- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009


By Olen Steinhauer

St. Martin’s/Minotaur, $24.95, 408 pages

Reviewed by John Weisman

An old spy reactivated to find a highly placed traitor. A reluctant hero forced on the run, accused of a murder he didn’t commit. The Machiavellian head of a secret arm of government betrayed by someone he trusts. The genesis of new perfidy hidden in an old and forgotten case file. A labyrinthine plot that gives the reader maddeningly few clues as to its denouement. These are the staples of great spy fiction. If they are done well, you end up reading about George Smiley, Paul Christopher, Jason Bourne or Ronald Malcolm. If they are not, you end up with Mitch Rapp or Charley Castillo.

Blessedly, Olen Steinhauer’s ambitious, complex and nuanced post-Cold War novel “The Tourist” falls into the first category. Like John le Carre, Charles McCarry and James Grady, Mr. Steinhauer drops his protagonist, Milo Weaver, into an alternative universe that exists inside a real-world milieu. Operating under the alias Charles Alexander, Weaver is one of the CIA’s “Tourists” - a combination assassin/case officer/problem solver.

These Tourists are run out of the Department of Tourism, headed by a “gray man named Tom Grainger” and occupying “four secret floors of offices on [New York City’s] Avenue of the Americas, stocked with Travel Agents who focused on the running of … Tourists based on all the populated continents.”

But Tourism is threatened. A Senate inquiry discovers the CIA has funded a militant Chinese democracy group by selling, “in Frankfurt, eighteen million Euros worth of Afghan heroin, which had been clandestinely harvested by Taliban prisoners under U.S. Army guard.”

In short order, the CIA director is fired and replaced by a “vociferous Texan named Quentin Ascot. In front of the Senate, on elevated heels, he made his position clear. No more black money. No more operations that hadn’t been approved by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. No more cowboy antics at Langley. ‘No more rogue departments. It’s a new world. We serve at the pleasure of the American people, who pay our bills. We should be an open book.’ ”

But of course, espionage cannot be an open book. It is an amoral craft that targets weakness and vulnerabilities; deals with society’s nasty underbelly; sacrifices both its heroes and its villains; and, on occasion, is all too willing to devour its young.

And then there’s focus. During the Cold War, there was one main enemy - the Soviet Union. Who is today’s “other side”? As Mr. Steinhauer understands, “the other side was multifaceted: Russian mafias, Chinese industrialization, loose nukes, and even vocal Muslims camped in Afghanistan who were trying to pry Washington’s fingers off the oil-soaked Middle East. As Grainger would put it, anyone who could not be embraced by the empire was anathema and had to be dealt with, like barbarians at the gates. That was when Charles Alexander’s phone would ring.”

Soon after we meet Milo Weaver/Charles Alexander, we realize his phone has rung way too many times. Our Tourist suffers “irregular biorhythms that would one day make him suicidal, and the next lead him to feelings of invincibility.”

That is why Weaver left Tourism shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. He married, moved to the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, and took a desk job on the Avenue of the Americas. For six years, his life is largely uneventful. And then, one of the world’s most-wanted assassins sends him a message. Weaver is forced, reluctantly, to go back into the field.

It is not an easy re-entry. “He awoke … with a hangover, his lungs suffering dry rot. The television was shouting the weather in French. He tried to open his eyes, but the room was a blur, so he shut them again. This is what happened when he was away from his family. There was no one around to remind him that it was a mistake to spend the night with a bottle of vodka and a pack of smokes, watching late night French television. He hadn’t been like this when he was a Tourist, but now, Milo-the-family-man traveled like an immature teenager just set free from home.”

Weaver does much of this traveling with a young, European-based Tourist named James Einner who - as Mr. Steinhauer shows us in a blackly delicious scene - can multitask as well as any BlackBerry addict.

Having just arrived in Frankfurt, Weaver calls his traveling companion.

” ‘It’s me, James.’

” ‘Milo?’

” ‘Can we meet?’

“Einner didn’t sound overjoyed by the call. ‘Well, I am in the middle of something.’

” ‘Right now?’

” ‘Uh, yeah,’ he said, then Milo’s throat closed up as he heard a muffled voice in the background trying to scream. He knew that sound. The noise of someone who’d been gagged.

” ‘When’ll you be free?’

” ‘Give me … I don’t know. Forty minutes?’

“… Milo imagined him in an office in one of the upper floors of those famous mirrored towers in the center of the financial district, some unfortunate CEO bound and gagged under the desk, while Einner casually made a date on the phone. He’d forgotten how rough Tourism could be.

“…’Should you be saying all that aloud, James?’

“Einner grunted. ‘This guy? In ten minutes he won’t be able to say a thing.’

“The man’s muted howls rose in pitch.”

Mr. Steinhauer’s novel is, in many ways, an homage to such classics as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (from which he quotes) and “Six Days of the Condor” as well as Robert Ludlum’s Bourne books. His overarching themes are similar to those of Mr. le Carre, Mr. Grady and Mr. Ludlum. But Mr. Steinhauer’s book neither mimics nor emulates. He has his own unique voice and delivers an intricate, articulate, sometimes Byzantine novel that shows us the old “wilderness of mirrors” through a bright and imaginatively polished prism.

John Weisman’s latest novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are all Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at [email protected]

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