Olen Steinhauer's talent was obvious to anyone who read his early novels covering the exotic world of post-World War II Eastern Europe. His East European cycle was richly imagined, evocative, and populated with realistic characters. His series was on par with Alan Furst's vision of Europe on the cusp of apocalyptic conflict between good and evil.
Recently Steinhauer focused his creative attention on the world of espionage and clandestine operations in the post-9/11 era, and, as before, his work is again extraordinary, again comparable to the greats of the genre like Greene, Le Carre or Deighton for its moral complexities and realism of artistic vision of the world of espionage.
In The Tourist, he introduced Milo Weaver, a clandestine CIA operative who is part of the Department of Tourism, an unacknowledged arm of the agency. Tourists are clandestine operatives with few links to what most would consider normal existence. Unencumbered by ties, these shadowy figures move ceaselessly in and out of different hot spots, arranging various games of espionage. One such game, in Sudan, goes terribly wrong — innocent lives are lost — and the Tourism department makes a particularly brilliant enemy bent on revenge, whose plot will shatter the secret fraternity. The best thing about The Nearest Exit is the thrill that its plot incident cleverness and complexity of events afford — Steinhauer captures the complexities of his story quite well without sacrificing action or suspense.
The book opens with the troubles of a somewhat paranoid but certainly down on his luck journalist by the name of Henry Gray, who comes into possession of a letter outlining a dirty secret that some very dangerous men wish never see the light of day, certainly never be printed in any newspaper. Before he has a chance to do much with this piece of nasty business, he ends up flying out of his apartment window. He lands in a local hospital, from which he promptly escapes. A man claiming to be Milo Weaver comes looking for him, psychologically brutalizing his girlfriend Zsuzanna Papp.