What do you expect out of your thrillers?

I expressed some opinions about this on Twitter, but thought I would make it a full blown post of its own.

Marilyn Stasio reviews Olen Steinhauer’s [amazon-product region=”us” text=”The Tourist” type=”text”]0312369727[/amazon-product] in the NYTBR.  She seems to struggle with it because it lacks the sort of straightforward plot you would expect of a international thriller.  After praising the central character Milo Weaver she drops in her frustrations:

The only drawback to this warm close-up of the protagonist is that it skews the novel, rendering it more of a character study than a full-bodied espionage novel. There’s plenty of plot, but it’s messy rather than complex; and while the cast is thickly populated with career spooks from France, Russia, China, Sudan and components of the former Yugoslavia, few of them develop into worthy adversaries, and their agendas are so murky that we’re not particularly anxious to get back to them.

I think this is true to a certain degree but besides the point.  I don’t think Steinhauer was attempting to write am espionage novel in the traditional sense.  I have been arguing instead is that he is attempting to use elements of the thriller and espionage genre and yet write more literary novels.

The Tourist is not a novel where the good guy battles one clear bad guy and the plot is a straight line with some detours and plot twists to keep you guessing.  Instead the plot structure reflects the underlying ideas being explored.

As I pointed out in my review, Stasio’s fellow NYT reviewer Janet Maslin noted why the book has a particularly structure and style:

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.”

The lazy writer of espionage plots need only concoct a world-weary agent and then send him through a string of perilous escapades. Mr. Steinhauer does something much more interesting. Rather than merely describe Milo Weaver’s dizzying exploits, he replicates them; he immerses his reader in the same kind of uncertainty that Milo faces at every turn.

Stasio certainly understands the novel is about trust and about how we get to the truth, because she devotes a couple of paragraphs to the subject, I am not sure how to take the last half of her last sentence:

[W]hile Steinhauer makes Milo a mensch for his times, there’s something deeply troubling when the most exciting scenes in an international thriller are set in the Magic Kingdom.

I think that phrase is true and I think Steinhauer meant it to be.  I put it this way:

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.

One part of the plot simply plays out how a person for whom most of their life has involved deception lacks the ability to develop trust; if you are focused on keeping secrets how can you build trust?

The second level asks this question on a larger level.  Does the practice of espionage inculcate this same lack of trust and inherently involve self-deception?  And does the desire for empire cause us to rationalize away the moral challenges involved?

A straightforward international thriller style plot would not be able to present these issues and questions in the same way as The Tourist does.  And the extended character study of Milo Weaver is what gives the book its more literary style in my opinion.

But I don’t think this means less excitement.  The scene of Weaver and Grainger in the country house, for example, is loaded with tension and excitement.  But I suppose if you are looking for the book version of a long car chase, perhaps the Tourist lacks such excitement.

As I noted in my review, there are tradoffs involved.  If you want fast paced action you sacrifice a certain literary quality.  If you want a focus on language and style action is often left behind.  I appreciate those who attempt to blend something of the two elements.

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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