As a recent convert to the novels of Lee Child, it's a particular pleasure to highlight this, his first work of non-fiction: a short, sharp and compelling exploration of the roots of human storytelling, the purpose of fiction, and the genesis of the fictional hero, from Achilles and Hector to Robin Hood and James Bond. It's also the first in a series of books from new HarperCollins imprint TLS Books, through which the literary magazine hopes to bring its quality of writing to a wider public. Future additions to the series will include an essay from Virginia Woolf on reading and re-reading.
But this isn’t really a book about narratology or the structure of myth, which is a slight disappointment. I’d have liked to read in more detail how Child sees the different types of hero, what commonalities the hero has across various stories, how the shape of ancient myth and oral tradition has been recast in modern genres. You know: all that Vladimir Propp/Joseph Campbell hoo-hah, filtered through the experience of a master-practitioner. But this is a looser, slighter book than that — more of a follow-your-nose ramble through a series of thoughts about human evolution, the birth of storytelling and the etymology and changing meaning of the term. Still, as the author says early on: ‘I’m not entering evidence into the academic record.’
If you’ve read Child’s books, though, you know he is bright as hell: bright enough to avoid long words and just get on with the business of telling a story. Here, his intelligence is revealing and intrusive. His backstory for the notion of the modern hero is more than an anecdote, less than a fully cogent argument. Because he doesn’t explain his mission at the start, it takes a long time for the reader to sign up for it.
Still, there is good stuff in those last ten pages, when he cleaves closer to his day-to-day activity as a crafter of crime thrillers.