Readers of the popular Jack Reacher thrillers have faced from the start the perplexing question of why the protagonist ended a 13-year career with the military police to begin a new life as a problem-solving drifter who dispenses justice in a brutally effective manner.
In book No.16, Lee Child finally spills the beans. The author turns the clock back to 1997 for a prequel that begins with Reacher's arrival at the Pentagon in his Army major's uniform, unshaven and in need of a haircut to take on what will turn out to be his final military assignment.
What follows is one of the best Reacher books yet: a murder investigation fraught with political ramifications and a rising body count set at the edge of an isolated Army Ranger base in Mississippi. The tension builds early and continues nonstop, with patrols by armed militia members from Tennessee at the perimeter of the base, a fight to the death between two field-grade officers in the C ring of the Pentagon, and a visit to the base by the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The freight train that roars through tiny Carter Crossing at 60 mph every day at midnight plays a leading role in the action, delivering death and destruction as well as a high-volume soundtrack that sets the ground atremble and amplifies adult activities that involve Reacher and the town's attractive female sheriff.
"The Affair" marks the first time in Reacher's Army career that he had gone undercover as a civilian, but it sets a pattern for his future travels that will take him to all regions of the country. To say that he travels light is an understatement: When he boards a Memphis-bound Greyhound to Fort Kelham, Reacher has no ID, wallet, watch or change of clothing. But in an apparent nod to dental hygiene, he sticks a toothbrush in his pocket, along with a pack of gum, the accessories he takes as he roams the U.S. in later years.
As with all Reacher books, the writing is spare and crisp, with the hero's dialogue comprised of simple declarative sentences piled on top of one another in a style that Ernest Hemingway surely would have approved.
When confronted by three menacing rednecks as he approaches Carter Crossing for the first time, Reacher doesn't respond to an insolent query from one of the three who wants to know what the stranger is doing in town. "I said nothing. I'm good at saying nothing. I don't like talking. I could go the rest of my life without saying another word, if I had to," Reacher said. The reader, of course, knows that he will cross paths with the three later on and that the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Reacher will then let his fists do the talking.
But the bigger challenge on this case is to find out who killed three attractive women who were found outside the base with their throats cut. As the bodies pile up, the Army orders a quarantine at Fort Kelham, turning Carter Crossing into the likes of a ghost town.
Reacher, of course, solves the killings, but the political fallout prompts his decision to leave the service seven years short of retirement. No quiet life cashing military pension checks for this West Point graduate. Instead, he takes to the road to battle injustice. How fortunate for Child's many readers.