The accidental hero – is John Milton arrogant and incompetent?

One of the most common criticisms of The Cleaner that I see in reviews is that Milton is, basically, incompetent.


The suggestion is that an operative with his particular set of skills (hat tip to Liam Neeson) would not make the elementary errors that Milton makes. His tradecraft is sometimes lacking and he leaves the people that he comes into contact with in a worse position than when he found them.


Those criticisms are probably justified.


With the usual warning that spoilers lie ahead, Elijah finds himself in a very sticky situation as the book comes to a close. His mother is left badly scarred after Callan sets fire to her flat. Pinky looks set to be sucked into the darkness that scars the estate. And worse than the fate handed to them is that of poor Rutherford who is killed in the confrontation between Callan and Milton. Pops is dead, too.


This reader criticism usually extends to the ending. It’s not tied up in a neat bow. Milton leaves these characters in dire straits and then flees the country.


I’m comfortable with these issues, and I wouldn’t change them if I was writing the book again. Milton is in a poor state when we meet him. He’s barely functioning, clinging on to his sobriety by his fingertips and almost certainly suffering from PTSD. He’s not Jack Reacher. He’s not James Bond. I’ve always been determined to present him as a flawed and fallible man, and I think it is entirely realistic that he would unwittingly cause more trouble by getting involved. More interesting is whether he is arrogant in deciding that he’s the person to sort out the problems of a family that he has only known for five minutes. He’s a killer, after all, and not a social worker.


The knowledge that he has done more harm than good is something that he carries with him as the story draws to a close. And, as we pick up with him again in Mexico in Saint Death, he tries harder to make things cleaner as he dispenses justice to the bad guys. This is a trend that continues throughout the series, and, by the time we get to Redeemer, he’s become pretty good at it.


I’m interested to hear what you think. Is Milton arrogant? Do you think he should have turned away from Elijah and his mother? Or is his fallibility part of the reason why he seems to have struck a chord with so many readers? Over to you.

8 Responses to “The accidental hero – is John Milton arrogant and incompetent?”

  1. Stephanie Swanzy

    I think that John is trying to make amends for the guilt he carries. This a new territory for him. As with anything new, there will be, for lack of better terms, growing pains. He is only human and some things are out of his control. He will learn, adapt, and adjust. He didn’t start in The Group as Number One.

  2. Busia09

    I feel that the human condition is very recognizable to most people. If you want a perfect outcome Marvel comics are for you. If you want characters who require heavy thought and discussion, have messy outcomes and appauling doubts, read literature; it reflects the human condition.

    Just as John Milton has what I like to call a “stark empathy” for those he feels evil has visited, can we not feel empathy for the flawed man who uses violence to stand judgement for victims, attempting to counter-balance wrong? Its rather yin and yang if you think about it….

  3. Jullie Chung

    Your explanation here helps clear up a lot and makes total sense. I was left feeling a bit “uncomfortable” at the end knowing Milton had “botched” things a bit despite his good intentions, but the fact that this is our first encounter with Milton, and the first “job” he’s taken on after going rogue, the less-than-tidy ending makes complete sense. He does not have the resources he had while in The Group to cover all his bases, get him supplies and contacts needed to be in and out cleanly. He has so much less control over the human variable outside of The Group, and that variable in these characters throws a mirror up to Milton, forcing him to see his own “humanness” outside of The Group and outside of the bottle. I actually like the authenticity of the non-Hollywood ending. We’re left feeling unsettled just like Milton. I like to think that’s the point. Not having known any of this the first time I read it, I still took to Milton, probably on account of his flaws as opposed to James Bond perfection. I was propelled into Saint Death immediately looking to see if he would “get it right” on the next go around.

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