Night School by Lee Child
I find it difficult to know which approach to adopt when reviewing this novel. I like the Jack Reacher series. I like it a lot. I enjoy Reacher’s style. I appreciate his no nonsense avoidance of the squelchy morality that we so often find in other stories and movies.
You know what I mean. The good guy catches the horrific child-killing monster yet has reservations about ending him because there has to be some apple pie morality tale. Bullshit. Child-killer? If you get an opportunity and won’t get arrested, then kill the fucker. Make the world a better place. Like Jack Reacher does.
By this time, I have read a considerable number of Reacher tales and each has impressed me. Child can write. He pens elaborate and engaging plots with solid characters. He is consistent in his character representation and fair in his commentary. At least he was, until Night School.
The plot is good. The characters in this novel are, again, mostly consistent and Reacher, for the most part, is his normal self, a cross between Sherlock Holmes and the Rock. However, I felt uncomfortable with some of the author’s portrayals of Germans and Germany in this book.
Lee Child, real name James D. ‘Jim’ Grant, is English. Although he now lives in the US, it is fair to suggest that he will have brought any prejudices and dislikes he may have with him. As an Irishman who grew up under the yoke of British colonial rule in the OSC (Occupied Six Counties), I have observed the blatant disapproval and even bigotry that exists, with respect to both Germany and France, emanating from some sections of English society.
This bigotry becomes more clearly apparent during international football (soccer) games. It is fair to say that there is no love lost between the nations. Germany are a particular target for ardent English nationalists, due to the actions of the Nazi regime as well as the fact that Germany have a much better and more successful football team. Whilst German efficiency is begrudgingly admired, it is also often resented. Germany is too successful for Middle England. Hence Brexit.
OK, we all have our dislikes, and many of us (myself included) will harbour resentment over one thing or another. Yet when such unfair attitudes seep (apparently) into the storyline of an excellent thriller series, I find it distasteful.
Night School is a prequel set in 1996, before Reacher’s exit from the US military. Reacher has just returned from an officially sanctioned assassination (x2) in the Balkans, when he is assigned to a major inquiry in Hamburg, Germany. US agencies have been conducting surveillance on a terrorist cell consisting of three Arabs (well they would have to be, wouldn’t they), and an Iranian. The Iranian is a US agent and has provided his handlers with a tantalizing and worrying snippet of an overheard conversation. It is this snatch of chat that has alarmed the White House sufficiently to gather a specialist team, Reacher included, to deal with the impending crisis.
What follows is typical Reacher fare. Guns, fights, sexy women, fights, Holmsian theorizing and fights. It would all be great if not for what I perceive to be a strong anti-German bias in the entire portrayal of that nation and its populace.
Here’s an example. A female jihadi is to meet a US villain and he has chosen a seedy sex club for the appointment. The sign over the door features a painting of a woman performing oral sex on an German Shepherd. Inside, it gets even better. Child gives us this, ‘A naked woman was bent double having sex with a donkey. The donkey was in a kind of hammock, to take its weight off the woman’s back… The room was crowded with men, all of them rearing up, and craning their necks. They were shouting and grunting in time with the donkey’s bewildered thrusts.’
So how does that image fit with your perception of German men? Bestiality is illegal today in Germany. I decided to check on this disgusting practice and was shocked at the results. It would appear that bestiality was once legal in both Germany and Denmark, where there were indeed ‘animal brothels’. There are some sick fuckers on this planet. I should thank Child for bringing this to my attention.
Yet, although Night School is set in 1996, when bestiality was still legal in Germany, I question why he chose to include such a perverse practice in a novel where he has also hammered the Germans in other ways. It appears to me that Child took a tiny facet of German society and presented it as a somehow normal practice that is regarded in a nonchalant fashion by the populace as a whole. It’s a clever tactic for castigating a nation.
My wary research into bestiality revealed that it is still legal in certain European nations today. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Russia, Finland and Iceland all still permit psychologically fucked-up humans to have sex with animals.
The practice is also legal in other nations across the world including the Philippines, Japan, Argentina and Guantanamo Bay where only civilians may shag a horse if they feel so inclined. Military personnel must restrict their sexual proclivities to other people. Reacher would be unable to hump a goat in Guantanamo but would presumably be entitled to force an Islamic prisoner to perform oral sex upon a mule.
If Reacher was really desperate to screw a poodle, however, he could always go to Washington D.C. where such a practice is still legal. It is also legal in Texas (no shit! I hear you shout), Vermont, West Virginia and Kentucky to name some of the US states where bestiality is still deemed acceptable. I expect that is why Melania Trump has not yet been arrested for copulating with an ass…
Below is a map of the US with info on the legal position regarding bestiality.
Green – Zoophilia is legal
Tangerine – Zoophilia is a felony
and a misdemeanor
Red – Zoophilia is a felony
I include this so that you might understand how Child has specifically chosen Germany as his target, yet Germany has banned the practice. The US Federal government has not. Lee Child lives in the US. We can await a similar portrayal of US society, or perhaps not…
In another incident in Night School, Reacher has an altercation with the barman in a neo-Nazi pub (again with all things negative relating to Germany). Reacher finishes the conversation by asking the barman this question, ‘How does it feel to lose a war?’
