- - Wednesday, November 23, 2011

By Lee Child
Delacorte Press, $28, 405 pages

Writing series novels is tough. I did nine “Rogue Warrior” books, and that was enough. Making them fresh every time out of the gate; keeping your franchise character from getting stale; inventing the twists and turns that define the books; researching the tactics, techno-goodies and multiple locations that most action-adventure novels demand; and doing it all in the space of about 12 months per book - boy, that is tough work.

Lee Child knows all of the above. His latest Jack Reacher novel, “The Affair,” is the 16th in the series. Yet it is one of his two or three best. It is brilliantly constructed, flawlessly executed and deliciously plotted. It sings.

That says something both about Mr. Child, one of the most punctilious practitioners of the series-novel craft, and his franchise character, Jack Reacher, a 6-foot-plus, 250-pound, shirt-size-18-inches-by-37-inches, retired Army O-4 (that’s a major in civilian-speak) who travels the country on a seemingly endless odyssey, is not above being judge and jury, and operates under his own moral code and rules of engagement.

Reacher owns nothing but a “half-sized travel toothbrush. … The business end was nested in a clear plastic case, and it pulled out and reversed and clipped back in, to make it full-length and ready to use. It was obviously designed for a pocket. It would be easy to carry and the bristle part would stay clean.” He funds himself by calling his bank and having it wire money to wherever he happens to be. The clothes on his back are the clothes temporarily on his back. When they get dirty, ripped or soiled - say by someone’s blood - he simply buys new clothes.

As created, Reacher is an Adamic character, cast out of his military Eden and compelled by his own demons or angels to wander endlessly in search of … perhaps himself, perhaps something else. What happens to him during his often violent walkabouts is the substance of Mr. Child’s 15 previous Reacher novels.

How Jack Reacher became an Adamic wanderer is the subject of this one.

The action begins March 11, 1997, “by chance exactly four-and-a-half years before the world changed.” Reacher, a military police officer, is assigned by his boss, Leon Garber, to be the undercover half of a tag team of military police investigators assigned to deal with an unpleasant affair that has arisen in Carter Crossing, Miss.

Carter Crossing, one of those small rural towns in northeastern Mississippi bisected by a set of railroad tracks, is home to Fort Kelham, one of the Army’s training venues for its elite Airborne Rangers. It is also, Garber explains, a base for Alpha and Bravo, two companies from the 75th Ranger Regiment, a strike force that operates with the most elite Tier One units attached to the Joint Special Operation Command, or JSOC. The commanding officer of Bravo Company is Capt. Reed Riley, whose father, the senior senator from Missouri, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The affair Reacher and his colleague must handle is the aftermath of a murder. A 27-year-old woman named Janice May Chapman has been killed and mutilated. The problem: Her throat was cut. And Rangers know how to cut throats. But, as the Army’s Senate liaison officer tells Reacher, they’re “in big trouble unless Janice May Chapman was killed by another civilian.” So Reacher and his colleague are detailed to investigate just to make sure the Army wasn’t involved.

In a wonderful set piece of dramatic irony, Mr. Child allows us to see meat and muscle appended to the skeleton of the franchise character of his series. We discover why the Reacher of “Killing Floor,” the first of Mr. Child’s Reacher series, which was published in 1997, doesn’t travel with a suitcase or even a knapsack. We learn why he hitches rides and prefers buses to planes. All of these characteristics had no rooting before, which is why one reads this particular book going “ahh” so many times.

Like when a couple of Mississippi thugs confront Reacher as he’s wandering around the environs of Carter Crossing. Or later, in describing the difference between himself and an Army officer: “He was a warrior. I wasn’t. I was a brawler. He lived for the tactical victory.”

Classic Reacher, right? But reading these lines here was like seeing them for the first time. Why? Because, as Mr. Child subtly reminds us every once in a while, “The Affair” is a memory book, the action of which is taking place inside Jack Reacher’s mind. We are watching him create who he is now, how he got there, and why.

There are some lovely touches. Reacher’s female interest in this book is Elizabeth Deveraux, a former Marine and the current sheriff of Carter Crossing. In many ways, she is a female version of Reacher: blunt, competent and unafraid to speak her mind; she’s very similar to the women to whom Reacher is attracted in the other 15 books.

Although the action of the book is compressed into just about a week, their mutual attraction is slow to develop. And then, sitting in her office a couple of days in, Reacher pulls a file from the waistband of his trousers where he’s been concealing it and slides it across the desk to Sheriff Deveraux.

“She slid the file closer and ran her palm over it, left and right, and her hand came to rest at one end, and she kept it there. Maybe where it was warm from the small of my back.”

Their coupling, you understand there and then, is inevitable.

As for the affair Reacher was sent to handle, he does it in a way that uncovers one of his most important character attributes and also sets up the reason that Reacher will be involuntarily separated from the Army and begin what will become a multibook odyssey. In doing this, Mr. Child has written a veritable tour de force; the almost-perfect prequel to his 15 previous books.

With, one hopes, more to come.

John Weisman’s latest novel is “KBL: Kill Bin Laden” (William Morrow, 2011).

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