As readers of Olen Steinhauer’s two previous Milo Weaver novels know, Weaver has been part of a secret CIA assassination bureau, dubbed the Department of Tourism, although he wants to retire and live peacefully with his wife and child. As this terrific new novel begins, the department has been decimated. Of 37 Tourists, as its assassins are called, 33 have been killed in lightning raids orchestrated by Chinese spymaster Xin Zhu. Weaver, recovering from a gunshot wound, was one of the handful who escaped.
And why would the obese, balding, 58-year-old Zhu risk such an unforgivable assault on American intelligence? Because he blamed the Tourists for indirectly causing the death of his only son. “An American Spy” turns on the efforts of Weaver and a few other survivors to inflict their own revenge on their Chinese nemesis.
In the wake of the massacre, the CIA shut down the Department of Tourism and fired its director, Weaver’s friend Alan Drummond. Soon, Drummond pleads with Weaver to join him in a campaign of retaliation against Zhu. Not for the first time in this series, Weaver is the retired gunslinger, called back for one last shootout. Once again, he resists — and then, of course, succumbs.
Steinhauer’s story is rich in characters. In New York, we meet Weaver’s and Drummond’s wives, stylish women who are increasingly fearful about their husbands’ work. Families are not off-limits in this war; eventually both wives and Weaver’s daughter must be sent into hiding to avoid Zhu’s wrath. Weaver’s main ally is fellow Tourist Leticia Jones, a beautiful and formidable woman who, when time permits, will suggest casual sex that he persists in declining. Another of Weaver’s allies is his father, once a Soviet KGB official and now the head of a secret intelligence office at the U.N.
But the novel’s dominant character, outshining even Weaver himself, is Zhu, who despite his murderous ways is in most regards portrayed sympathetically. We learn that he has a young wife he adores. As an educated youth during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, he was sent to toil in the countryside, where he learned patience and at least the appearance of humility. He has powerful enemies in his government who think his vengeance on the Tourists went too far. He already had offended his rivals by insisting that one of them is a mole, secretly reporting to U.S. intelligence.
Zhu is a wry and thoughtful man who one day reflects that “he had known very few men of smiles, because those were the ones who inevitably sank out of view before long, their little grins wavering only at the last moment.” Steinhauer’s sardonic humor is seen again when an ex-prostitute, sent to Washington by Zhu to seduce a CIA official, reports back that most men “think of real sex as something they saw in a pornographic film, something that always has been denied them, and only them.”
More somberly, Zhu reflects on the Tourists his agents eliminated: “He saw sudden falls from great heights in Mexico City, Seoul, Dhaka, and London. He saw dogs picking over corpses in Hanoi and Tallinn, and in Tokyo he saw a bloated dead woman in a sushi restaurant, killed after hours. He saw an explosion in Afghanistan. Each was its own story, and his curse was that he knew them all.”
This ambitious, complex story spans the globe. Even when the intricacies of its plot are most challenging, we are fascinated and swept forward. Steinhauer has been likened to John le Carre and rightly so. Both men carry readers deep into a rival spy agency, one Soviet, one Chinese. By the end of “An American Spy,” someone close to Weaver has been murdered and he hungers for revenge, not only against Zhu but against one of his own colleagues. The great game is not over — it’s only begun, and Zhu may in time be to Weaver what the Soviet spymaster Karla was to le Carre’s George Smiley. Olen Steinhauer’s Milo Weaver novels are must-reads for lovers of the genre.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.
AN AMERICAN SPY
By Olen Steinhauer
Minotaur. 400 pp. $25.99