Friday, March 30, 2012

The Affair by Lee Child

The Affair by Lee Child, 2011

I have arrested many people, often in groups larger than the one in front of me, but I have never been very good at it. The best arrests run on pure bluster, and I get self-conscious if I have to rant and rave. Better for me to land an early sucker punch, to shut them down right at the very beginning. Except that shouting freeze freeze freeze makes me a little self-conscious, too. The words come out a little tentative. Almost like a request.

But I had with me the best conversation-stopper ever made: a pump-action shotgun. At the cost of one unfired shell, I could make the kind of sound that would freeze any three men to any three spots in the world.

The most intimidating sound ever heard.

Crunch crunch.

My ejected shell hit the leaves at my feet and the three guys froze solid.

I said, "Now the rifles hit the deck."

Normal voice, normal pitch, normal tone.

The sandy-haired guy dropped his rifle. He was pretty damn quick about it. Then went the older guy and last of the three came the wiry one.

"Stand still now," I said. "Don't give me a reason."

Normal voice, normal pitch, normal tone.

They stood reasonably still. Their arms came up a little, out from their sides, slowly, and they ended up a small distance from their bodies, where they held them. They spread their fingers. No doubt they spread their toes inside their boots and sneakers and shoes. Anything to appear unarmed and undangerous.

I said, "And now you take three big paces backward."

They complied, all three guys, all three taking exaggerated stumbling steps, and all three ending up more than a body's length from their rifles.

I said, "And now you turn around."
---- (pages 309-310)

The last Jack Reacher novel to deal with Reacher's background as an MP was The Enemy, a fine thriller in its own way, but probably one of my least favorite of the Reacher series (if not my least favorite). Cool insight into Reacher's character, but kind of a snoozy plot without any of the fireworks we expect from Reacher's civilian adventures. The Affair is a direct follow-up to The Enemy and its ending leads directly into the very first book in the series begins. This is the one that fans have been waiting for, the book that shows Reacher's initial estrangement from the military and the beginning of his life as a mysterious nomad.

For an installment with such significance attached to it, The Affair is a surprisingly typical Reacher novel. Unlike in The Enemy, Reacher is on his own for most of the book like he is in the rest of the series, and the basic plot could have been easily transposed to his post-military days. The ingredients that we expect to see--strange murder, weird little town, thuggish locals, flavor-of-the-month local love interest--are all present, and despite a neat in media res opening and the saga-begins ending, everything goes down pretty much exactly the way you'd expect.

Several years after the events of The Enemy, Jack Reacher is called in to investigate a sensitive matter: a woman has been brutally murdered in a town bordering an Army base in Mississippi. The base and its soldiers are crucial pieces in a secret military conflict (Kosovo), and the Army can't afford to have the cover blown by an investigation. Reacher will pose as a homeless ex-Army drifter (!) and attempt to uncover the killer. If it's a civilian, that is. Naturally, things get complicated fast and the bodies begin to stack up, and Reacher, never one to follow orders, sets out to topple the massive conspiracy that someone has set in place. Even if it costs him his career, or his life.

So, yeah. Business as usual for our boy Jack.

As always, Child has written a real page-turner and the book is solidly constructed, despite a premise that borders on flimsy. The opening couple of chapters do a good job of establishing suspense and the way they meet up with the narrative halfway through is cool. As usual, the pace is actually fairly slow, ratcheting up the tension to nearly unbearable heights by the end. There's not much that's shocking or particularly original about the conclusion to the mystery, but Child is always good at obscuring the obvious truth until the very end.

The Love Interest Subplot is a tiresome and expected element of nearly every Reacher novel. I've gotten heartily sick of Reacher always running into some runway-ready cop or lawyer. The relationship only ever lasts a single book, so there's no lasting effect on Reacher. I will admit that The Affair's love interest, former MP and sheriff Elizabeth Deveraux, is a likable character and a good match for Reacher. The relationship is well-written and engaging enough, yet the fact that we know it goes nowhere makes it feel like irrelevant filler. I started to get excited when, mid-book, we began to get hints that Elizabeth was the serial killer Reacher was tracking. Having the love interest be the villain would be a series first (at least for the books I've read so far) and would be a very interesting end to the book. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a cleverly planted misdirection, and the actual killer is a lot less unusual. Reacher and Elizabeth part ways at the end, and that's that.

