Sunday, November 27, 2016

An American Spy: Olen Steinhauer

An American Spy (2012) is the third novel in a spy fiction trilogy written by Olen Steinhauer. Milo Weaver works in the Department of Tourism, a division of the CIA that most people don't know about. An agent in that department is a perpetual tourist, with no home, sent on mission after mission, doing whatever job they are given, with no explanation. And many times the assignment is to kill someone. In each of the books in the series, Milo's goal is to stop working as a Tourist, but still he does not reject the need for department itself. However, in each book he is pulled back into the work due to circumstances beyond his control.

Summary from Olen Steinhauer's website:
After the dissolution of the Department of Tourism, Milo’s old boss, Alan Drummond, grows obsessed with revenge against the man who’s destroyed his life: the Chinese spymaster Xin Zhu. When Alan disappears in London, having traveled around the planet, to reach the UK, clues are few and questions numerous. 
In China, Xin Zhu tracks evidence of a conspiracy against him (and his young wife) as he tries to survive the intrigues of Beijing politics. 
In Germany, Erika Schwartz comes across signs that Tourism may not be as dead as it seemed to be. 
In the center of it all is Milo Weaver, trying to stay alive and protect his family in Brooklyn.
In the first book, The Tourist, Milo has acquired a wife and a step-daughter. Since family life and the job of a Tourist cannot coexist, he has a desk job and works as a support person in the department. Throughout the series, his main goal is to keep his family safe. He would be happy to leave the CIA behind and become a normal citizen, but the Department of Tourism is hard to break away from.

The plot centering around Xin Zhu in China was one of my favorite parts. I also enjoyed the inclusion of Milo's father and his estranged half-sister in this book, exploring the importance of family connections in a different way. Milo's father is a former Russian spymaster and U.N. official, and he has ties to many people in the espionage community. He first shows up in the 2nd novel, The Nearest Exit. Although the fact that his father was a spymaster explains some factors in Milo's life and personality, it was an element that seemed a little over the top in that novel. In An American Spy, that story line seems to work better.

These books are full of action. I do prefer quieter, more cerebral spy novels, but it does keep the pace up. The plots border on the unbelievable, but that is fairly common in spy fiction, and I have no problem suspending my disbelief. I like the depth of the characters and the exploration of the conflicts in their lives within this framework.

Steinhauer's spy fiction has been compared to that of Graham Greene, Len Deighton, and John le Carré. I haven't read enough of Greene to speak to that. I would say he is closer to le Carré if we must make comparisons. On the other hand, in Deighton's Bernard Samson series, Bernard's family, especially his two children, are always his main concern. But, the point here is that if you like the writings of Deighton or le Carré, you definitely should give the Tourist trilogy a try. It is best if the books are read in the order published.

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

See these reviews:


Publisher:   Minotaur Books, 2012
Length:      386 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       The Tourist trilogy #3
Setting:      US, UK, China, Germany
Genre:        Espionage fiction
Source:      I purchased my copy.


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Nicely reviewed, Tracy. I have not read Olen Steinhauer yet though I have read couple of reviews of his other books. It's interesting that his spy fiction has been compared to those of stalwarts like Deighton and le Carré. I think every espionage writer brings his own unique style to the genre. It's like comparing Western authors. To me, they all write differently.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Like you, I prefer spy books with less action, but this sounds good - thanks Tracy.

Anonymous said...

I've got this one on my TBR, Tracy. Like you, I generally prefer quieter spy novels. Still, if the story is really engaging, action can work. I'm glad you found things to like about it.

TracyK said...

I agree with you about comparison to other authors books, Prashant. Each writer has their own style and strengths. But if comparisons get people trying these books, I am all for that.

TracyK said...

I love this author and have enjoyed all of his books, so I am prejudiced, Sergio. Some readers noticed a lack of action in this book, so maybe I misremember. There is so much hopping from country to country and various characters, that it felt like a lot of action.

TracyK said...

Steinhauer always keeps me engaged, Margot. The only one I have left to read now is All the Old Knives.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, Tracy. I have one of his books but I just haven't gotten around to reading him yet. --K.

TracyK said...

Steinhauer is one of my favorite spy fiction authors, Keishon. I hope he keeps writing more of them.

Clothes In Books said...

I'd forgotten about this author, but I read one of his books on your reco and really enjoyed it, so I should start filling in the gaps.

TracyK said...

My favorite is the first series of historical mysteries he wrote, but they are best read in order, too. Although they work fine as standalone books, they do have revelations about characters from past books if you read the later ones first. However, I recommend anything by him, except that I haven't read the newest one.