California Literary Review

Book Review: The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer

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July 13th, 2010 at 10:12 am

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The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer
The Nearest Exit
by Olen Steinhauer
Minotaur Books, 416 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★½


The Department of Tourism Wants YOU. . .

Stephen King said that Olen Steinhauer’s spy book, The Tourist, is “the best spy novel I’ve ever read that wasn’t written by John le Carré.” Here’s the good news—The Nearest Exit, a continuation of that same story, is no letdown (though the background gained in reading that first book makes the first 100 pages of this one much more manageable). Whether you’ve enjoyed The Tourist or not, Steinhauer easily passes along the critical need-to-know information, which primarily consists of this: the main character is a “tourist” from the “Department of Tourism,” which is an off-the-books CIA agency whose team of super-elite spies are willing to do the dirtiest work possible. Think James Bond with a bit more brawn, a lot more assassinations under his belt, and zero conscience. Steinhauer writes that they are “a secret sect of American agents that required none of the comforts of normal humans. No steady identity, no home, no moral center beyond the virtue of work.” A character describes it as “the dirtiest part of America’s filthy intelligence machine.”

His marriage to his librarian wife failing, and his quiet new life in Brooklyn falling apart, the former tourist (and hero of The Tourist) Milo Weaver re-enters the world of spies because the economic times are tough . . . even for black-ops CIA groups. While it’s hard to ever leave the life of a tourist, it’s even harder to fully return to it. Task after task, he does all they command to prove his worth until he’s instructed to kidnap and kill Adriana Stanescu, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Moldovan immigrants. For Milo, a complicated man who is fed up with the amoral existence of spies and governments in this post-Cold-War post-9/11 world, he instead plans her abduction and makes arrangements to keep her safely hidden until he can figure out why anyone wants such a seemingly unimportant girl dead. Try as he might, he can’t figure out why until it’s too late. Despite calling in favors from his father, a well-connected Russian mole at the UN, the girl still ends up dead, and Milo is fingered for the murder by German intelligence agents.

To make matters worse, there’s a sadistic spy afoot using Milo’s identity, and the only path to the answers the real Milo wants rest with an American journalist that the fake Milo threw off a balcony in Budapest and is now in hiding. The question is, can Milo locate him and get the answers he needs before everything falls apart?

Steinhauer is very good at nailing the details of broken, damaged people. Here’s his take on Frau Schwartz, a high-level administrator for German intelligence, as described by the clerk at a convenience mart.

“He couldn’t imagine that any man had ever loved this woman. She had a haircut like a young boy’s, trimmed around the ears, and unplucked, shabby eyebrows. She was the type who drank her white wine and chewed her candy and fingernails in a dusty house full of cats and cat hair, whose only enjoyment came from insipid German soap operas.”

This same agent later secretly kidnaps Milo and sics her own henchmen on him with high-powered interrogation techniques. But once she learns of Milo’s allegiances and true intentions, she helps him go after the true common enemy. Frau Schwartz is merely one of many unexpected and interesting characters in this book. The real gem, though, is Milo, who is a mess of contradictions. It’s easy to believe that this world-weary spy is robbing art galleries, maiming people with lead pipes, or shooting someone, and it’s equally easy to watch him be a tender father reading bedtime stories to his 6-year-old stepdaughter.

Throw in an ambitiously ruthless American politician, a Ukrainian defector, a secret Chinese spy organization, and a suspected CIA mole, and you’ve got yourself a lot of pieces on the chess board. Fortunately, Steinhauer has the skill to move them all deftly.

There are a few weaknesses to this tale, such as the less than fully developed villains at the heart of the CIA mole operation, and Milo’s constant references to his love for David Bowie and Dexedrine. And though this isn’t a true weakness, Steinhauer’s convoluted plot makes this a difficult story for someone who has to pick up and put down the book more than a few times. While the story does all come together unexpectedly and nicely in the end, it’s hard to follow everything unless you’re really paying attention from start to finish.

Without spoiling the final plot twists or the powerful ending, know this—the author is not a fan of wrapping things up in a nice bow. Yes, the plot elements do fuse together, but this is a dark, dismal world of deception, lies, and greed. As one character says of the most horrifying of conspiracy theories, “If it can be imagined, then someone’s already tried it.” Don’t expect roses and daises to follow the violence and chaos that marks every chapter.

Steinhauer is a first-rate writer whose greatest gift is his ability to handle a complicated plot effortlessly. It’s unfair to call this a good spy novel. It’s a fine romance, a tight thriller, and a rip-roaring mystery, too. Give this fine book a shot for sure, though if you have a chance, dive into The Tourist first. It’ll make this literary pleasure all the more sweet. And keep an eye out for #3 in the Milo Weaver series—it’s sure to follow.

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