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The Last Tourist by Olen Steinhauer

When this month started I wasn’t real bullish on the continued existence of this blog. But then the planet was hit with a pandemic, my kids schools were closed and I am working from home. I started musing on the fact that a lot of people might suddenly have more time on their hands and want to know about good books to read.  In a making lemonade sort of way I thought maybe I could provide a service with something I’m calling #StayAtHomeAndRead.  Unfortunately, as I was contemplating restarting this moribund blog my basement flooded which grabbed my attention for a few days.

But as luck would have it, what was schedule to be released today but a new book by one of my favorite authors. So I decided to start the series with The Last Tourist by friend of the blog Olen Steinhauer.

Publishers teaser:

In Olen Steinhauer’s bestseller An American Spy, reluctant CIA agent Milo Weaver thought he had finally put “Tourists”—CIA-trained assassins—to bed.

A decade later, Milo is hiding out in Western Sahara when a young CIA analyst arrives to question him about a series of suspicious deaths and terrorist chatter linked to him.

Their conversation is soon interrupted by a new breed of Tourists intent on killing them both, forcing them to run.

As he tells his story, Milo is joined by colleagues and enemies from his long history in the world of intelligence, and the young analyst wonders what to believe. He wonders, too, if he’ll survive this encounter.

Perhaps I should get the disclosures out of the way.  I’ve been a fan of Olen Steinhauer since I stumbled upon Bridge of Sighs in 2005.  I have interviewed him a couple of times, and have even started watching the TV show he created and produces, Berlin Station (by purchasing it on Amazon because I didn’t have Epix, I might add).  Unlike with The Middleman, from which the above disclosure is taken, this time I didn’t forget to post a review on pub day. So I got that goin for me.

My take?

Short version: Classic Steinhauer! Intelligent espionage fiction with twist and turns and a global conspiracy. Old characters and new. Makes me want to go back and re-read the whole series with Milo Weaver. And delete a bunch of apps off my phone…

The Middleman by Olen Steinhauer

Perhaps I should get the disclosures out of the way.  I’ve been a fan of Olen Steinhauer since I stumbled upon Bridge of Sighs in 2005.  I have interviewed him a couple of times, and have even started watching the TV show he created and produces, Berlin Station (by purchasing it on Amazon because I didn’t have Epix, I might add).

So I was excited when I found out he had a novel, The Middleman, coming out this summer.  I didn’t want to read it too far from pub day because then you either have to write your review and hold it until the publication day is closer or you write the review some, potentially significant, time after you read it and it feels disconnected.  So I held off until closer to the announced pub date and took it on vacation with me so I could have large chunks of time to read it.  Good decision in that I really enjoyed it.  But, I forgot how bad I am at managing my time and so here it is past the publication date and I haven’t posted a review.

Caveats, disclosures and confessions aside, I enjoyed The Middleman and found myself furtively reading it trying to find out what happens in the end.  I read it late into the night and got up and went out onto the waterside deck and finished it.  (And who should appear at the end but Milo Weaver!  Now I want to go back and re-read that series.)

I’m not going offer a formal review (you’re shocked I know) but let me tell you what I liked and deal with some criticisms I have come across. (For the basic plot or teaser, see the Amazon widget below the post)

I really enjoyed how Steinhauer approaches the issues from a variety of perspectives.  You have leaders within the Massive Brigade, you have “everyday people” who join up with the group and its leaders, you have FBI secret agents working inside the group and you have the FBI agent working to stop them.

The book takes you through a political and cultural moment when revolution seems in the air; when tensions are high and violence seems imminent.  It offers you a chance to imagine what a historical moment like this might look and feel like from a variety of perspectives.

And of course, as even the novel’s detractors will admit, Steinhauer is a master with words and prose.  It may be in the thriller genre (more on that later) but it is with literary skill that Steinhauer writes.

Now, criticisms and problems.  The first issue is that the back cover of the review copy I received blares:

DEAR 2018,

YOU HAVE

YOUR

THRILLER

So what is a thriller?  Let’s be lazy and use WikiPedia:

Thrillers generally keep the audience on the “edge of their seats” as the plot builds towards a climax. The cover-up of important information is a common element. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is usually a villain-driven plot, whereby he or she presents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.

Now, you will recognize elements of this definition in The Middleman.  But it didn’t strike me as a “keep you on the edge of your seats” type story.  Suspense? Sure.  Cover-ups and plot twists?  Yes, but it doesn’t have the fast paced, race to the finish type style from start to finish.  Again, it has more of a literary approach, which I very much enjoyed, but some people noted/complained about that in places like Goodreads and Amazon.

What about the “proffesional” reviewers?  Here is Publishers Weekly:

Steinhauer has captured a very contemporary, very American angst—“people are going to have to pull a trigger, just to be heard”—but the book’s muddled second half will leave many readers frustrated because the polarities aren’t that clear. Rachel Proulx, an earnest FBI agent, is obviously one of the good guys, but the ostensible bad guys are less well-delineated—and the denouement is unsatisfying. Steinhauer fans will hope for a return to form next time.

