries, but all the little eggs cells in the child too? So we could say our grandmothers were pregnant with us too. Or pregnant with our potential. As was her grandmother, and hers and onwards and forever. No wonder the Russian matryoshka dolls seem so right.
The mother is an archive of those who came before, a “medium the past speaks through.”
“Those seven million years were mostly hard going,” Lee remarks in The Hero. He doesn’t speculate as to whether harder for women than men, an issue James attacks like a bare-knuckle boxer, with an uninhibited fury reminiscent of Reacher himself, using that no-holds-barred first-person plural voice to articulate “the madness of women, trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts,” “silenced and hobbled, made stupid and dumb,” their “horizons snipped small.” But he does explore the disparity elsewhere (in “Everyone Talks,” for example, and The Midnight Line), and in The Hero, it’s also subtly but strongly implied in his championing of the female hero figure as every bit the match of her dominant male counterpart.
A girl left the cave and met a saber-toothed tiger, but she had her axe with her and she killed the tiger with a single blow! She came home triumphant! That’s the birth right of the thriller right there, 4,900 women ago.
Like Tamara, that Childean girl is a product of history: history is the stuff of her being.
She brought everything with her, everything she had inherited from the two thousand breeding pairs who had survived the glaciation, plus everything the subsequent four hundred generations had learned and passed on. She brought brains, language, reality-based planning, a ferocious will to live, and a deep love of story.
Tamara’s maternal great-grandparents are from Italy, her paternal grandparents from India. Which partly accounts for that radical alienation, an inherent existential angst aggravated by displacement and diaspora, but which also brings with it deep wells of strength (and tales to tell). So when she finds herself arriving to “a new unbelonging” on a personal pilgrimage to India, “she pulls herself together.”
Tells herself she is a traveller, not a tourist. She is intrepid, she is an adventurer. She’s one of us, after all, some of us travelled so far. Some of us walked and sailed and ran. Some of us stood still, holding everything up. Learning new languages, new gods, new regimes. Never looking back.
Here, even the rhythms were those of Lee Child.
I could quote any number of passages from the approximately two and a half million words of Lee’s fiction that exemplify these themes and preoccupations, discernible even in his schooldays, and for which the phrase “lizard brain” (also used by James) often serves as shorthand. But nowhere are they more obsessively pronounced than in the last of his sole-authored Reacher books, Blue Moon. In some ways, The Hero is the distillation of the mind that begat that novel. Grandmothers are referenced three times, always in the context of instinct (fifteen). Reacher is a “primeval” creature, “triggered by instinct, soaked in ancient all-or-nothing aggression.” Here are chronological extracts from three distinct parts of the book:
He considered himself a modern man, born in the twentieth century, living in the twenty-first, but he also knew he had some kind of a wide-open portal in his head, a wormhole to humanity’s primitive past, where for millions of years every living thing could be a predator, or a rival, and therefore had to be assessed, and judged, instantly, and accurately. Who was the superior animal? Who would submit?
He felt people watching him. No benevolence in their gaze. He knew that absolutely. He got a chill on his neck. Some kind of an ancient instinct. A sixth sense. A survival mechanism, baked deep in the back of his brain by evolution. How not to get eaten. Millions of years of practice. His hundred-thousand-times-great-great grandmother, stiffening, changing course, looking for the trees and the shadows. Living to fight another day. Living to have a kid, who a hundred thousand generations later had a descendant also looking for the shadows, not on the verdant savannah but on the gray nighttime streets, as he slid by lit-up clubs and bars and storefront restaurants.
An ancient instinct. Ten thousand generations of his own slipped his hand under his coat, one, and came back with his gun, two, and shot Dino in the face, three.
The concept of the individual, James suggests, is a romantic fallacy; we are but drops of water that in the ocean are confounded. “The body remembers what the conscious mind will not,” say the grandmothers.
How do we trace it back? Those microscopic events that birth these consequences, what created this monster, this wretch? Scientists extract long strands of ice from ancient glaciers and they can reconstruct the past from the trapped air molecules, pollen and other impurities. A globule of water in the sea still retains its river qualities, its condition of being snow, of being drunk, assimilated, excreted. It’s very simple. This city is still a swamp, a forest, a charred wreck, a sacred site. This is nothing new. You unravel a jumper to reuse the wool, it’s still the sheep, still the pile just sheared waiting to be sorted, carded, spun. Knots and binds. You don’t need us to tell you that, but we told you so. We are stories in transmission, legacies, testaments. Hate to say we told you so.
I was reminded, as so often, of Jorge Luis Borges, whose concise fictions and essays, aleph-like, contain all others, and specifically, of this passage from “The Writing of God”:
I considered that even in the human languages there is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe: to say “the tiger” is to say the tigers that engendered it, the deer and turtles devoured by it, the grass on which the deer fed, the earth that was mother to the grass, the heaven that gave birth to the earth. I considered that in the language of a god every word would enunciate that infinite concatenation of facts, and not in an implicit but in an explicit manner, and not progressively but instantaneously.
I began this essay with The Sound Mirror because that’s where, for me, this story begins. I didn’t really expect it to be continued, to have a second chapter. But with So the Doves, where nothing ever goes away and “atoms are reconfigured,” what was conceived as a brief encounter flourished into a full-on relationship. Perhaps because for Heidi as for Lee, with their big-picture view, all stories (as she writes in The Sound Mirror) are “the same in the long run.”
I don’t think Mel’s height is specified, but I’m pretty sure she’s not much over five foot. I know she’s all lightness and grace. And yet no character has reminded me more of the lumbering six foot five, two hundred and fifty pound Reacher—no, not one of the myriad disciples his godlike success in a comp-driven industry has spawned, nor any of his myriad precursors.
