by Olen Steinhauer
I was lucky enough to have lunch with Olen Steinhauer when he came through Seattle a few months ago. I’m pleased to report that he’s a totally nice guy and I loved his new book, The Tourist (Minotaur, 2009). I’m happy about that for two reasons: one, of course, is that I’m always delighted to find a really good thriller, and two, it’s hard to read a book with an open mind if you’ve met and didn’t care for the author, which, sad to say, I’ve had happen more often than I’d like to remember or recount. During lunch Steinhauer mentioned that one of his favorite books is John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which is the novel by le Carré that I like best. This didn’t come as a total surprise, because while I was reading The Tourist I kept thinking that of all the contemporary thriller writers out there, Steinhauer is the one who comes closest to delivering the same pleasures that le Carré does: a tightly constructed, smartly complex plot played out in the morally ambiguous universe of spycraft, a healthy dose of cynicism, and a main character with many secrets and much pain in his life. And like le Carré, Steinhauer has come up with terminology for aspects of the espionage game that seem so natural it’s hard to believe that it isn’t used by spooks themselves. (Maybe it is. Who knows?) Milo Weaver is a field–based spy, a “tourist” in his agency’s lingo (their counterparts who work in the home office are known as “travel agents”), whose assignment is to hunt down a wily, longtime foe known as “the Tiger.” When Milo runs into an old friend, Angela, who, in fact, may be more of a Judas than a Peter, it turns out that Angela is also trying to get to the Tiger. For spy novels, uncertainty is the name of the game. Unlike le Carré, though, who’s pretty pessimistic about the possibility of rewarding and happy personal relationships for his characters, Steinhauer gives Milo a happy home life, which points up all the more insistently the bleakness of his profession and the particular job he’s been assigned to in this novel.