This gets to the villian driven plot part noted above.  There really isn’t a villian per se.  As I said, Steinhauer attempts to offer a variety of perspectives and personalities caught up in the events.  It isn’t clear who exactly the bad guys are and who the good guys are; except perhaps the FBI leadership and one agent in particular.

I think it is safe to say that Steinhauer has a left-leaning bent (we know the election threw a monkey wrench in his plans for this novel and caused him to reconsider his approach) and he portrays the Massive Brigade, or at least elements of it, sympathetically.  He even seems understanding of the temptation to violence.  But in the end, violence leads not to solutions but the undermining of the very values the protestors claim to represent.

Kirkus touches on another element of this potential problem:

Steinhauer (All the Old Knives, 2015, etc.) is a veteran, a real pro; the issues raised in this well-paced thriller are serious and timely, and the characters are believable and likable. But the targets of the Brigade, corporate conspiracy and the protection of the rich from public scrutiny, never quite reach a viscerally threatening level, and the individuals who conspire to preserve the status quo seem merely bureaucratically venal.

A professional and entertaining thriller a little short on menace.

If the Massive Brigade isn’t the villain, the corporate oligarchs and the politicians who protect them are sort of villains off stage.  But as Kirkus notes, this makes them shadowy and vague rather menacing and sharp.

It feels like the classic Cold War espionage style: a place where there are few black and whites and instead mostly grays.  Rachel Proulx assumes she is on the side of the good guys until events force her to reassess her perspective.  An undercover agent inside the Massive Brigade, Kevin Moore, is also forced to consider not only how far he will go to infiltrate the group but whose side he is really on.

Scott Turow in a featured review in the New York Times gets at the pros and cons of this approach:

“The Middleman” is smart and entertaining and consistently intriguing, clipping along in brief chapters, somewhat reminiscent of the novels of James Patterson, and often animated by lovely, spare descriptive writing. (“They returned to I-80, and as they progressed, Kevin watched the unraveling of civilization. After Rocklin the landscape flattened, speckled with burned yellow grass and low trees. … Eventually, they got off of 80 … to where humans had given up trying to control the land at all.”) Yet because the premise of “The Middleman” is so audacious and because its point of view is fragmented, the novel doesn’t fully exhibit the propulsive force of some of Steinhauer’s spy fiction.

What makes up for that is the neat feat of asking serious political questions without burdening the suspense. In an era of rising income inequality, of unlimited corporate spending on campaign messaging that allows the richest forces in our society to gain unprecedented political power, of voters left and right rallying to outcries about a corrupt system and Washington as a swamp in search of a drain, why can no unity be forged between the viewers of Fox News and MSNBC, who instead prefer mutual vilification? Like the rest of us, Steinhauer is better at asking questions than providing answers.

That was my reaction as well.  Did everything come together perfectly?  No. I am still not sure I understand the ending with Milo Weaver.  Was it a hold on to your pants type of ride from the opening lines?  No, but I neither expected that or needed it to be entertained. I just enjoyed the way Steinhauer explored what Turow calls the audacious premise — a mass popular revolt against corporate power.  I don’t exactly share his politics but am a big fan of his writing.

If, like me, you prefer your thrillers with a literary touch,even if that means a little less pace and action, you will enjoy The Middleman.  Even if you disagree, I bet it will make you think about the world we live in and what might lie in the future.

 

All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer

So what could finally pull me out of my book reviewing/blogging doldrums? A new book by Olen Steinhauer of course.

All the Old Knives came out earlier this week and I finally got my hands on a copy and started reading immediately:

All the Old KnivesSix years ago in Vienna, terrorists took over a hundred hostages, and the rescue attempt went terribly wrong. The CIA’s Vienna station was witness to this tragedy, gathering intel from its sources during those tense hours, assimilating facts from the ground and from an agent on the inside. So when it all went wrong, the question had to be asked: Had their agent been compromised, and how?

Two of the CIA’s case officers in Vienna, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, were lovers at the time, and on the night of the hostage crisis Celia decided she’d had enough. She left the agency, married and had children, and is now living an ordinary life in the idyllic town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Henry is still a case officer in Vienna, and has traveled to California to see her one more time, to relive the past, maybe, or to put it behind him once and for all.

But neither of them can forget that long-ago question: Had their agent been compromised? If so, how? Each also wonders what role tonight’s dinner companion might have played in the way the tragedy unfolded six years ago.

The hook, in case the above doesn’t make it clear, is that almost the entire book takes place at a restaraunt with the two characters eating dinner (the book opens with Henry traveling to the rendezvous).  Flashbacks take us back in time to the fateful events in Vienna and other key moments.

