The (Not So Hidden) Enemy

Okay, I have to admit straightaway that I am a writer myself, and nowhere near as successful as Lee Child. That won’t stop me bagging his book, so look away now if you are a fan. You won’t enjoy this.

In fact, I’d never even picked up a Lee Child book because, somehow, I knew in my water that he was not for me. In bookstores, my eyes would flick straight over his titles, but something has happened in recent times that made me just slightly more open to the idea of taking a guilty peek.

It is this: I am now categorised as a crime writer. Even though I have never consciously set out to write a crime novel, my two novels (Mr Cleansheets and Straight Jacket) are regarded as offbeat specimens of the genre, so it has occurred to me in recent times that I ought to be taking an interest in my genre-brethren.

There are plenty of literary crime writers and, doubtless, that’s where I should have started. But a colleague at work appeared in my doorway a few weeks ago and presented me with a dog-eared copy of The Enemy and recommended it.

No worries, he’d recommended some good books in the past so it was with some confidence that I started reading – confidence that lasted less than two pages. I was immediately raising an eyebrow at the staccato sentences reminiscent of the 1940s ‘wise guy’ private eye style, and turned to the imprint page to check the date of publication: 2004.

Riiiight.

Now, I can spot ‘superficial’ a mile away, and I don’t much care for it. I like a plot that unfolds, gradually revealing the full scope of the story. I like characters that have a bit of depth – depth which has an impact on the story. I like texture – layers of meaning that merit deconstruction and, in a crime novel, an artfully concealed and brilliantly revealed perpetrator and modus operandi. It doesn’t have to all be there in Proustian bucket loads, but a dash of depth and subtlety here and there makes a story feel ‘real’ and reassures me that a writer knows what s/he’s doing.

After struggling through another ten pages or so, I asked my colleague whether there was any kind of literary merit to the story and he looked at me like I was an idiot. ‘Not really,’ he said, ‘but it’s not a bad detective story…I didn’t mind it.’

This seemed like quite a different message to the original endorsement, but I decided to persist – to try to gauge the book in its own terms rather than up from my nasty, elitist high horse. I forced myself to read it as an experiment in the craft.

The character: Jack Reacher (or Jack Reach Around as a friend calls him) is a senior MP in the US army – charged with solving crimes within the military’s jurisdiction. He is 29 but has the Sam Spade-type idiom of a much older man. (In fact, I assumed he was about 55 until informed, well into the story that he was 29 when comparing lives with his off-sider, Lieutenant Summer.) He is also very tall – larger than life one might say, in a LIT 101 tute.

Set in 1990, the story opens with the death of a general in seedy but non-criminal circumstances. Reacher’s only interest in the case is an apparently missing brief case which may have included an agenda for a secret conference. Shortly after the general’s wife is discovered murdered, and there is also a murder on Reacher’s base.

The complications for Reacher are fairly standard fare – his new boss (Willard) is an ‘asshole’ who warns him off pursuing the case. The reader immediately suspects that Willard is protecting someone (or someones) and that can only be the (rather sinister-seeming) dead General’s offsiders.

This is fairly early in the book so my thinking was: Okay, these are the red herring guys you’re supposed to suspect, so who’s the real killer?

The real killer, as it turned out, was a person who I suspected the very first time he was mentioned, acting with the connivance and support of the red herring guys!

As the book neared its conclusion, I kept waiting for some sort of massive twist that would turn all my superficial analysis on its head – the red herring guys would turn out to be innocent and some seemingly innocent party revealed as the true enemy – but nope. The evidence piled up and up against the people I suspected from the start and in the end the only mystery was working out the exact motive and order of events.

There was one major flourish at the end where Reacher’s life was briefly endangered, and he made a couple of noble gestures to leave you feeling he’s some kind of ace dude, but the whole thing (including the stuff about his war-hero mother) felt tacked on and pointless. And the premise underpinning the crimes? I might believe something like that of the Iraqi army, or the North Korean army…but the US army? Far-fetched to say the least.

I haven’t read a great deal of ‘airport’ crime fiction, and if this is indicative of the standard I won’t be reading any more.

P.S. I would have put a spoiler alert at the beginning of this review, but seeing as the author did nothing to hide the murder/conspirators himself, it seemed kinda pointless.

 

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