Or perhaps more accurately, no character reminds me more of a composite Reacher-Lee.Sometimes the genealogical connection seemed elusive and fanciful, a figment of my over-active imagination, but I had only to return to the books for it to seduce and persuade me.
Mel’s mother wishes her both unborn and dead. Faced with being “either frightened or frightening” (Blue Moon), Mel will run towards danger when intelligent evasion is not a viable or moral option. She stands up to the bullies at school, irrespective of size, gender, number and weaponry. She is always authentically herself, cares little about her appearance—“it was what it was and he couldn’t change it” (Nothing to Lose)—but is “all the more beautiful for it.” There is no self-consciousness or pretension, “she just was.” She’s a reader and a dreamer and a wanderer, who “used to make up stories about her adventures,” who felt “hemmed in,” would “rather be dead” than stuck in the town she was born in and who “liked to just go off, disappear for a bit.” “She was always good at that. Vanishing. Leaving.” She never says goodbye.
Though polar opposites physically, in stature they are mythic. Mel “skipped through the world.” But “in the midst of all that energy, there was a stillness about her, something unreachable.” She remains unchanged by the world she moves through. She is hyper-observant. She keeps her counsel to the point of making others nervous but nothing slips by her, and her friend Marcus “began to understand what it was to be seen clearly by someone with a level gaze, someone whose vision was as sharp and discerning as time itself.” “It was unnerving but comforting; like being watched by God or one of his agents.” “She would always be the one to uncover the truth, to see it clearly. She made it happen. She was the catalyst.”
With a simple change of pronoun, that might as well be Reacher.
There’s also something of Lee in Marcus, who tells Mel’s story, and something of the biographer too. Marcus is a numbers guy and empiricist who takes up journalism with the idea of being a crusader for justice but finds himself caught up in a capitalist conspiracy and cold case murder investigation. Initially putting his faith in the sheer accumulation of “factual” detail to both solve his own problems and reconstruct Mel’s life, he soon discovers that fiction is built in, not only to the grooves and paths of memory but to the immediate necessity of escaping the saber-tooth and surviving another day. “It isn’t as simple as I thought,” he says, as he lurches between present and past, first and third person. Tormented by his inadequacies as a “purveyor of truth,” he finally finds peace in accepting that Mel must always elude him. By circumstances beyond his—or anyone’s—control, his vanished friend is doomed to remain “a story, a myth, a series of actions and consequences folded into my own history.” But it’s consolation enough that the Mel he has so lovingly fashioned from memory and imagination can coexist alongside the flesh-and-blood, unreachable Mel, her opaque existence as an independent being inviolate, and that in the false spectacle of invention moments of glittering truth may be found.
Just a superpower short of comic book hero, Reacher signals his fictional status plainly, his creator content to give his readers a once-a-year good time for the space of a day or weekend. Mel is more recognizably real, and the read necessarily more troubled. But both characters are larger than life, hovering “just outside of time, just beyond the world around [them]” (So the Doves) and always just out of reach. It was supremely skilled characterization, first and foremost. But it was also harsh reality. When Josephine Reacher dies in Paris in The Enemy, her two sons speak about the ultimate unknowability of even the most loved of family members:
“Life,” Joe said. […] “A person lives sixty years, does all kinds of things, knows all kinds of things, feels all kinds of things, and then it’s over. Like it never happened at all.”
“We’ll always remember her.”
“No, we’ll remember parts of her. The parts she chose to share. The tip of the iceberg. The rest, only she knew about. Therefore the rest already doesn’t exist. As of now.”
And it’s the same for Josephine’s own father, in Second Son. Grandpa Moutier dies at ninety, taking with him “like everyone does,” “a lifetime of unknown private hopes and dreams and fears and experiences, and leaving behind him like most people do a thin trace of himself in his living descendants.” It’s the masculine equivalent of the bequeathing of eggs.
Reacher was named in all innocence thanks to a serendipitous intervention from Jane Grant on a rare husband-and-wife trip to the Asda superstore in Kendal. There was no deep thinking behind it, no weighty symbolism. Jim Grant was similarly relaxed about the adoption of a professional pseudonym: new job, new name—no big deal, what’s all the fuss about? “Lee Child” was a pragmatic choice, satisfying both sentimental and commercial needs. His agent approved: it was short enough to grow bigger on the cover in line with his fame.
But if Lee ruled the world he would decree that we should all choose our own names when we come of age: after all, we didn’t ask for our parents, who had the temerity to name us when they didn’t know us from Adam or Eve. And it turned out Heidi had done just that. On the other hand, she’d never really had a proper name of her own in the first place. “My surname was changed with each new ‘dad’,” she told me. “I always felt alone, easily discarded and that I didn’t really belong. I always thought if I was a boy, I’d be a James and safe from harm. I wanted to belong to me and me alone.” I was sure Lee would empathize, though he’d never much wanted to be a James himself, with its taint of parental disapproval – he was happy to let it go.
He liked “Dover” though, his second name, inherited from his maternal grandfather, “the only real human among my immediate ancestors,” as he wrote to me soon after I began work on the biography. And it turned out that Heidi liked hers too, “Pearl,” passed down from her maternal grandmother likewise. She hated “Heidi,” too overdetermined, but felt she was stuck with it.
It didn’t matter whether James Dover Grant and Heidi Pearl James had ever met, or had read each other’s books. I was happy to make the introduction, and to discover in so doing that on opposite sides of the Atlantic they had been writing their twin books in the very same year, as though The Hero and The Sound Mirror were entangled particles resonating in a sympathetic universe.
Like I said, it was a deeper connection, of underlying commonalities. The collective unconscious at work. What Borges would call the spirit of literature. Or maybe the mysterious first-person plural.