Well, although I’d planned to review another hardboiled sci-fi novel next, the one I’d chosen didn’t seem to be anywhere near as good as I’d hoped it would be – and I ended up abandoning it after about ten pages. So, I needed to read another novel, a better novel. Quick!
And, since I was still in the mood for thriller fiction, I thought that it’d be the perfect time to take a look at one of the few Lee Child novels I hadn’t read before. I am, of course, talking about Lee Child’s 2011 novel “The Affair” (which I’ve been meaning to read ever since a family member gave me a copy of it several years ago).
Although this novel is both a prequel and part of a large series, it is – like almost every Lee Child novel – designed be read as a stand-alone novel. So, you can enjoy it if you haven’t read any other “Jack Reacher” novels before this one. But, if you have, then there might be a few familiar names and references that you’ll enjoy.
So, let’s take a look at “The Affair”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
This is the 2011 Bantam (UK) paperback edition of “The Affair” that I read.
The novel begins on the 11th March 1997, with a US military policeman called Jack Reacher arriving at the Pentagon for a meeting with a colonel called Frazer. As he goes through security, he expects to be arrested. No-one arrests him. But, as he heads towards Frazer’s office, he’s certain that there is a team of people following him. He has expected something like this. But, no-one follows him and he arrives at the office ten minutes late. Frazer asks Reacher for the name of the suspect he has found.
Reacher says that he has nothing. That the meeting was nothing but an elaborate ruse to draw the culprit out into the open. That he’d hoped someone would have tried to make a move against him before he arrived. Frazer asks if he’s a suspect. Reacher lies about the answer. Frazer laughs and points out that Reacher looks a bit dishevelled. Reacher says that he is supposed to look like this.
Then we flash back to five days earlier. Reacher has been summoned by his CO, Leon Garber, who criticises him for not meeting uniform regulations before pointing out that his scruffy hair is probably a good thing. A woman called Janice May Chapman has been murdered in a small town in Mississipi called Carter Crossing, a small town with a large army ranger base nearby. Although Reacher expects to be lead investigator on the case, the job goes to another officer called Munro.
Reacher’s role in the case is to enter the town undercover and keep tabs on the local police, in the hope of pre-empting or averting any kind of army-related scandal before it happens. So, he hitchhikes to the town, but the local sheriff – Elizabeth Devereaux – is a former military police officer and guesses why he’s there shortly after meeting him. Still, with only two deputies – and no trained detectives- in the town, she reluctantly agrees to let him help her investigate the case…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that this is a really compelling historical detective novel, with some thriller elements too. In other words, it’s probably closer in style to one of the more understated modern Reacher novels, like “The Midnight Line“, rather than the older novels in the series. And, as long as you don’t expect an action-fest or anything like that, then there’s a rather gripping mystery to be enjoyed here.
So, I’ll start by talking about the novel’s detective elements. This novel is a bit like a blend between a thriller, a police procedural and a hardboiled novel. Not only does the case quickly expand in size and scope, but there are a good variety of investigative elements too – including examining physical evidence, making deductions from clues, interviewing people and coming up with several clever ruses and schemes to catch the criminal.
In addition to one or two smaller side-mysteries, another thing that really helps to keep the story’s detective elements compelling is the fact that – right up until the late parts of the book – the reader is never entirely sure which one of the two main suspects are guilty, thanks to lots of red herrings and contradictory pieces of evidence (all of which are, of course, explained later). So, it’s one of those stories that will keep you guessing 🙂
Plus, there are also a few hardboiled elements too. Whether it is a clever twist on the idea of a “femme fatale” character, the fact that Reacher is a semi-official investigator (who is breaking orders and technically doesn’t have jurisdiction) or the fact that – instead of arresting anyone – he unflinchingly metes out rough justice to anyone he finds to be guilty of a serious crime, this novel definitely takes a few hints from the classic American crime fiction of the 1920s-50s. Even so, it isn’t really a “film noir” story.
As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re fairly compelling too 🙂 In addition to a larger-scale sub-plot about Reacher trying to deal with a possible military cover-up, the novel also includes quite a few suspenseful moments and even a couple of fight scenes too. Still, this novel is more of a traditional-style crime/suspense thriller than the kind of action-thriller novel you’d traditionally expect from Lee Child. But, thanks to things like shorter chapters and a fast-paced writing style, this novel moves along as quickly as you’d expect from a modern thriller novel 🙂
The novel’s historical elements are a bit of a mixed bag though. When they are at their best, they reminded me of other modern 1990s-based crime/suspense novels (such as Laura Lippman’s excellent “Sunburn“) which keep their 1990s setting fairly understated – with only the absence of things like smartphones etc.. – helping to create the historical atmosphere. This helps to lend the story a feeling of realism, in addition to allowing for more suspense too (thanks to the lack of modern technology etc…).
However, unlike many modern 1990s-set novels, there are a few moments where Reacher “breaks the fourth wall” and talks directly about the 1990s in the past tense, as if he was re-telling the story in the present day. Although these moments help to clarify the historical setting, they will probably break your immersion in the story slightly at the same time. Yes, the idea of an older Reacher reminiscing about his younger days is an interesting narrative device, but this puts a certain amount of distance between the reader and the story.
As for the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about the characters. Not only is it really interesting to see a slightly younger version of Reacher (and one or two other long-running characters too), but Elizabeth is also a fairly complex and interesting character too.
The relationship between Reacher and Elizabeth is quite well-handled, and it manages to be both realistic and stylised at the same time (not to mention that, for a Reacher novel, it is probably one of the steamier books in the series too). Plus, the US military – with all of it’s foibles, rivalries, contradictions and complexities – is also pretty much a main character in this novel too.
In terms of the writing, it is really good too 🙂 Like with a couple of other Reacher novels, this one is written from a first-person perspective – which allows for a bit of extra characterisation and suspense. And, although Reacher’s occasional asides about the 1990s can be a little immersion-breaking, I cannot fault the actual writing itself. If you’ve ever read a Lee Child novel, then you’ll know that he’s an expert at writing fast-paced, precisely-engineered and streamlined narration that is kind of like a modern version of the hardboiled fiction of the 1920s-50s, and this novel is no exception 🙂
As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. The edition I read (which had slightly larger pages) was 427 pages long, and this length seemed to be a good fit for the story. Although this isn’t the fastest-paced Reacher novel I’ve read, the story still moves along at a fairly decent pace – with lots of well-placed plot twists, mini-cliffhangers and suspenseful moments that help to keep everything compelling. Another cool thing about this novel’s pacing is the TV-style “cold open” scene, which adds instant intrigue to the story by giving the reader a tantalising glimpse of events that happen about three-quarters of the way through the novel.
All in all, this is a really good detective novel that also contains some gripping thriller elements too. Although I’d have liked to have seen more of an action-thriller story, this novel was still very enjoyable to read – with a (mostly) well-handled historical setting and a good mixture between investigation and suspense.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.