Jack Reacher, the iconic loner-hero created by thriller writer Lee Child, is famously tall and broad. Tom Cruise, who will play Jack Reacher in the forthcoming Jack Reacher: One Shot has many virtues as an actor, but extravagant height is not among them. When I ask Lee Child if he was conscious of writing his latest novel, A Wanted Man, against the backdrop of Cruise's portrayal of Reacher, he picks up my copy from the table and thumbs past the first page.
"Well, there's this short little intro," he says, "and straight away we're into the Reacher part, and immediately it announces that he's 'a big man, 6ft 5ins tall, heavily built'."
Fair enough. A little later in the book, Reacher is described as "a gorilla with his face smashed in". Again, it's not exactly a description that springs to mind when Tom Cruise's name comes up, but Child is unfazed by the differences between the actor and his character.
"Tom Cruise is that rare thing," he says, "the film star who is also an actor. So you're not seeing Tom Cruise, you're seeing Jack Reacher. I don't know how he does it, it's some kind of alchemy, but he inhabits that role and he becomes the character. They've done test screenings, obviously, and people are coming out saying, 'I love Jack Reacher'. And I think that's a huge tribute to Cruise, as a superstar, that he's so prepared to sublimate his own identity and become the character."
If Lee Child's fans are unlikely to confuse Jack Reacher and Tom Cruise, it has been known to happen that they conflate the author and his creation. We meet on the balcony of Cafe Zest in Dundrum's House of Fraser, where the tall, broad and craggy Child appears rather out of place, the Marlboro Man accidentally stumbling into a 'Drummy Mummy' book club.
It's quickly apparent as to why his audience might confuse him for Reacher. Apart from his physical size and engaging manner, the 57-year-old exudes the perennial best-seller's hard-won but easygoing confidence. Originally from Birmingham, the former TV executive turned to writing thrillers when he lost his job in 1995. His debut novel The Killing Floor was published in 1997, won a slew of awards and catapulted Child into the upper echelons of the publishing game. A Wanted Man is the 17th Jack Reacher book, but Child's focus on entertaining his audience has, if anything, grown stronger in the interim.
"I do love it when a sentence comes out well," he admits, "and I think there are quite a few things here that I'm very satisfied with, their musical sound, the effect they have.
"But I learned a long time ago, in my previous career in TV, that it's not about you, and it's not about impressing your tight little circle of friends, it's not about buying the black polo neck and the leather jacket and being an 'artist' -- it's absolutely not about that. It's about pleasing the audience. And that's such a huge emotional responsibility and it weighs more on you the longer it runs.
"I just read a very poignant thing on a blog the other day," he continues, "a young lady who had six quid to do her until the end of the week, but she bought the paperback of The Affair instead. With her last six quid. I mean, I've taken her entire disposable income until next week. So I bloody well better deliver. "I do find that the craft and the art is about making a product that is a quality product that's accessible to everybody," he says. "That takes much more craft than people think."
It's a level of craft that best-selling thriller writers aren't generally given enough credit for, he reckons, particularly from the more snobbish end of the literary spectrum. A couple of years ago, Child found himself embroiled in a spat with Ian McEwan when he announced that he could easily write a literary novel, but that McEwan -- who has just published a spy novel --would struggle to write a best-selling thriller.
"Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, the A-list literary people -- I have no problem with them," Child insists. "It's more the people that surrounds them, the critics that will side with Ian McEwan in a mindless way. And then there's the B- and C-grade literary people, that are just hopeless at everything, but make the most noise about it. That's who bother me.
"For a start," he continues, "it's utterly perverse to assume that to do something that pleases a large number of people is easier than doing something that pleases a small number of people.
And okay, if it is so easy, then fine -- all these literary types, they've got children, grandchildren, so why don't they just write a best-seller, earn a million bucks and take care of their family's education for generations, then go back to working on the good stuff? I mean, why wouldn't they? It's easy, isn't it? It'll only take a few months, no problem. But they don't. So why is that? Is it because they're so principled? No, it's because they can't do it."
Whenever the action flags, a tongue-in-cheek Raymond Chandler once advised aspiring thriller writers, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. Jack Reacher is a surprisingly cerebral character, however, who turns to gunplay as a last resort, and it's the subtleties in the Reacher novels that ensures that Lee Child has a far higher number of female readers than many of his male counterparts.
That's because, he believes, he doesn't pander to female readers.
"I've never been interested in writing about a woman in the conventional thriller style," he says.
"Y'know, she twists her ankle and needs to be rescued before the hero can go tackle the villain. I want strong, confident women, like they are in real life, who are Reacher's equal in every way. My only criterion is that if I'm going to sit down and spend six months with this woman, she has to be attractive to me. Otherwise it'll be a bore."
Jack Reacher is inspired by a number of classic loner heroes from books and film and Child traces his appeal all the way back to the classic texts of Greek mythology -- a kind of modern Hercules delivering an ancient kind of justice to those who deserve it.
"I think a small, atavistic part of people's brains still totally celebrates that kind of righteous brutality," he says. "They still love to see justice meted out like that." He taps my copy of A Wanted Man. "And that's what you get here. With Reacher, it really is all or nothing."
Lee Child's A Wanted Man is published by Bantam Press (€12.99)