The Affair: A Reacher Novel

  • Lee Child
  • Delacorte Press
  • 416 pp.
  • October 20, 2011

The latest Jack Reacher novel reveals the beginnings of this ultimate icon of toughness.

Reviewed by Brad Parks

In case you’re unfamiliar with him — and, really, what have you been waiting for? — Jack Reacher is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound ex-military cop turned vigilante who wanders America with nothing more than a folding toothbrush and a sense of morality, administering beatdowns to bad guys who richly deserve them.

Through 15 novels, he has emerged as one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction; or, at the very least, as a man who could kick the ass of any other character you might consider putting on that list. He is the King of the Bar Fight, the Prince of the Street Scuffle, a man who is as deadly with a head butt as he is with a long-range rifle. He is, to crime fiction aficionados and thriller lovers, the ultimate icon of toughness.

Now comes his 16th adventure, The Affair, where you get to learn how it all began. The novel is set in 1997, with Reacher still commissioned as a military police major, working what turns out to be his last case.

If you’re a Reacher fan — a Reacher creature, as they’re sometimes known — having a prequel that goes back to Reacher’s genesis is a delight (and you’ll cheer the last line of the novel, which could symbolically serve as the first line for the rest of the series).

If you’re new to Reacher, Lee Child’s latest offering is as good a place as any to start. The Affair is classic Reacher, from the grab-you-by-the-lapels opening to the breathtaking, didn’t-see-it-coming ending.

The action starts in the middle of the narrative with Reacher already in trouble, making a trip to the Pentagon, where he’s using himself as bait — trying to get himself arrested in hopes it reveals the man or men behind the killer. Then the story goes back to how he got there, a saga that takes Reacher to an elite Ranger base called Fort Kelham in the fictional town of Carter Crossing, Miss.

A civilian has been raped and killed — slashed across the throat the way Rangers are taught — and Reacher has been dispatched, undercover, to do a little bit of reconnaissance and, perhaps, some damage control: an influential U.S. senator’s son is stationed at the base and might be a suspect.

And so it goes. There are a variety of delightful certainties when reading a Reacher novel, all of which are present here. You know when he meets up with some thick-necked, slow-witted locals, he’s going to send them to the hospital, however many of them there are (in this one, he handles a six-on-one with admirable aplomb). You know he’ll trip across a beautiful woman who helps him with the investigation, who he will ultimately bed down (this time to the rumble of a passing freight train). You know he’ll get resistance from someone in a position of authority, whom he will treat with as little deference as possible (wouldn’t we all like to, now and then?).

It’s predictable, but in a way that’s satisfying, never boring. The genius is in the details; in the small, how-did-he-get-that factoids that pepper Child’s writing; in the ceaseless pacing; in the canny way Reacher thinks his way through an investigation.

Yes, the tough guy is more than just a mound of muscle. That’s the real pleasure of Reacher. Because, on the one hand, he’ll make observations like this one: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

But, at another point, a condescending superior officer tells him, “Some things are too big for you to understand, son.” Reacher replies, “Probably. I’m not too clear about what happened in the first trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. I can’t make the quantum physics work. But I can get by with a lot of other things. For instance, I understand the Constitution of the United States pretty well. Ever heard of the First Amendment?”

To be sure, Child’s prose will never be held up for praise at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or any other place where thumb-sucking literature is held high. His sentences are like his main character in that they’re well-muscled and to the point. He relies heavily on parallel structure and doesn’t see the need to mix things up too much. For example, he’ll start five sentences in a row with “there was…” and do it without apology.

But if you’re reading Child for the beauty of the language, you’ve already missed the point. There are those who dismiss Child’s work as “romance novels for guys.” Assuming, for a moment, that’s meant as an insult — from people who clearly haven’t read a decent romance novel lately — it’s time those critics swallow their snobbery along with their pinot noirs.

These books are just plain fun. And Jack Reacher deserves his spot at the dinner table of great American characters. Just make sure he gets his coffee. Black. You really don’t want this guy to get surly.

Brad Parks is an author whose debut, Faces of the Gone, introduced the world to investigative reporter Carter Ross and became the first book ever to win the Nero Award and Shamus Award, two of crime fiction’s most prestigious prizes. His third Carter Ross book, The Girl Next Door, releases from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books this March. For more Brad, sign up for his newsletter, follow him on Twitter (@Brad_Parks) or go to Brad Parks Books on Facebook.

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