Such petulance is not in keeping with the character of the Jack Reacher that I have come to know and appreciate. In my opinion, that question came straight from the mouth of Lee Child. I also wonder if Child has ever heard of Vietnam. If so, then I struggle to understand why Child’s central character, a US serviceman, would pose such an unfortunate question. The author has done a great disservice to his series hero by seemingly using him to vicariously attack Germany.
I began to wonder why Child would possibly feel this way. Research uncovered an admission by Child that the author who influenced him the most was Alister MacLean, he of Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare fame. Guess who the villains were in those novels? MacLean was a Scot who, as a British soldier, fought against the Nazi scourge. His novels reflect his experiences. But what is Lee Child’s reasoning?
Germany is a different place today from when Hitler trod the streets. The German people of today bear no guilt for the heinous behaviour of some of their forebears. Yet too many seek to punish them still. Such a policy is both unfair and counter-productive. As an Englishman, Child should be well aware of the horrors perpetrated by successive British governments upon Ireland. Yet I, and other Irish people, do not hate England. We do not blame Lee Child for the deliberate starvation and death of 1 million of our people as the colonial ships took Irish food from our land to squander upon the overladen tables of the English Establishment.
In Ireland, we will not forget An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), but we will not try to punish those in England today who are innocent of past crimes. Perhaps it’s time that Germany and its people got a break from the continuing attacks and attempts to demean them. England has neo-Nazis too, as does the US. But does that represent the entire body politic of each nation?
Night School has neo-Nazis out the wazoo. It has pseudo-Islamic terrorists. It does not have a detailed portrait of even one German who appears as morally correct. Given that almost the entire story is set in Germany, that is quite a feat. Note: the British government organised, armed and colluded with Unionists paramilitaries (terrorists) in the OSC, yet in the literature of today all terrorists seem to be pseudo-Islamic. It feels at times like a feeding frenzy.
Jack Reacher is a tough guy. He regularly takes on, and beats, 2 or 3 or even 4 opponents. Although such success is bordering on implausible, it is still in the realms of a very slim, emaciated possibility. In Night School, Child has decided to rip the ass out of these scenarios entirely.
In one scene, we have Reacher entering a dead-end alleyway, expecting to encounter an unknown number of neo-Nazis. He does not know if they have weapons such as knives, Tasers or guns. Yet he continues, prepared to take on whoever and whatever awaits, even though it’s wholly unnecessary. Bullshit. Only a complete idiot would engage in such behaviour. Street thugs know how to rumble. They carry knives and many carry guns. Neo-Nazis are nasty and ofttimes dangerous. As a military man, Reacher would not have behaved in the way portrayed. Again we see how the author has allowed his own agenda to inappropriately influence his fictional creation.
As it happens, there are eight thugs but only two are armed, one with a broken bottle and one with a baseball bat. Bullshit. They were waiting for Reacher and so all of them would have been armed in reality (fiction like this should at least try to approximate real life).
Reacher proceeds to beat the shit out of seven of them, seven I tell you, before his female colleague, Neagley, takes out the eighth. Neagley then states to Reacher, ‘You should have picked up the bottle. Better than the bat.’ If Lee Child thinks that a broken bottle is a better weapon than a baseball, then he has obviously never witnessed a street fight let alone been in one.
Jack Reacher, a 6ft 5in MP, has now been portrayed on-screen by Tom Cruise, who is believed to have grown up and went to school on the Shire. He is rumoured to have played leap-frog with Frodo, having difficulty in getting over the large-footed nemesis of Smegle. Perhaps it is this stretching of the bounds of credibility that has led the author to go well over the top in the aforementioned fight scene. Or perhaps it is what I perceive to be Child’s aversion to Germany that accounts for his ill-conceived scenes involving Germans.
It’s a shame, as the story would have been great without the one-dimensional portraits of both pseudo-Muslims and Germans. The author managed to spoil a good read for me. So uncomfortable am I with Child’s stereo-typical depictions in Night School (published 2016), that I am considering a boycott of his future novels. I suspect, though, that I will relent, if only to see if he continues with his thinly veiled diatribes against entire national and religious groups. I find it interesting when I get such an insight into the attitudes and motivations of an author.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, but only so that others might see what I did. I suppose it is natural that authors are going to be affected in their writing by current affairs and personal prejudice. It is not advisable, however, that such emotions be allowed to muddy or corrupt the characters and plot-lines in their previously well-planned stories.
Lee Child sorely disappointed me with this book. I believe I might send him a letter asking for reparations for all the wrongdoing that his national Establishment was responsible for with respect to my country and people. Oops! Did I just type that out loud? Dear oh dear, I fear that I may have been overcome by a bad case of Childish conduct.
Sult scale rating: 3.5 out of 10. It let the wind out of Reacher’s tyres.