by Olen Steinhauer
Published by Minotaur Books
416 pages, 2009
Reviewed by Jim Winter
Olen Steinhauer takes on the reality of James Bond’s world in his latest novel, The Tourist. His story doesn’t involve tuxedoes, fancy gadgets or gorgeous femmes fatales. What it does involve is lying.
A lot of lying.
This tale opens on September 10, 2001, and a CIA operative using the name “Charles Alexander” has just botched a mission in The Netherlands. The pill-popping field agent did manage to stop an assassin known as “The Tiger” from killing a Dutch politician friendly to U.S. interests. However, he failed to take the bullet in his quest to end his “tourism,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s euphemism for working undercover in the field.
In the aftermath, Alexander is summoned on an emergency mission to Slovenia, where he’s to chase a station chief named Frank Dawdle. Dawdle has disappeared with a fortune in cash meant to lure a Serbian war criminal out of hiding. In Slovenia, Alexander gets together with Angela Yates, an old friend and longtime fellow agent. Together, they chase their quarry to Italy, where he meets up with a Russian billionaire named Roman Ugrimov. Alexander and Yates plan to grab Dawdle right there. But things go horribly wrong that September 11. A young girl falls to her death from Ugrimov’s apartment and Dawdle is killed in the arrest attempt, while Alexander is shot. Unaware of the horrific events about to unfold in New York City and Washington, D.C., that day, he knows only that he is finished as a tourist.
Never mind that his boss’ office in Manhattan will be destroyed within hours, when Trade Center Building 7 collapses following the terrorist attacks.
Flash forward now seven years. Milo Weaver no longer uses the identity “Charles Alexander.” Instead, he works in the “travel agency’s” replacement office on New York’s Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). He’s married to a woman named Tina, has a stepdaughter, Stephanie, lives in a Brooklyn brownstone, and seldom has to travel more than a few days from home. Instead, Weaver/Alexander works directly for his old CIA boss, Thomas Grainger.
It’s a great gig -- at least until Weaver is sent to Texas to chase down his old nemesis, the Jackal-type assassin “The Tiger.” When Weaver finally catches up with him in rural Tennessee, The Tiger is dying of AIDS. He has just one favor to ask of Weaver, who’s been chasing him ever since leaving tourism: He wants the CIA man to find his killer. It seems that someone deliberately infected the celibate Tiger with the AIDS virus, someone who knew that, despite his murderous vocation, The Tiger -- a Christian Scientist -- would never seek medical help.
So The Tiger dies, and Weaver, though he figured his association with the assassin was over, soon finds himself in the crosshairs of Homeland Security. A follow-up trip to Paris ends with agent Angela Yates being murdered after Weaver interviews her, and a senior CIA officer suspicious of Weaver’s actions. Soon, our hero has to abandon his family and flee off the grid to Europe, trying to find out the truth about The Tiger’s identity. It doesn’t take long for Weaver to suspect the enemy is not the foreign terrorists or al-Qaeda, but the CIA itself. He cannot even trust his boss, Grainger. Before this yarn has executed its final twist, Weaver learns he is being swept back into those terrible events of 2001, when he believed his life as a tourist was over.
The Tourist is an incredibly multifarious and multi-layered novel. American Steinhauer, a two-time Edgar Award finalist and the author most recently of Victory Square (2007), goes above the straightforward thriller to show the consequences of a spy’s existence on every level. Weaver’s family life is torn apart, while agency intrigue threatens to frame both Weaver and Grainger for actions over which they had little or no control. On a grander scale, Steinhauer depicts the callous nature with which governments and terrorist groups manipulate events on a global level to produce desired results. In one case, al-Qaeda has a sympathetic cleric murdered in the Sudan in order to stir up sentiment for its cause.
Most of all, The Tourist is about the falsehoods and half-truths on which Weaver has built his life ever since childhood. Over the course of this story, even his youth turns out to be something other than the official record. Most of all, the novel is about the price one pays to be James Bond or George Smiley. One never can truly leave the life of a “tourist.” Once in, it will always pull you back, even years later.
The book’s sole flaw of any note is the method of The Tiger’s execution. While the onset of AIDS within six months of infection is not unheard of, as an assassination method, it’s not only crude, but it’s glaringly unreliable, since the virus is largely transmitted by the exchange of bodily fluids. However, within the context of Steinhauer’s sprawling narrative, this homicidal technique serves it’s purpose. The Tiger is sentenced to a slow death and sufficiently weakened by the time he makes any sort of real appearance in the story. Steinhauer is channeling John le Carré here, not Dr. Gregory House.
In The Tourist, Olen Steinhauer has composed a hugely complex successor to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Unlike most espionage tales written in the years since that classic work first saw print in 1963, however, he manages to give his characters -- even the most reprehensible ones -- a human side and a degree of warmth. Spying is a nasty business that chews up and spits out the people involved in it. The Tourist shines a light on the mortal costs. | March 2009
Jim Winter is a writer, reviewer and occasional comedian in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. He’s a regular contributor to Crimespree and an occasional contributor to both The Rap Sheet and the comedy podcast The Awful Show. His short stories have appeared in Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler Magazine and Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Edged in Blue. Winter lives with his wife, Juanita, and stepson, A.J.