Bantam, £18.99, 432pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Affair, By Lee Child

The world is now divided into three clear and distinct groups: (a) those who are – like me – fans of Lee Child; (b) those who have not yet read Lee Child and have therefore not yet fallen in love with his hulking, kindly, killer hero Jack Reacher; (c) the pompous snobs who, although mentally and physically dwarfed by Lee Child, claim some kind of pseudo-aesthetic superiority over him on the grounds that he is a "genre" writer. I feel I ought to write three short reviews for these different constituencies.

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(1) For friends and fans: the good news is that The Affair is Child on top of his game. It could well be his best book yet. It you were rocked by the news that Tom Cruise (relatively lightweight) is going to play the part of (heavyweight) Reacher in the movie adaptation of One Shot, then this new novel will reassure you that Reacher remains entirely undiminished. After two abstemious outings (61 Hours and Worth Dying For), Jack makes up for lost time with his most explicit sex scenes yet, involving not just the lovely Elizabeth Deveraux (sheriff of Carter Crossing) but a midnight train thundering towards either oblivion or ecstasy.

(2) New readers: Child has already written 15 utterly beguiling novels in the Jack Reacher series. But this could be the perfect one to start with. The Affair is a first-person narrative so that you get to know the thoughts and feelings of our hero.

This is a genesis story, harking back to the moment at which he really becomes Reacher, giving up his career as a military cop and turning into a fair but firm (extremely firm) vigilante and drifter. In this adventure, he starts off by going into training for his future life, going undercover, growing his hair long, stopping shaving, and adopting his minimalist way with luggage, packing only a toothbrush.

(3) The enemies of Reacher: certain blinkered readers (especially critics) suppose that simply because a writer conjures up several murders and a certain amount of mayhem (in one scene Reacher neatly decks six ill-disposed locals), and tends towards a compact declarative style, then he automatically drops off the literary radar. But consider this: The Affair has – despite all the manifest machismo – a distinctly Proustian feel. Reacher is recollecting and re-interpreting a lost period in his life, which turns out to be the key to understanding his mentality. Although punctuated by bursts of explosive intensity, this novel has a long, contemplative arc, weaving backwards to 1997 and then forwards again to an indeterminate point that may be now. The paradox of Reacher is that he is both a great big grizzly bear of a fighter, who is liable to knock your head off you if you look sideways at him, and a thinker, both Schwarzanegger and Socrates. Make love and war is his credo.

Andy Martin teaches French at Cambridge University; his next book will be 'The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus' (Simon & Schuster)

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