Beyond belief

By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  June 16, 2010

But it is really about the romantic reverie shared by Zannis and his creator, basking in both the desire to do the brave and right thing, and in the somewhat solitary aura that involves. The novel is the closest Furst has ever come to sentimentality. He has an absolute aversion to bad things befalling his characters, something of a miracle in the context of WWII. The novel ends with a bit of good news so shameless it makes you smile in complete satisfaction. Spies of the Balkans suggests a word we don't associate with spy novels: lovely.

Nothing that is made up in Furst's novel is as unbelievable as the truth in Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat. This account of the Allied scheme of deception designed to mislead the Axis into thinking the Allies intended to attack Greece in 1943 rather than Sicily has already been chronicled in Ewan Montagu's 1953 The Man Who Never Was. But Montagu, the intelligence officer involved in the operation, could not reveal many details and so Macintyre, with access to Montagu's files, has stepped in.

It's an amicable amble through the planning that went into the scheme and the characters involved — among them, Ian Fleming. But it's more like a tour of British eccentricity. Macintyre loves the oddballs he found involved in this plan, but the cross-cutting style, while it makes for thumbnail portraits, doesn't build narrative momentum.

Yet Macintyre (who has written on WWII espionage before; his previous book was Agent Zigzag), like Furst, by focusing on WWII, is still refuting the very notion of an end to history. They're telling us that the stories of that period aren't close to exhausted, that there's still so much to know about a subject we like to fool ourselves into thinking we know cold.

There aren't any moral dilemmas or historical conundrums to be explored in Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. But they aren't dum-dum action outings, either. The books represent a welcome new strain: progressive vigilantism.

If vigilante fantasies are grounded in right-wing thinking, then the automatic liberal aversion to vigilante fantasies are grounded in another kind of fantasy: the notion that Rousseauist reason can always carry the day. Child used to work in advertising, and it would be hard to imagine he ever devised anything as canny as Reacher. His background — ex–military investigator with brains that can deduce any mystery and brawn that can reduce any opponent — has its he-man appeal. Reacher's style — a drifter who has no interest in possessions or in settling down, whose opponents have, over the course of 14 books, been the rich, powerful, and corrupt, or those who do their bidding — is nonconformism with, in its choice of enemy, a decided lefty bent.

In 61 Hours — the title referring to the hackneyed, but no less effective, ticking-clock scenario Child employs — Reacher is stranded in a South Dakota town during a blizzard, where meth dealers are coming for an elderly witness to their crimes whose testimony can sink them. The rapport between Reacher and this elderly woman, particularly Child's willingness to let her call him on some of his tough-guy bull, suggests a hero who his creator is not willing to allow to remain static. There are the usual elements, too — Reacher must deal with local badasses and government bureaucracy for Reacher to deal with. But there is also a sense of constriction here, a tightening of options and time and, in the ambiguous finale, physical space that makes the pages turn fast enough to risk paper cuts.

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