The Cleaner by Mark Dawson is the second book in the John Milton series with 1000 yards being the first. For you first timers like me, John Milton is essentially the equivalent of James Bond without the fancy gadgets or over the top villains.
Well, that’s what the premise and jacket cover says. In reality, The Cleaner is about a retired agent who gets involved with the lives of people living in London’s ghetto. I got this book as a freebie for signing up for the author’s newsletter and I have to say that I was neither impressed nor disappointed. The book was at best, average.
The prose was passable, the action was ok, the characters were serviceable, and the plot was there. I have to admit that when I started reading this book, the beginning chapters were a real drag for me. How John Milton takes out his assigned target felt unimaginative and tactically, not that wise. Yes, let’s stand in the middle of the street and shoot at a car. As someone who has played the Hitman video game series, this introduction was boring.
You know what else was boring? The exposition with the generically named “Control.” Ah yes, let me look at Milton’s file and inform the reader of John Milton’s past and service record. Simply dreadful. However, I continued reading because #1. The author provides great tips for writers and #2. It was free and the prose wasn’t terrible.
Mercifully this book gets much better once John Milton begins interacting with wannabe gangster teen Elijah. Mark Dawson does a wonderful job of creating believable characters who live in the London slums. I empathized with the kids growing up on the wrong side of the tracks and was fascinated by Dawson’s take on criminal society.
One of my favorite scenes in this book is when John Milton takes Elijah out to eat at a fast food restaurant. Elijah’s waving around a chicken drumstick while talking to Milton with his mouth full. It’s a touching scene between two human beings. They don’t talk about anything particularly important, but there is this subdued sense of camaraderie over fried chicken. These characters started to feel real and I couldn’t help but root for some of the gangsters to leave their criminal life behind.
But wait! What does this have to do with John Milton? Absolutely nothing.
My biggest gripe with John Milton is that he felt like a poor man’s James Bond. Everything he did felt quite inept and I didn’t understand how this doddering old fool became a top agent. None of John Milton’s actions qualified him as a top assassin in my book. He made too many mistakes and often made bone headed decisions that got other people hurt.
Granted, you need conflict in the book and the protagonist shouldn’t be unstoppable. But if the introduction and first chapter hype up this character to be the best of the best, then he needs to damn well act like it.
Everything about the character John Milton is vanilla and generic. He has no distinguishing physical traits and doesn’t have enough personality to warrant being the star of the show. It was the supporting cast that proved to be more interesting than not-really-James-Bond-but-kind-of-sort-of John Milton.
When Mark Dawson describes interactions with other characters, the prose stands out and is vivid and enjoyable to read. When he starts to describe action and violence, the prose takes a nose-dive into the mediocre. Ironic, considering that the blurb implied that this was an action packed book, it’s not. There’s action in the beginning and the end. Everything else is character and relationship focused.
The most atrocious parts of the book were scenes that featured his former employer. I could not care less about Control or Milton’s rival agent. They were boring and pointless and didn’t really add anything to the story as a whole.
Still, because The Cleaner featured such strong and interesting characters despite not being at all what it advertised. I have to give it a three out of five stars. When the book was great it was awesome and when it was bad it was terrible.
Can I recommend reading this novel? Hmm… undecided. This type of book appeals to a very specific audience and I am barely across the border. If you like guns and are curious about how those in poverty live, the book will deliver on that. However, if you’re expecting action scenes, clever bits of assassination, a tale of redemption, then you will be sadly disappointed.