Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Enemy by Lee Child

The Enemy by Lee Child, 2004

Lee Child's Jack Reacher series is really a very odd one when you stop and think about it. There are no recurring locations and precious few recurring characters. The series focuses like a laser on one thing only, and that thing is Jack Reacher. To an extent, the entire series is a lengthy character study on the subject of Reacher, who, luckily, is an endlessly fascinating subject.

The Enemy is the first novel in the series to take place entirely in Jack Reacher's past as a military police officer. My all-time favorite Child novel, Persuader, featured an excellent and lengthy flashback to this same time period. For series fans, it's a wonderful opportunity for some insight into everyone's favorite badass drifter, as well as being yet another kinetic thriller/mystery story.

The book begins very early in the morning on New Year's Day, 1990. Jack Reacher has just been mysteriously assigned to a position on a sleepy North Carolina base when a two-star general turns up dead in a local motel. The general appears to have been meeting a prostitute and an all-important briefcase he was carrying appears to be missing. Reacher being Reacher, he digs deeper and uncovers a deadly conspiracy that travels both up and down the ranks of the US Army.

If Child has a fault when it comes to his plots, it's that there's a certain sameness to them. The Enemy, thanks to its status as a prequel, is able to shake up the typical Reacher formula. It's a combination of military thriller and classic whodunit, less reliant on action than the usual Lee Child adventure.

This is both good and bad. It's good because it's nice to see a Reacher novel with a somewhat slower pace and bad because the plot as a whole suffers a bit from the reduced speed. The book's middle sags a bit under the weight of too many clues and too much information, but Child characteristically turns things around for the ending, delivering one of his trademark knock-out climaxes (think two things: "tanks" and "execution").

Child is still an underrated master of mystery and he puts together a very complicated plot in a pretty logical way, but I still had three-quarters of the ultimate solution figured out a long time before the unraveling. There's nothing here to match The Hard Way's multiple jawdroppers.

The Enemy's appeal mostly lies in the unusual setting and plot and its status as Jack Reacher's "origin story." In an atypical move, Child includes a subplot about Reacher's dying mother, an unabashedly emotional moment for our stalwart man of steel. These scenes are well-served by Child's terse prose, but I think the subplot could have been worked more gracefully into the main story.

Reacher's relationship with fellow MP Summer is also a little awkwardly handled. Reacher almost always has a disposable female companion and it's getting a little overdone. Summer is a likable character whon serves her function well, but we know that she's never going to show up again and that cheapens her romance with Reacher.

At least Child is still on top of his game, writing-wise. There are few authors who can evoke so much with so little. His action scenes are fantastic, but that's not all he can do:

What is the twentieth century's signature sound? You could have a debate about it. Some might say the slow drone of an aero engine. Maybe from a lone fighter crawling across an azure 1940s sky. Or the scream of a fast jet passing low overhead, shaking the ground. Or the whup whup whup of a helicopter. Or the roar of a laden 747 lifting off. Or the crump of bombs falling on a city. All of those would qualify. They're all uniquely twentieth-century noises. They were never heard before. Never, in all of history. Some crazy optimists might lobby for a Beatles song. A yeah, yeah, yeah chorus fading under the screams of their audience. I would have sympathy for that choice. But a song and screaming could never qualify. Music and desire have been around since the dawn of time. They weren't invented after 1900.

No, the twentieth century's signature sound is the squeal and clatter of tank tracks on a paved street. that sound was heard in Warsaw, and Rotterdam, and Stalingrad, and Berlin. Then it was heard again in Budapest and Prague, and Seoul and Saigon. It's a brutal sound. It's the sound of fear. It speaks of a massive overwhelming advantage in power. And it speaks of remote, impersonal indifference. Tank treads squeal and clatter and the very noise they make tell you they can't be stopped. It tells you you're weak and powerless against the machine. Then one track stops and the others keep on going and the tank wheels around and lurches straight toward you, roaring and squealing. That's the real twentieth-century sound.
--- (pages 316-317)

Like all of Lee Child's works, The Enemy is a well-written joy to read. He writes thrillers better than just about anyone and his sharp dialogue and minimal description are as stylistically distinctive as Elmore Leonard's stream-of-consciousness prose.

It's a bit of a shame that The Enemy doesn't have a little more impact considering its unique status as the series' prequel volume. The plot is just a bit laborious and the Reacher family subplot seems like a big missed opportunity. As it is, it's an entertaining footnote in the Reacher series, but unlikely to make my Top Five list any time soon.

UP NEXT: Kim Newman's horror/fantasy/alternate history/thriller Anno Dracula.

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