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.