Book of the week : The Affair - Lee Child

If you happen to be someone who has yet to discover full on action hero Jack Reacher, Never Mind has only one question for you – where have you been this past fourteen years, Mars?

Jack Reacher has been with us for 15 Lee Child novels now. We have long admired him for his intelligence, toughness, passion for justice, and ability to scrutinize the evidence for subtle clues that the average cop would miss. In addition, he is independent and rarely accepts anyone’s word at face value. As ever, Jack is low-maintenance, carrying no excess emotional or physical baggage. Since he has a clock in his head, what use would he have for a watch? But he’s getting on now - he’s turned 50 this year. So what’s a writer to do when his action hero ages?

One option is to go back in time. The Affair is without question the book Reacher fans have been waiting for, for one very simple reason - we finally discover why Reacher left the army.

In The Affair, Lee Child flashes back to 1997, when Major Jack Reacher (his thirty-six year old protagonist and first-person narrator) was an army MP. Leon Garber, Reacher’s commanding officer, sends Jack to Carter Crossing, Mississippi, to monitor a potentially explosive situation. The body of Janice May Chapman, twenty-seven, has been found with her throat cut. Since the army has a base in the area, there is reason to suspect that a rogue soldier may have committed this and other grisly crimes. Although Reacher is a highly skilled and meticulous investigator, Garber makes it clear that under no circumstances should he conduct his own inquiries. A fellow MP named Duncan Munroe will be on hand to ask the tough questions. Of course, it is laughable to expect Reacher to sit on the sidelines while Munroe does the heavy lifting.

As the weeks pass, Reacher realizes that the Chapman case has significant political and legal ramifications; he will have to watch his back carefully if he is to emerge unscathed.

The story itself is well structured and Child thankfully doesn’t deviate from his formulaic approach and tempo that has served so well in his previous novels. Reacher arrives in a town and attempts to solve a problem in his own inimitable style. Working outside the law and yet ironically at times within it, he befriends key locals and tries to solve the unsolvable. But who is the culprit? With a variety of key witnesses, red herrings and shocks this novel will have you guessing until its explosive dénouement.  You never quite know who to trust – I for one wouldn’t want it any other way!

Lee Child has great fun placing Jack in challenging situations that force him to use his brain power and formidable fighting skills to defeat his opponents. All work and no play, however, makes Jack a frustrated soldier. Therefore, he is delighted to learn that the town’s sheriff, Elizabeth Deveraux, a former Marine, is gorgeous and available. The two gradually get to know one another a little better. Unfortunately, complications ensue that may put a damper on their promising relationship.

Child depicts life in a rural southern enclave colourfully, with its cholesterol-laden food (cheeseburgers, fries, and pies are consumed in alarming amounts), irritating busybodies, and obnoxious louts. The author’s terse, no-nonsense prose style keeps the story moving briskly. As usual, Reacher does not rely solely on his formidable fighting skills. He taps into his network of army buddies to unearth vital information and uses old-fashioned legwork and sharp analysis to unravel a mystery that he was never meant to solve. Child keeps us turning pages with scenes of violent confrontations, a torrid romance, a juicy murder probe, and an intriguing back story that helps explains why Reacher left the army so suddenly and became a solitary wanderer.

An enthralling prequel, The Affair commands your attention from the moment Reacher walks through the corridors of power at the Pentagon and receives his orders for the very last time. Highly recommended, this is the book Reacher aficionados will return to time and time again. Brilliant.

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November 14, 2011

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