Lee Child on Jack Reacher's Return in "A Wanted Man"

‘A Wanted Man’ by Lee Child. 416 pp. Delacorte Press. $16.76. Nathan Perkel for Newsweek (Lee)

Early in author Lee Child’s newest thriller, A Wanted Man, hero Jack Reacher stands hitchhiking by the side of the road. A former tough-guy Army cop who has no home and no job, Reacher is described as 6-foot-5 and ugly. The image doesn’t quite fit the actor who will be playing him in the movies: Tom Cruise.

“I’m amazed that so many people have an opinion,” says Child about complaints that Cruise doesn’t have the stature for the role. “It means people have read the books and internalized the character. But the reality is only about a half-dozen actors in the world could carry a movie like this. Cruise is the most talented, the hardest working, and he thinks more than anybody. Most actors are small, -anyway—at least compared to me.”

A tall, lanky Englishman, Child wrote his first Reacher novel in 1997, shortly after he was fired from his longtime job as a television director. “I got my second chance through Reacher, and he got his through me,” jokes Child. “I was in TV, he was in the Army, and then we were both out. A lot of people feel that same worry and dislocation and they love to see -Reacher deal with it.”

Seductive writing and irresistible plot twists keep Child’s books from feeling like they were written on autopilot, and the latest is subtle and nuanced. Another constant appeal is Reacher’s moral code. “He’ll do whatever is right, no matter what the consequences. He doesn’t want help from anybody, and he walks the walk. He’s not the guy who wants to be self-sufficient while taking a hundred grand in farm subsidies.”

Child has no doubt which presidential candidate is more in tune with his hero. “Obama, definitely. Reacher would not be that interested in money-guy Romney. He’d look at Obama and say, ‘Here’s a black kid who grew up on the streets of Chicago. There must be something tough and worthy about him.’”

An icon of self-reliance, Reacher is ever willing to dispense justice in his own way. “Most of the world likes this rough, ready hero,” says Child, “but people in certain countries like Germany and Sweden hate themselves for loving him because he’s such a vigilante.” Is America more accepting of frontier justice? “It’s a very sophisticated question, because the fact that you cheer something in fiction doesn’t mean you think we should really have it. We know we need civilization and laws and procedures, but isn’t it frustrating? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just do what we needed to do? People know we can’t, but they love to see it in the story.”

Child is convinced that the movie coming out in December will fully reflect Reacher’s style and vibe. “What you’ll see on the screen with Cruise will be 100 percent Reacher at 90 percent the size,” he says. The simply titled Jack Reacher had recently finished shooting when the Cruise-Holmes divorce news broke. “It’s always sad if anybody you know has a personal problem,” says Child. “I felt bad about the divorce on all three of their behalfs, but it won’t affect the movie in any way.”

Given that Child has spent all these years with Reacher as his alter ego, did he ever dream of playing the role himself? “If I had the slightest shred of talent, maybe I could have thought about it,” he says with a laugh. “They put me briefly into a scene, which was terrific. I’ll have to get my one suit dry-cleaned before the premiere. I look forward to that.”