Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Enemy

The Enemy
by Lee Child
Recommended Ages: 15+

As I continue skipping around the long series of action-adventure novels featuring Jack Reacher, filling in gaps in the sequence at random, this book is a bit of a blast from the past – taking me back to the early part of the series in which the narrator is Reacher himself, in the first person; but even farther than that, to when he was still a Military Police major in the U.S. Army's 110th Special Unit. He's 29 years old, pretty much smack in the middle of his career as a brilliant investigator and, er, let's put a positive spin on it and call him a self-starter with an idiosyncratic outlook. Alternately, you might call him a hard-headed pragmatist whose insubordination dial goes to 11, and note that it explains exactly why he never ranked higher than a major despite his talent, and got busted down to a captain at least a couple times. You can also faintly detect the traits that will lead him to become a rootless nomad after he gets out of the Army. But as the year turns from 1989 to 1990, he's still a guy who has never, since birth, experienced life outside the military, and who knows how to play the military game better than most, and has no plans ever to do anything else. This might, in fact, be the adventure that changes that for him and opens the door to the Reacher lifestyle fans of the series know.

So, what's going on at the start of 1990? Relevant to the U.S. Army, the Berlin Wall is coming down; the Cold War is approaching room temperature; the invasion of Panama is underway, with only days left in Manuel Noriega's dictatorship; and the Army's Armored division is staring down the barrel of a huge, irreversible change in the way warfare is waged. Relevant to Jack Reacher, he's just been yanked out of the field in Panama and sent, on short notice and with no explanation whatsoever, to serve as the MP executive officer at Ford Bird in North Carolina. Strangely, the MP commanding officer has been sent away on detatched duty at the same time, leaving Reacher as acting CO of the base's military police. Even more strangely, exactly the same thing has been going on at bases all over the country, all at the same time, putting the best and brightest middling-rank MP officers in all the key positions, and none of them know why. It's as if someone, somewhere, knows that something is about to happen. And then something happens, right outside Fort Bird.

What happens, you ask? Don't worry, I'm getting to that. It starts when a two-star general drops dead of a heart attack in a seedy motel, apparently while meeting somebody for sex. That's not much of a start for a mystery thriller, I'll grant you. But a couple things about the death bother Reacher from the drop. First, the general is a member of Armored, not Infantry; so why is he hanging around Fort Bird, an infantry base? And why, if he's just dallying with a cheap hooker, would he drive 300 miles each way during a layover in Washington, D.C. while en route from Germany to California for an Armored conference? And where the heck is his briefcase, in which he must have had his wallet, travel papers and conference agenda? And when the wallet turns up, why is the agenda missing? And why do the general's aides swear there was no agenda for the meeting, which is preposterous?

Before Reacher and an attractive young lieutenant named Summer can even begin to answer these questions, the puzzle deepens. It can't be a coincidence that the general's wife was the victim of a homicide only hours after her husband died. Nor that the same, unique weapon used to cave in her skull in Virginia was used again at Fort Bird, a few days later, in the murder of a Delta Force sergeant that's been staged to look like a gay-bashing crime. Nor that the colonel in command of the Delta Force unit at Fort Bird disappeared from his golf club in Raleigh, N.C. that same night, only to be found shot to death in an alley in Columbia, S.C. with a baggie of heroin obviously planted on his body. The pieces refuse to fit together, as the one soldier who looks good for the shooting turns out to have been up to entirely different mischief that night, and the Armored general's trusty aides all have frustratingly solid alibis, and Reacher's boss – a sometime Intelligence officer recently put in command of the entire 110th – is ordering him to whitewash the entire investigation, and backs up his orders with threats and attempts to frame Reacher for the very crimes he is trying to solve. Between that and a little unauthorized leave Reacher has to take – partly for personal reasons, and partly to continue sleuthing outside his general's interference – the lawman risks becoming an outlaw in order to get at a truth that powerful forces within the army don't want him to find.

That's a lot of synopsis already, and it doesn't even get to the side of the story that features Reacher's brother (last seen as a corpse in Killing Floor) and their mother (who, at the end of her life, is revealed to have a past that makes you wonder which of his parents Reacher really inherited his "do what's right at all costs" philosophy from). It's a prequel that shows you an entirely different side of Reacher's character, way back when he was at the top of his career and had never dreamed of doing anything else. It conjures the ironic spectacle of a man who operates within and without the chain of command, both at once and with equal brilliance, and who steps outside the law to enforce it. It depicts a guy who's chasing elusive evildoers and steadily closing in on them, while at the same time being chased and closed upon. It punctuates long passages humming with atmosphere and suspense with sudden eruptions of bone-shattering violence, and culminates in an a bad-guy take-down that takes the descriptor "explosive" to a never-before-seen level. It's a big, shiny gift for Reacher fans.

This is the eighth of 24 "Jack Reacher" novels by Lee Child, not counting installments ghost-written by his brother Andrew Grant writing as Andrew Child. Among the titles from this series lined up on my to-read shelf (which is actually a sofa heaped with books) are The Affair, A Wanted Man, Personal and Make Me.

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