The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

Cover of "The Tourist"
Cover of The Tourist

I will be honest.  I am an Olen Steinhauer fan. Have been since I picked up his first book, The Bridge of Sighs, some time ago (and started reading his blog as well).  His crime series set in an unnamed Eastern European country during the Cold War was in my sweet spot as a former grad student with a focus on the Cold War: great writing, interesting characters, an espionage/crime thriller with the Iron Curtain as a backdrop, what’s not to like?

But Steinhauer has put that series to bed and has started a new direction or at least a new series with The Tourist.

Here is the plot as outlined by the publisher:

Milo Weaver used to be a “tourist” for the CIA – an undercover agent with no home, no identity – but he’s since retired from the field to become a middle-level manager at the CIA’s New York headquarters. He’s acquired a wife, a daughter, and a brownstone in Brooklyn, and he’s tried to leave his old life of secrets and lies behind. However, when the arrest of a long-sought-after assassin sets off an investigation into one of Milo’s oldest colleagues and exposes new layers of intrigue in his old cases, he has no choice but to go back undercover and find out who’s holding the strings once and for all.

This book carried risk and reward. New is exciting but what happens when the author leaves a much loved series behind and starts a new project? Sure, it is still what I like to call a literary thriller, but what if Steinhauer stumbled on his first stand alone?  Made me a little nervous, I will admit.

Another element of pressure, and an opportunity to stumble, was provided by the pre-publication publicity – which has been known to trip me up in the past.  The publicity  put Steinhauer in the pantheon of great spy thriller writers like Le Carre, Deighton, Graham Green, etc. Not an easy label to live up to.

Well, as I noted earlier, I am happy to report that Steinhauer didn’t stumble but merely brought his talents to a different task. I am in no position to label him the next Le Carre etc. but he certainly has tapped into the same vein and talents that kept me reading these type of authors.

The Tourist is a great and thought provoking read for anyone who enjoys the thriller aspects of the espionage genre but prefers better – and more philosophical – writing than your average airport pick up.

More below.

What makes Steinhauer different from so many writers of international thrillers is his ability to write a suspenseful espionage plot and yet still have elements of the more literary aspect of novels.  The writing is tight and even graceful at times.  The characters are not cardboard cutouts and Steinhauer delves into their psychological make up and personality for more than just plot plausibility.

Steinhauer also has that ability to create a wider lens; make you see the world through his – and his character’s – eyes.  This was obviously the case in his creation of the fictional Eastern European country in his previous series, but it is also the case here.  He creates this concept of the Tourist’s and builds a whole department around them.  As is always the case with thrillers, the details are not always completly plausible but the world of Milo Weaver feels all to real.

The style and structure of the story match the philosophical questions and themes that lay below the surface.  The reader both enjoys the story and is made uncomfortable by it.

The result is a depth and a richness that, as I said, is just not there in so many other examples of this genre.  Not to pick on Alex Berenseon, but he writes like a reporter not a writer; and there is a difference.

So what is The Tourist about?  Well, nothing less than the nature of truth and how we come to it.  OK, maybe that is an exageration, but it is certainly about lies and (self) deception.

Janet Maslin’s NYT review points out one of the ideas the novel turns on:

Mr. Steinhauer’s book also operates on the principle that this story’s secrets can be coaxed forth only indirectly “because it’s a known fact that no decent intelligence operative believes anything he’s told.

In exploring spy tradecraft and the role of intelligence in the modern world Steinhauer ponders what this means.  How do spies – and spy agencies – get caught up in their own paradigms and how can this lead to self-deception and treachery?

And that is one of the reasons Milo is such a great character.  In many ways he is the iconic world weary but almost supernatural spy.  He kills before he is killed and always seems one step ahead of his enemies.  Milo is a excellent Tourist; one of the best.

But despite his heroic acts he is contemplating suicide.  He manages to survive and find love, but treachery pulls him in again (or is it his inability to let things go or say no?) and just when he thinks he is using all of these skills to get the truth he finds he isn’t quite so clever. His friend Angela was a better spy and his actions lead – at least indirectly – to her death.  His boss and mentor Grainger also dies because Milo thinks he understands when he clearly doesn’t; when he acts on instinct with out evidence.  Weaver only survives when he hands over control to someone else; when he puts his faith in something other than his own knowledge and actions.  And this leads not to happily ever after but being a Tourist again in some fashion.

Trust is inexplicably mixed up in our search for truth.  In the absence of clear facts we need trust and authority to help us makes sense of the world.  But what happens when you can’t trust anyone?  When trust and loyalty are seen as luxuries you can’t afford; as something that can get you killed.

This is where Milo finds himself in his work and in his personal life.  Milo’s marriage begins to unravel because the life he has led is based on deception and this eats away at the trust in all his relationships.

I think Steinhauer is also saying something about the power of storytelling.  The ability to weave a convincing story is a powerful thing, but it is also the power to deceive.  What we might think of as reasoning can easily be rationalizing.  But no matter if used for evil or for good – or somewhere in between – storytelling is central to our lives.

Lastly, Steinhauer seems to be saying something about empire.  The Tourist is a cynical and stoic work.  (In fact, Milo seems to me like the quintessential stoic in the mold of Marcus Aurelius. He comes to see balance as the key to mental health, etc.)  The book depicts a world where greed and the need for power result in violence and manipulation on a grand scale and this has a corrosive effect on the people touched by it.

Steinhauer seems to hint that the desire to form an empire, or defend one, both causes American to act in the same way and in ways counter to her founding ideals.  In essence, we are Milo the husband and father and his Tourism is the part we hope doesn’t exists or don’t want to know about.  Or perhaps I am reading too much into things on this one.

Well, enough of my musings.  I hope the above makes clear why I am a fan of Steinhauer’s work and encourages you to pick up The Tourist.  It is a perfect example of why the blending of genre elements with a more literary style can be so rewarding.  You get the entertainment value of a thriller without sacrificing the writing quality or the wrestling with ideas.  There are always trade-offs in any attempt to blend genres and styles, but Steinhauer pulls it off more often than not in my opinion.

Here’s hoping readers of The Tourist will finally bring him the wider audience he deserves.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


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