Lee Child must have a thing for small-town America. Maybe it's the sense of isolation he's able to achieve when there are only a few thousand people living in the town? Child's last three "Jack Reacher" novels have taken place in various tiny venues, effectively cut off from civilization except for the highway that runs past it a few miles away. The Affair, Child's latest novel, is another example of this phenomenon, and while this aspect of the series is starting to get a bit old, it makes for a riveting tale in this case.
Jack Reacher is a drifter and a problem-solver, moving from place to place and helping those who need help, either with his quick intelligence or his right hook. The Affair tells of what started Reacher on his long road, way back in 1997. He's an Army Military Police officer, sent down to Carter Crossing, Mississippi, where a woman has been murdered, potentially by one of the soldiers stationed at the Army base there. Reacher is there to mingle with the townspeople as another officer investigates on the base itself. The murder may have drastic political implications where the cover-up is sometimes worse than the crime. Reacher gets involved with the beautiful local sheriff, and the affair may be affecting Reacher's thinking—and might end up getting him killed.
Reacher constantly reminds the reader that this story takes place in 1997, before the heightened security caused by the 9/11 attacks. This method of storytelling confused me at first, because I thought this would end up with Reacher telling the story to someone else. However, there is no framing story, and I soon learned to just go with the flow. It gives the story more immediacy and power, especially because this is the first Reacher book (at least in my experience) to be told in first-person.
Reacher is the same type of guy readers are already familiar with, though the lessons that he has since learned on the road aren't there yet. He still follows his duty as an Army officer, though it begins to get strained as events in the novel wear on. He finds himself being torn in two different directions, even more so when information starts to come out that changes everything about the case.
Child's characterizations in The Affair are marvellous, from Reacher himself to Sheriff Devereaux and the other locals in Carter Crossing. All of them come across as three-dimensional (or at least 2.5). Devereaux is an interesting woman with secrets of her own, and the uneasy trust that begins to develop between Reacher and her is interesting to watch. She also makes a great contrast to Reacher.
That also applies to Child's dialogue and prose. The book is divided into very short, punchy chapters. I usually hate this, as it makes the story seem choppy. In The Affair, however, it adds to the intensity of the book, in addition to making it really hard to put down. Your mind tells you "just one more chapter before bed," but then you get to the end of the chapter and are consumed with the urge to discover what happens next. This wouldn't be effective if Child's writing were bad, but that's certainly not the case.
The only thing bringing this novel down at all is the inclusion of the local toughs who harass Reacher and keep him on his toes. They don't affect the plot at all and appear to be included only to demonstrate Reacher's physical combat prowess and to spike the narrative with a little bit of action.
This riveting novel will keep you on the edge of your seat. It's also gratifying to see how Reacher became the man we've been reading about for so long. It's a younger Reacher, but he still has the same smarts he's had all along. We just get to see where the experience he draws on came from. This is a must-read for thriller fans.