December 14, 2012 5:30 pm

How to dress a fictional hero

Most fiction is a kind of idealised autobiography. So what would an alienated loner, drifting from place to place, wear?
Tom Cruise as ‘Jack Reacher’

Tom Cruise as ‘Jack Reacher’

Charles Darwin thought evolution was a steady, relentless process. His fellow biologist Stephen Jay Gould, however, proved it actually follows a slow-slow-quick-quick-slow dynamic. He called the pattern “punctuated equilibrium”: things stay the same until some new stimulus provokes an adaptation.

Clothing in suspense fiction follows Gould’s path, not Darwin’s. Or so I discovered 17 books ago when I started thinking about writing my own series, and deciding what kind of a man my hero, Jack Reacher, would be. I remember being very conscious of the dress issue from the beginning. It was right there on the agenda. It had to be dealt with. No way around it.

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Why did I care so much? Punctuated equilibrium.

For years, what an action story’s hero wore used to be either blandly assumed or wildly unrealistic. Golden age private eyes were generally “rumpled”, but those abused suits were never really described. Pattern? Size? Store of origin? We never knew.

At the other end of the spectrum, James Bond’s threads were minutely detailed, with tailors named and cuts specified, presumably to communicate 007’s sophistication. But then Bond would swim a mile underwater and peel off a wetsuit to reveal a perfect dinner jacket. He would stroll into a casino looking like a million dollars.

Suspense fiction bounced between these two poles for decades until a new stimulus arrived in the form of American writer Sue Grafton. She and her approximate contemporary, Sara Paretsky, brought a new approach to private eye stories. They moved from impressionism to realism. They gave their heroines everyday concerns: they cooked and ate and got hungry. They had neighbours. They had bills to pay. Their cars broke down. And they did laundry.

They did laundry because they needed something to wear tomorrow and they didn’t have unlimited wardrobes. By recording these quotidian details, the writers changed the agenda for ever. Once out of the closet (ha!) those issues couldn’t be shoved back in. From that point onward suspense writers faced an implacable checklist. All of us who followed had to deal with it. And deal with it we did. Food? Described, often in great detail. Neighbourhood? Likewise. Cars, money troubles, tastes of all kinds – all explored.

I was aware of that checklist when I started to think about Reacher. I knew that readers would be thinking, “Well, yes, that master punch is all very well, but what does he do about this? And that?”

My preliminary narrative choices bought me a get-out-of-jail-card in several areas. Reacher was always destined to be a drifter and a loner. My stories were always going to do without the location and employment-based trappings of most series. Reacher’s apartment? He doesn’t have one. His neighbourhood? Likewise. Bills? Doesn’t have any. Car? Doesn’t own one. Colleagues? He’s a loner. And food was no problem. America is full of cheap diners. Any one of them would be just right for a guy such as Reacher. But clothing? That was more complicated.

My solution was to ask: what would I do? Most fiction is a kind of idealised autobiography. We all write our heroes a little bigger, better, tougher and cooler than we really are. So if I was an alienated loner, drifting from place to place, what would I wear?

Easy. I would buy cheap, utilitarian duds every few days, change right there in the store and trash the old ones. The US is full of off-brand outlets and uniform stores selling janitors’ outfits, and hardware stores selling work clothes. Big pharmacies have dollar T-shirts and underwear. I even worked out a budget. Somewhere between 10 and 20 bucks a day, I thought. Not cheap, but cheaper than owning a house with a washing machine and a tumble dryer in it. A perfect solution, for a wanderer.

I thought of the whole thing as a minor point, and a rigorously logical approach. But the issue took off with readers. They became fascinated with it. Even obsessed.

Lee Child at a book award ceremony in London earlier this month©PA

Lee Child at a book award ceremony in London earlier this month

Decades later, it’s still one of the most frequently asked questions at a book signing, particularly in the US, and particularly among people my age (58) and younger. Maybe it’s tied to a modern hygiene obsession. People can’t imagine not changing every day. Britain is slightly more tolerant; more folks seem to remember a weekly bath night. My dad tells of being in the army, fighting from D-Day to VE Day, 11 months and two days – all in the same pair of trousers. Or maybe it’s just a reaction to the contemporary reality of fashion overload, wherein every brand every celebrity wears is exhaustively chronicled.

Either way, fiction started to spill over into reality. I began to feel very self-conscious at book signings and other events. All those people staring at me, evidently with sartorial issues on their minds! I had never before cared what I looked like. But – punctuated equilibrium. Things stay the same until a new stimulus provokes an adaptation. And that stimulus was strong. So publicity became a bit of a nightmare.

On a book tour, you can’t carry much luggage. I developed what were essentially uniforms – five or six identical outfits, so I would have no stressful choices in the mornings. And gradually I became Jack Reacher – at least as far as clothes are concerned.

Now I buy cheap stuff in New York and junk it stop by stop, replacing it with whatever I can find. Evolution. Readers seem to find it authentic. Here’s what I find: sometimes it’s not the character that follows the author, but the other way around.

The film ‘Jack Reacher’ opens on December 21 in the US and December 26 in the UK

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The dapper and dishevelled

The image of the mastermind detective has changed over the decades: from the deerstalker-wearing Sherlock Holmes; the dapper moustached Hercule Poirot; the cardigan-clad Miss Marple; the shabby charms of Frank Columbo to the modern-day grit of The Killing’s Sarah Lund, writes Lucy Garside.

Peter Falk as Lt Frank Columbo©Photoshot

Peter Falk as Lt Frank Columbo

This change from buttoned-up to bumbling may be due to how we perceive power and authority. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes was billed as an eccentric bohemian, as fantastical in his powers of deduction as in his mode of dressing. The now iconic (though not mentioned in the books) deerstalker hat, tweed coat and pipe imbue him with an imperious air that was necessary for contemporary readers to take him seriously.

Fast forward to the 1920s, and detectives have become a little more relaxed, as have gender stereotypes. Agatha Christie’s Poirot, the rotund Belgian, is quietly elegant in neutral toned three-piece suits, a cane and pocket watch. This is his cover; the unassuming yet polished gentleman who will observe the world and let his “leetle grey cells” do their work. Miss Marple, Christie’s unlikely heroine, dresses in midi-skirts, tweed jackets and cardigans; perfect camouflage for eavesdropping on village gossip. The late 1960s sees the crumpled Columbo as a frequently underestimated detective, almost a hippy-era parody of Sherlock Holmes; the pipe replaced by a cigar and the stiff tweed by a dishevelled trench coat.

Like Lee Child’s anti-hero Jack Reacher, modern-day detectives have taken on a new, gritty image, championed by The Killing’s power jumper-wearing Sarah Lund. These knits say this is a woman who doesn’t need to use her sexuality to feel powerful – but still gets her man.

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