By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 16, 2009
By Olen Steinhauer
Minotaur. 408 pp. $24.95
In Olen Steinhauer's scathing portrait of the CIA, the agency's highly skilled assassins are called Tourists. They're scattered around the globe, perhaps 20 of them, and now and then one receives a message from their secret headquarters in Manhattan that will say, in so many words, "Go kill X." The Tourist's job is not to question the wisdom or morality of the assignment, but simply to go kill X, who might be a terrorist or an arms dealer or a foreign diplomat or even a fellow American.
When we first meet Milo Weaver in 2001, several years as a Tourist have left him strung out on amphetamines and seriously considering suicide. Then a shootout in Venice leaves him wounded, perhaps dying and not much caring. However, on the sidewalk beside him a pregnant American, caught up in the violence, has gone into labor, and Weaver summons help for her before he passes out.
Flash forward to 2007. Weaver is married to Tina, the woman he saved, and is raising her daughter as his child. He's retired from Tourism and has been given a desk job. However, as any fan of spy novels -- or detective stories or western movies -- knows, gunslingers rarely retire and spooks rarely come in from the cold for long. One of his best friends, a spy stationed in Paris, is suspected of passing secrets to a foreign power. Weaver agrees to investigate -- to be a Tourist again -- because he hopes to prove her innocence. Of course, he can't be sure she's innocent. If there's any one truth that he and his fellow assassins live by, it's that they can't trust anyone, and that includes their co-workers and bosses. "The Tourist" is, among other things, a portrait of the CIA as a nest of highly lethal, surpassingly cynical vipers.
A few weeks ago I reviewed Alex Berenson's spy novel "The Silent Man." Both it and "The Tourist" are first-rate popular fiction, but the two authors tell their stories quite differently. I faulted Berenson for placing a James Bond-style superhero in the middle of an otherwise ultra-realistic story about terrorists trying to explode a nuclear device in the United States. No one would accuse Milo Weaver of being Bond-style glamorous. One of the strengths of Steinhauer's novel is his depiction of the conflicts between being a spy and being a family man. Weaver knows that, for all his killing skills, he is "no good at living."
Unlike Berenson's novel, which is tightly focused on how three terrorists go about the complicated busi ness of assembling a nuclear device, Steinhauer's is all over the map. Villains are killed, others appear and surprises proliferate. We meet a world-class assassin who's dying of complications from AIDS; a Russian oligarch with a yen for young girls; a mysterious, red-bearded man who may be the middleman between Muslim terrorists and high-priced assassins. The assassination of a Muslim holy man in Sudan may be part of a CIA scheme to make it more difficult for China to buy oil there. ("You've got a continent wet with oil, as well as some of the most corrupt governments this world has ever seen," Weaver's boss explains.)
Much of the time, neither we nor Weaver has much idea what's going on, but we keep reading because he is likable -- a mess but still the most honorable man in view -- and because Steinhauer seems to know the world of spies and assassins all too well. In his telling, it's a nasty, duplicitous world, but it feels real. The question is whether our reluctant Tourist can get out alive and return to the wife and daughter who are counting on him to take them to Disney World. We are clearly being asked to consider which is more surreal: the spy world or Disney World.
Amid the day-to-day confusions of life as a spy, Weaver sometimes glimpses the Big Picture, as when his boss tells him: "We've been marking our territory like an imperial dog since the end of the last big war. Since 9/11, we no longer have to go about it sweetly. We can bomb and maim and torture to our heart's content, because only the terrorists are willing to stand up to us, and their opinion doesn't matter."
"The Tourist" is serious entertainment that raises interesting questions. Is that last remark just the raving of a cynical novelist, or does it reflect how senior officials of our government viewed the world in 2007? We might further ask, has anyone's thinking changed since? Indeed, does the world of espionage ever change?
This is the sixth novel Steinhauer has published since 2003. The first five focused on the Cold War in Eastern Europe, and several were nominated for the Edgar and other awards. The publisher reports that "The Tourist" is the first of three novels focused on the post-9/11 world -- and that George Clooney has bought its film rights. On the evidence of "The Tourist," Steinhauer's Milo Weaver trilogy could turn out to be something special.
Anderson's e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.