The chapters alternate between Henry and Celia. And as the conversation deepens, and the backstory plays out, details are revealed and the tension rises. But each time you try to get a character, or the truth, pinned down, Steinhauer throws in a twist or wrinkle.

[What follows includes some discussion that might viewed as spoilery so read on with that in mind]

All the while he is painting a picture of both the mental state, and perspective, of Henry and Celia and the history that led them both to the table.  Henry who still lives in the high stakes and pressurized world of deception and complicated layers that is the CIA.  Celia escaped that world to live in what, on the surface, is its polar opposite (upper class family life on the Central California coast and the intense truth of motherhood).

Both characters morph and change as the story pushes toward its climax.  Initially, Henry seems the tired spy seeking to wrap up an ugly case so it doesn’t come back to haunt him later. The wrinkle being the involvement of his one-time lover; perhaps his one true love.  Celia at first appears only as a mystery; someone who has managed to truly escape the spy world and build a different life.

But as the conversation continues it becomes clear that Celia is more formidable, and deeper, than the reader or Henry might have expected.  And Henry seems weaker, less sure footed, and the challenge of his mission greater.

In fact, I was slightly annoyed by Henry’s odd, rather dark obsession with Celia and the way he describes it. But by the end I understood where it came from; it made sense given the history.

The book is less than 300 pages and it reads fast. The last 80 pages really crank up the tension and as the endgame comes into view, you are furtively reading trying to untangle the knots of lies and hidden truths.

I have to admit I felt a little foolish because I didn’t see a lot of the twists and turns coming.  As the puzzle pieces began to click into place in the final section, you think “Of course! it all makes sense” even though you didn’t see it until after the fact (or at least I didn’t).

The tables turn and suddenly everything looks different; what led to that moment and what will follow.  Up to that point much of the story was puzzles, riddles and the dance of questions and veiled answers.  The reader is sifting the history, evaluating the narrators, trying to makes sense of the motivations and the potential for self-deception.  But then as the climax approaches there is a brutal honesty; a cold bluntness belied by the nonchalantness of some of the actors involved.

And the ending comes swift and clean like the cut of a sharp knife. It leaves you with a wry smile and an appreciation for what Steinhauer has pulled off. Damn, you say to yourself (or at least I did).

Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Steinhauer’s work. I have enjoyed every single one of this novels. I have enjoyed each new style and perspective he has taken on (from the Cold War novels to The Tourist series and his latest book).

When I was enjoying the Cold War series it was about wanting a bigger audience for his writing but at the same time a quiet enjoyment from knowing a great writer that hadn’t yet achieved much fame.

When All the Old Knives was released I joked with Olen on Facebook that it was getting to the point where I would have to start claiming that I had been a fan when he was a true artist who had not yet sold out to commercial fiction (like music people did with REM in college).

Because he has reached the big time.  The reviewers have caught on to the skill and intellect he brings to his craft; how he blends the entertainment and enjoyment of spycraft and thrillers with literary depth and prose.

Four star reviews are the norm now and you don’t have to hunt through the bookstore to find his books anymore.  Olen Steinhauer is well on its way to being a recognized name; if it isn’t one already.

All the Old Knives is a great read. Taut, fast-paced, and full of suspense and intrigue. It has the quintessential Steinhauer exploration of the human psyche and the espionage world as a stage for asking questions about truth and deception; about the way lies warp and change our relationships and our own self-conception.

But it is different than both his Cold War historical novels and his Tourist series.  Which is another thing that makes Olen such a treat: his willingness to experiment and change as a writer.  Setting an espionage thriller almost entirely around a dinner table was a risk but Steinhauer pulled it off with wit and style.

I think this is a book that would be enjoyable to read again. The first time you can get caught up racing to the end to find out what happens and maybe miss clues and facets along the way.  On the second read you can slow down and savor the details and any pieces you might have missed along the way.

If for some ridiculous reason you haven’t read Steinhauer yet, grab All the Old Knives and get started. Then work your way through the back list. You won’t regret it.

A Conversation with Olen Steinhauer – Part Two

 

In the second part of our conversation Olen Steinhauer and I discuss the life of an expatriate and its impact on your perspective toward your own and other cultures, the future of publishing, and his plans for the future, among other things.

A Conversation with Olen Steinhauer – Part One

Oeln SteinhauerIf you know me or have read this blog for any length of time it is not a secret that I am a big fan of Olen Steinhauer. I have read all of his books and interviewed him a number of times.  He is one of those authors I would like to call “a friend of the blog.”

So what better way to break out of my recent funk but to fire up the podcast and have another conversation?  As luck would have it, Olen has a new book out, The Cairo Affair, which makes for the perfect topic of conversation.

Olen and I talked about The Cairo Affair, the risk of bringing current events into a novel, the magic of fiction, his approach to writing, plot and characters development, and more.  Part One is above and I will post Part Two tomorrow.

Enjoy.

UPDATE: Part Two now posted.

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