Although the small town is a common Child setting, he still does a good job of painting the world of Carter Crossing. It's a tired, dusty little place that depends entirely on the military base to sustain its fragile economy. Even though its an isolated small town, it still has a wealthy part of town (predominantly white), and a poor part of town (predominantly black). The quiet way that Child deals with the racial issues simmering underneath the town is a good example of just how effortlessly he nails the weird little corners of America that the series inhabits. I can't help but wish his approach towards the military was as subtle. I don't think his portrayal of the Army is one of the strong points of The Affair. He paints the Army as a vast, secretive, vaguely nefarious organization run by a bunch of trigger-happy assholes who don't hesitate to either commit or cover up crimes. While I don't think this is an accurate picture of the real-life military, I would be willing to accept a negative portrayal if it was more skillfully or convincingly written.

Furthermore, I think that the extent of Reacher's cynicism and disillusionment with the Army is too far along by the time The Affair begins. The novel should have shown how Reacher's faith in the military was betrayed, how he discovered that the organization he had spent his entire life serving was not the place for him. Some of that comes through, but Reacher's forced resignation at the end feels inevitable and lacks the emotional punch it should have, considering its importance in the series overall.

Better are the little touches of origin story mythmaking that are laced throughout the book: Reacher discovering the joys of public transportation, setting up a Western Union account, buying a folding toothbrush. These moments are pure undiluted awesome. The Affair could perhaps use a bit more of this at times, but it's an overall solid outing--satisfying, absorbing and as well paced as always. No thriller author I've ever read keeps the pages turning as reliably as Child, even when he's not in top form. The Affair is not a top-notch Reacher adventure (not quite twisty or exciting enough), but it's fairly satisfying both as a prequel to the main series and as a thriller in its own right.

NEXT UP: Dan Simmons's Hyperion.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth by William Shakespeare, 1603-1607

MACBETH: She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.
---- (page 77, Dover edition)

Like many of Shakespeare's tragedies, Macbeth is a searing psychological portrait of a tortured antihero. Although not a very long play, it's rich and multilayered in that classic Shakespearean way, weaving a story that seamlessly mixes the weird and supernatural with a twisted alternate history of Scotland. It may have been written hundreds of years ago, but like all of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth still feels fresh, fiery and surprisingly powerful.

At the play's beginning, Macbeth is a battle-hardened Scottish general with a reputation for daring and bravery. He is put to the test when confronted with three eerie witches (some of Shakespeare's most bizarre and mysterious characters) who tell him that he will be king. The only way for him to ascend to this position is to kill Duncan, the current king and his personal friend. Macbeth is full of untapped ambition and the potential for evil. This potential is activated by the witches, who awaken Macbeth's latent amorality by planting the idea of regicide in his mind. Although he vacillates back and forth between killing Duncan and remaining loyal, he ultimately commits the murder, influenced and egged on by his wife. These scenes, arguably the most famous in the play, are harrowing even to read.

The debate between Macbeth and his wife (and between Macbeth and himself) as he prepares to kill his king is a brilliant, hair-raising piece of writing. The dagger scene has been parodied so many times that it should feel goofy and insipid. It feels anything but. There is something almost electrifying about Macbeth's murder of Duncan, and the way that that one act haunts the entire play.

After Duncan's death, the play is a roller coaster descent into darkness. Macbeth and his wife sink deeper into madness and total corruption. The forces gathering against them, led by a nobleman named Macduff and Malcolm, Duncan's eldest son, are sketched out with less attention than Macbeth, but Macduff is still a dynamically human foil for Macbeth. Even Malcolm, a fairly minor character in terms of his actual "screen time," gets an interesting little arc of his own. Overall though, this is a play that's pretty squarely focused on its protagonist and his hellish descent.

The play's heavy use of the supernatural as a device also makes it notable. Although magic, superstition and eerie presentiments are common in Shakespearean tragedies, few of his plays have as overt an otherwordly presence as Macbeth. The witches are truly frightening and malignant characters who overshadow the play despite their relatively few scenes. The strange scene where Hecate appears to them is a highly unusual mixture of Elizabethan pageantry and pagan mythology. It also suggests a kind of ordered paranormal hierarchy, an example of the way the supernatural directly effects the play's action. While in, say, Romeo and Juliet fate and destiny are oblique concepts that hang over the play, the forces of evil show up in person to wreak havoc in Macbeth. Heck, they're even organized (shades of Wolfram and Hart, anyone?).

By the end of the play, the witches have achieved their goal of chaos. Macbeth is a warped and maniacal ruler, a shadow of his former self, lacking even the most basic moral compass. He attempts to hide or belittle his crushing guilt, but it eventually overcomes him. By the time Macduff kills him, Macbeth has become an unambiguously evil character. The cumulative effects of the murder and cruelty he has perpetrated destroy him, and it all stems from his decision to kill Duncan in Act 2, the one act that sent him down the path to pure evil.

NEXT UP: Jack Reacher, a bizarre murder case, a military cover-up, a small town with secrets. What's not to love?