Lee Child – The Visitor

I finished this book a couple of days ago now, and since then, I’ve been trying to figure out why I disliked it so much. Because in theory, I should have loved it.

The story is about a former military policeman, Jack Reacher, who gets pulled in for questioning by the FBI, because he fits the psychological profile of a deviously clever serial killer they’re tracking. The first two victims were women who used to be in the army, and had been subject to sexual harassment. They had both pressed charges, resulting in the conviction of the men in question. The FBI investigators suspect a military connection: they think someone blames these women for ruining good men’s careers, and is out to avenge them. When Reacher was an MP he worked on both of these women’s cases, and knew them personally.

He isn’t the killer, though, and the FBI knows this. They’ve been following him for a week, and in that time another woman has been murdered. But they do need his military connections and help in tracking down the killer, and they’re not willing to take no for an answer.

So far, so good. I like serial killer crime novels. (John Sandford is a particular favourite.) The story gets even better than this, because it turns out that the killer is so clever, he doesn’t leave behind any forensic evidence at the crime scene: no fibres, prints, DNA, or any trace of violence. And the coroners examining the bodies can’t even figure out how the women died. So we have a seemingly impossible mystery as well. I have a penchant for locked room murder mysteries as well, and even though the rooms aren’t locked in these cases, they might as well have been.

Jack Reacher, the book’s hero, is another reason I should have liked the book: he’s a tough guy, a loner who does things his own way, and who isn’t afraid to bend or break the rules to set right what he sees as an injustice. He’s smart, he’s strong, and he’s not afraid of anything. Not entirely unlike Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, or Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole, two of my all-time favourite private eyes.

So why did I come away so disappointed? Where did Lee Child go wrong? What is the missing magic ingredient that could have made this alphabet soup taste sweet?

At first I thought it was Reacher’s arrogance and know-all attitude. He considers himself smarter and better than the FBI agents he’s forced to work with. Because we’re seeing the story through Reacher’s eyes, the FBI come across as generally unpleasant characters of frequently dubious morality and competence. This emphasises Reacher’s high opinion of himself, and his firm belief that he is the only person who is capable of solving this crime.

But that’s not it. I think back on the number of books in which Spenser has taken on the hardest cases and toughest villains armed only with his wits, muscles, and stout heart. I enjoyed those books. Spenser’s attitude has never bothered me.

Then I considered the plot and the narrative. The story follows Reacher throughout, except for brief interludes where we briefly see what the killer is doing or planning. I have no problem with this in general; John Sandford does it in almost every book. Child does break the rules when he shows you the viewpoint of someone completely unrelated acting suspiciously, and lets you believe you’re seeing the killer. But this is no worse a piece of misdirection than you’d see in any Agatha Christie novel. And so what if I’d figured out who the killer was, and how they’d done it by the end of the book? The thrill of the chase is till there, and the tension builds up to a nail-biting climax regardless.

Okay, so I was definitely disappointed by how linear the plot turned out to be. The story feints and dodges a couple of times, but ultimately it charges straight at you like a two ton rhinoceros. It’s not subtle, and it’s not intricate. The only deviousness lies in the meticulous planning the killer has put into the crimes in order to confound and deceive the FBI, and all of this is explained (in loving detail) by a smug Jack Reacher at the denouement. But again, this is not the main source of my discontent.

No, what really bugs me about this book is its complete and utter lack of humour or joy. Jack Reacher is cold, miserable, and selfish. When the FBI take him in at the start of the book, he claims that their profile of the killer is “obviously” wrong because it fits him, and he would never do such a thing. But you know what? He would. After being exposed to Reacher for 500 pages, I was convinced that if the circumstances were right, he would not hesitate for a second to be just as deep-down unpleasant as the killer.

And it’s not just Reacher’s character. The whole book seems to take itself far too seriously. Fair enough it’s a thriller, but I don’t remember cracking even a wry smile at any point throughout the book. Every paragraph is fuelled by aggression, every chapter fed by violence. It’s all plod, plod, thump, thump. There is no redemption, no joy. No peek into the human soul to see a pocket of goodness and light despite the persistent darkness that surrounds us. Every single character wears a mask to protect their own loneliness. The ending may look happy on the surface, but take it apart and you’ll see that the people you thought were smiling are merely frowning upside-down.

At the time I found it exciting, but in retrospect it feels like the book mugged me and robbed eight one-hour bills from my wallet. Writing this review has crystallised in my mind just how depressing a book The Visitor actually is. Buy the latest Robert Crais or Robert B. Parker instead, and be pleasantly surprised by how literate, humorous, and touching a hard-boiled detective novel can be.