Olen Steinhauer‘s latest novel, The Tourist (St. Martin’s Minotaur), isn’t due to hit the shelves until March 3, 2009, but since the publishing world loves to taunt me with Advance Reading Copies 6 or 7 months out from the pub date, I have no choice but to read & review. What else can I do?
Steinhauer is best known – although, not very well known at all yet – for his series of detective novels set in an unnamed Eastern bloc nation, spanning the decades from the 40’s to the 80’s. The Bridge of Sighs, The Confession, and last year’s Victory Square mark the highlights of the 5-part series that has put Steinhauer on the crime noir map, earning him 2 Edgar Award nominations and substantial critical acclaim, not to mention my undying loyalty as a fan. In March, his first novel set outside of his series hits the shops – The Tourist is a taught, well-paced modern spy novel that threatens to finally launch Olen onto the bestseller lists and into the hands of le Carre readers everywhere.
I think that the only reason I picked this book up in the first place was because of Olen Steinhauer’s name on the cover – his previous novels are some of my favorite books to put in the hands of mystery readers looking for an author they have never read, but this one is somewhat outside his usual vein. The Confession is among the best crime novels I’ve read in the last decade, but more for its depth of character and its departure from traditional crime novel pacing than for a crime-solving plot. For similar reasons, The Tourist breaks from the traditional spy novel genre and offers a compelling look at the spy trade of the new, post-9/11 world.
What happens to spies and assassins when the CIA begins to make budgetary cuts? Is there really a place in this new global society for James Bond-types? There is an unusual degree of what feels like actual reality in Steinhauer’s spy-world – a breath of fresh air for the genre. Too many spy novels are simply that: novels with spies as protagonists. They attempt to impress you by navigating through a complex plot involving murdering a high level government official and rescuing so-and-so, yadda yadda yadda. Fine for reading when you’re trapped on the subway and all you can find to read is the wall or a discarded Clancy novel, but not much for furthering your literary intelligence. Steinhauer offers something more – situations that are entirely feasible in the world that we all actually inhabit. What would happen if Congress realized that it was stretching its military budget too thin and noticed that the CIA was keeping deep cover operatives on retainer all over the civilized world?
Milo Weaver is a former “tourist” – one of those anonymous deep cover operatives – who has left the world of international espionage behind for a wife, a family, and a desk job. When sent out into the field one last time – always a harbinger of doom – he is forced to analyze where his loyalties lie, who his true friends are, and whether his enemies truly are just that. Sounds like standard spy-fare, to be sure, but it is the sheer modernity of this tale and Steinhauer’s crisp writing that brings it home. In light of the past 8 years of the Bush administration, it somehow doesn’t seem that far-fetched to think that there is a mid-level puppetmaster somewhere in the layers of government, working toward their own skewed agenda.
This is by no means Steinhauer’s finest work – Milo is a bit stilted as a leading man and some of the finer plot points seem to be a bit of a stretch at times. (The man atop the international terrorist watch list is, of course, a former CIA operative gone horribly rogue. And the old “Trusted friend turns traitor, other trusted friend manipulates protagonist, who realizes his mistake and clears first friend’s name while he turns on the other friend” storyline. Didn’t see that one coming.) Are these issues and cliches simply genre issues? Maybe so – perhaps these are unavoidable, even in a well-crafted book such as this, simply because that’s the name of the game if you plan on writing a spy novel. But overall, this all works as a fine, modern espionage novel with enough literary machinations to keep even the most jaded reader entertained.
And if the book sales lag, there’s always George Clooney to pick up the slack – he has already aquired the film rights to The Tourist.