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.
Sometime later, in another place, the real Milo Weaver (Tourists apparently take one one another's identities) is trying to earn trust and good graces from his handlers at the Department of Tourism by taking increasingly difficult assignments, loyalty tests designed to try his fitness to re-join the Tourism business. He is doing well until the final assignment. The ninth assignment proves the hardest—Milo's boss wants him to eliminate a 15-year-old Moldovan girl with no apparent connection to anything. This stops Milo in his tracks.
He starts to have reservations and part of the reason is that he has a daughter himself. A “seemingly simple” task for any other Tourist becomes a painful moral conundrum for Milo. Tourists aren't supposed to ask questions. “Action is its own reason” in the world of Tourism. But Milo needs to know the reason. Desperately. For how many evil acts does it take to make a man evil? He ends up going to his father, a UN intelligence insider by the name of Yevgeny Primakov. Together they arrange a deception of Milo's bosses.
What Steinhauer captures so well in The Nearest Exit are the harsh realities of the business of clandestine operations, particularly their moral dimension. In many ways, Milo as married man and father is a dinosaur in the world of clandestine killings because he is too much attuned, as a result of his familial bonds, to the moral questions that arise in the sordid business. As a father, he "…couldn’t escape the continual reminders that his universe had become imbued with morality — bathing his infant daughter’s fat, squirming body, later walking her to school and listening to her rambling stories, making curry for his wife, vacuuming on the weekends." No one is outside of the moral universe, Steinhauer suggests; everything we do sticks to us. Consequences follow.
Of course, the moral question inevitably touches on epistemological difficulties of the intelligence business, for an operative can rarely know much at all of the big picture truth, and certainly knowledge of the true facts is hard to come by in the world of Tourism with its duplicity and the hidden agendas of its masters like a Machiavellian U.S. senator. Milo is in the dark as to the connection the girl has with the world of clandestine operations, but she does have it via the sordid world of the child sex trade and blackmail.
Steinhauer is a master of plotting, capturing the wheels-within-wheels mysteries of the clandestine world and its psychological games without sacrificing any of the action. Particularly engaging is the presentation of the interlocking mysteries and shadowy figures as Milo travels around Europe, trying to figure out whether someone is following him and why. Then there is the problem of a mole inside the Depertment of Tourism. A low level Ukrainian intelligence operative defects with a startling piece of information, throwing everything into chaos and eventually triggering a recall of all the agents.
Steinhauer's characters are, for the most part, well imagined. Milo is a complex character, a loving father and a killer. But the most interesting character outside of Milo is that of the Chinese spymaster, and I hope that Steinhauer does not do away with him any time soon; worthy opponents make great fiction and there is no more memorable or realistic opponent than the ingenious Xin Zhu.
The ending connects the mysteries in a bloody massacre of the Tourists and Milo himself in an unforgettable twist that demands a sequel.