There’s always been something especially satisfying about Lee Child’s thrillers. Child writes good, clean prose and he’s a master with the pacing. He understands how much we love inside information (my favorite is still Without Fail, the one set in the Secret Service) but his sympathy is with the ordinary. He abides by the bargain of the thriller — bad deeds are punished, order restored — but his inspired creation of hero Jack Reacher gives his novels extra appeal. And I have to take this chance to say that, no I have never imagined Reacher looking anything like Tom Cruise. (My impossible casting choice is Ciarán Hinds circa 1995, when he was in Persuasion. Anybody else?)
So of course I was excited about The Affair and I did gulp it down pretty swiftly. But… sigh. It’s melancholy. These books have been set mostly in the present or the recent past but The Affair dates back to 1997. Reacher is narrating at some distance in time:
‘Talking to a man with a gun is a risk. Asking questions isn’t.’
I believed that then, back in 1997.
As you’ve realized if you’re a fan, this is the story of how Reacher became “separated” from the Army — the only community he’s ever known. And the tale has to do with corruption in high places, compromised values, cover-ups. Reacher has always explained his leaving the Army as a pragmatic matter but here we find out that there was a lot of pain involved.
When you think about it, that makes sense. What besides pain creates a loner? What else makes a man take off across the country with nothing but a toothbrush in his breast pocket? (Watch for the original disposable toothbrush here.) And what else makes a big strong fella who can kill people with his bare hands so sensitive to the plights of the helpless? But there was something almost arch about the ex-military Robin Hood on a perpetual road trip that made Child’s earlier books more obviously artificial, and thus possibly more fun.
Nor, I have to say, is The Affair quite as polished as I expected. The opening is one of those annoying frames that are trendy right now, a tense moment lifted from the center of the novel that’s supposed to keep us on the hook while we loop back and pick up the essential exposition. But the frame itself requires so much exposition — why is Reacher in uniform at the Pentagon, with scruffy hair and a 5-day beard, evidently walking into a trap, and what the heck does Kosovo have to do with it? — that the technique backfires. In fact the setup is generally slow. I like it better when Reacher just stumbles over trouble.
All in all, The Affair is perfectly competent and exciting. It’s just kind of… well, sad.