More than 20 years ago, Frank planned to run away to England with his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, so the couple could escape both his dysfunctional, abusive family and Rosie's family's hatred for Frank. But the night they were to leave, Rosie never showed and hasn't been seen since. In the meantime, Frank joined the Guards, or police, married and divorced and is a weekend dad to his daughter Holly. He has little contact with his family but returns to the old neighborhood when a suitcase that may have belonged to Rosie was found. Distrusted by the police for his closeness to the investigation and a habit of acting on his own, and distrusted by the old neighborhood because he's a detective, Frank has to exhume more old secrets than he'd like in order to learn what happened to Rosie. What impact that has on him, his daughter and his relationship to his family isn't clear, but it's unlikely to be good.
French, an American citizen who now lives in Dublin, has an excellent ear for the speech of her adopted land and gives Faithful Place a much better layer of local color than a few dropped "Faith and begorra" exclamations here and there. She has a good sense of place and a deft ability to communicate it. What she doesn't have is a mystery that can keep its secrets past the 100-page mark or a reason to stick with it once that secret is out. The cast of present-day characters is limited and the cast in the flashback sequences even more so, leaving just a few likely suspects to start with. Since French isn't writing a Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes mystery, telegraphing her guilty party doesn't have to be a fatal flaw. We know where the roller coaster ends up but the ride can still thrill. In this case, though, it doesn't. Faithful Place spends a lot of time telling us where Frank came from and what made him who he is, but it never tells us why we should care. Only people who've read the earlier books have met him before and even in them he's not that important. The destination's obvious, the ride is nothing special and the pretty paint of French's stylishly crafted dialogue only distracts for so long.
Reacher is sent undercover to an isolated Mississippi Army base as an unofficial backup to the official investigation of a young woman's death. The county sheriff -- the fortunately attractive female county sheriff -- enlists Reacher to ask questions about the death that the Army doesn't want asked, let alone answered. Reacher may not yet be the wanderer he will become, but he likes lies, stonewalling and injustice no more now than he will later. How will he match his toughness and quick fists against powerful enemies who fight in the halls of power at the Pentagon and Capitol?
In a lot of ways The Affair is more fun than many of the more recent Reacher books. Some have been clunkers and some quite good, but they've been near uniformly bleak, grim and almost glum. The Reacher of The Affair deals with the world with a healthy slice of wry; whether because Child felt the younger version would be less jaded or because he rediscovered some of his own lighter tone it doesn't matter because it's a welcome change.
The lighter tone helps cover up some missteps; Child goes a little too far in using Reacher's "undercover" drifter status to foreshadow his upcoming drifter status more than once. He also overwrites his plot -- the appearance of a civilian paramilitary crew complicates things without much benefit to the story. But still, The Affair shows that unpacking the origin of a known character with a history is usually a lot more successful than unpacking the origin of a previously little-known walk-on part.