Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Tourist: Olen Steinhauer

Spy novels are a favorite sub-genre for me. Olen Steinhauer is an author I have read and liked. So I was predisposed to enjoy this book, and I was not disappointed at all.

Milo Weaver works for the CIA, in the Department of Tourism. "Tourists" are described as undercover agents with no identity and no home. Milo is not the James Bond type, although there are plenty of thrilling escapades and violence. But we see the other side of this spy's life, the family he wishes he could spend more time with.

The book opens with Milo in obvious trouble both physically and emotionally. By the time the opening events have played out, it is obvious that Milo cannot continue as a Tourist, a spy sent to take care of any problem at the whim of his handler. Thus Milo moves into a desk job and acquires a family and an almost normal life.

A few years later, events conspire to bring him back into Tourism...

Spy thrillers are full of manipulations and lies. The reader and the characters never know who to trust. One character who also works for the CIA says:  "You work years teaching yourself to trust a few people. Not many, but just enough to get by. And once you do trust them, there's no going back. There can't be. Because how else can you do your job?" And when that trust is betrayed, everything falls apart. No one trusts anyone, and not many deserve trust.

Milo's main desire is to continue his family life and he wants to shield them from the side-effects of his job. As he runs into roadblocks that prevent him from leaving Tourism, the reader gradually learns more about all the relationships in the book ... How he and his wife got together and Milo's background and his childhood are revealed in pieces throughout the book. I enjoy this kind of story telling.

At one point, Milo goes on a long-planned vacation even though he knows that there is trouble brewing in his department. Even his wife knows that things are not right.
She had booked them into a long, red-roofed atrocity called Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, where even the lobby was set up with stanchions and padded ropes to arrange the crowds into orderly lines, as if this were another ride. Restaurants of no recognizable real-world cuisine threaded through the complex, and after each long day of chasing Stephanie to the various attractions they collapsed in these places, ordering nachos or spaghetti, and then wandered out to the crowded "beach" that bordered the man-made lake.

Despite an initial onrush of sarcasm, by the second day Tina was much less annoyed by Disney Reality. There was something narcotic about the easy predictability and the soft, cushioned safety that surrounded them at every moment. Ignoring the sudden outbursts of children, there was no chaos here, no unpredictable variable. There was nothing even remotely connected to the miserable stories of the planet's shadow side, that parallel world in which her husband worked.
If you like spy thrillers or want to give one a try, I recommend this one. It is the first book in a trilogy, and all the books of the series  have been well received. 

If you shy away from spy thrillers, you might find Steinhauer's other series a better fit. Some of those novels do have some of the elements of espionage fiction, but are historical fiction as well. The author describes them as "five novels that traced the history of an unnamed, fictional Eastern European country during its communist period, from 1948 until 1989, one book for each decade. The novels began as crime fiction, morphing gradually into espionage." There is not one main character but the characters are linked from one book to another.

The titles are, in order of publication:
The Bridge of Sighs
The Confession
36 Yalta Boulevard
(The Vienna Assignment in the UK)
Liberation Movements (The Istanbul Variations in the UK)
Victory Square


Anonymous said...

Tracy - Thanks as ever for this thoughtful review. As a general rule I'm not much of a one for spy thrillers. But this one interests me because it seems to have solid character depths that go beyond the stereotypical spy novel. I'm glad you highlighted this trilogy.

TracyK said...

Margot, I found that it did have more characterization and moved faster than most spy novels. Some spy novels tend to be on the slow, plodding side.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Thanks TracyK - completely new author for me and I'm a sucker for spy stories of course - cheers!

Sarah said...

Like Sergio, I love spy stories too, although I'm not too fussed on CIA/Bourne novel type books.I'll have a think about this one....

TracyK said...

All of his books that I have read are great. I am going to read more of the trilogy as soon as I can.

TracyK said...

I haven't read any of the Bourne series, but of course have seen the movies. This could be a bit like that. I just like anything with spies in it. Must be escapism, since I clearly would not live that life.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Tracy, a time was when I read mostly spy novels. I never went by authors or titles. I'd just pick up any book about espionage and the cold war, usually involving CIA and KGB, and read it in one sitting. Now there is so much to choose from. Cold war novels held a particular appeal for me, especially after reading Donald Lindquist's THE RED GODS.

TracyK said...

You are going to have to tell me more about Lindquist. I could not find much about him. I have several "new to me" authors of spy fiction to try, and I want to re-read Le Carre and Ian Fleming.