The Affair by Lee Child

The Affair by Lee ChildIt’s finally been long enough since I read the last Lee Child book that I was ready to read another one. Child’s hero Jack Reacher is a sort of force, more than a character. He’s a superman, living the American dream — or at least his interpretation of it, which includes wandering around the country aimlessly with no goal carrying nothing but a fold-up toothbrush in his pocket.

Jack Reacher is also huge, and can win any fight, no matter how many people are against him. Usually he does so without taking any hits. Sometimes people die but they always end up in the hospital. Reacher also dispenses justice all across small-town America because he’s some kind of MP version of Sherlock Holmes — always jumping to conclusions (and he’s always right) and small town detectives always need his help, just when he shows up. His brand of justice is sometimes to break bones in the most brutal, efficient manner possible, and sometimes he just kills people, but they deserve it and the local law enforcement agrees so nobody ever presses charges.

I think this is probably the stickiest point of these books to me. There’s a backwoods redneck who shot a local teenager and a couple of other people. Then he brags about it because one of them was black. Obviously at this point nobody likes the redneck (racist redneck is a stereotype just like all the stereotypes that Child likes to trot around) and wants Reacher to break his nose or maybe his jaw and then haul him in so the police can deal with him. Reacher shoots him in the head.

The local sheriff is an ex-Marine MP and she’s pretty hard-nosed about crime in her county. Reacher tells her the redneck committed suicide over his regrets. She knows what really happened but shrugs her shoulders.

If this happened in one book then I might look past it but it has happened over and over. Nobody feels bad about the redneck getting killed, he was a human disgrace, but murder is murder and a crime no matter how much the victim deserved it. Reacher makes himself jury, judge and executioner and the American hicks just turn away and pretend they don’t know what happened. If this kind of thing happens once you think it might be a mistake, the racist foulness was too much and he just lost it. But this isn’t the first time Reacher has dispensed justice on people without involving governmental authority, nor will it be the last.

He’s starting to sound like a serial killer with a particularly quiet modus operandi.

The Affair is written in the first person since it’s a prequel novel of sorts — it tells the story of how Jack Reacher came to be Jack Reacher, i.e. wandering vagabond and local police backup from an Army MP background. With Child’s storytelling the difference is hardly noticeable. Jack does the same instant calculations, knows the same wild statistics, makes the same logical leaps, and plans out fights every move before they start. Replacing ‘He’ with ‘I’ doesn’t even sound different because of how tightly in Jack’s head the third person narrative usually is.

There’s a great deal of cynicism about American government and culture that seeps into these books that has also become troublesome. At first I thought it was the usual sarcastic feelings of anybody who has worked for a large bureaucratic corporation (i.e. the United States Government). Jack Reacher knows that people are corrupt and sometimes decisions made by a bureau don’t actually make much sense. With this book, however, it feels like Child’s views are starting to bleed through. He seems to think that senators are not only corrupt but they are willing to commit murder and commandeer government resources in order to cover up their corruption — I guess if your a corrupt lecher who sleeps with interns you’ll be willing to do anything to make sure nobody finds out.

This is a problem that I’ve noticed in Child’s books for a long time. The America that Jack Reacher presumably inhabits and spends all his time wandering around in is not the America that I grew up in. I grew up in a small town, and frequently the way small towns are portrayed on television is so spot on it’s creepy. Small towns attract some very strange people and a higher than expected percentage of mental and emotional disorders. I’m sure a sociologist or psychologist might be able to shed some light on the reason for that but it’s not important here. The point is you might not believe how weird a small town can be.

What Lee Child doesn’t seem to understand is that weird does not mean stupid or incompetent. Jack Reacher comes to town and there’s a crime and he happens to hear about it so he pops in on the local law enforcement and makes friends because he’s a charming drifter with no luggage — which isn’t at all suspicious — and then spends ~400 pages educating the stupid and slow locals on how to catch a murderer, or how to protect a witness, or how to arrest a local bully.

Again, if this happened in one book then it would be just a character thing. It happens in every book.

The Affair is no different, really, from any other Jack Reacher novel. This is okay. Sometimes what I want is a stupid story about a super competent guy who can punch his way across America while solving all the crimes. When that’s what I want I know where to look. Jack Reacher always comes through, blowing in to town on a gust of wind he lays out bad guys, solves crimes, kills rapists and racists and leaves big tips at the local diner (because small towns all have a diner — just one).

Once you’ve read a Jack Reacher novel you’ve probably got them all figured out. When you’re hoping for the simplicity that comes with mindless stereotypes and some fast and brutal fight scenes from a giant homeless guy with fries on the side The Affair has all the things you are looking for… even the fries.

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