Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Crime Fiction: The Nearest Exit
by Olen Steinhauer

Love and revenge is a sweet and sour mix that permeates the lives of the secret agents in Olen Steinhauer’s The Nearest Exit (Minotaur). In this new novel’s prologue, Henry Gray, a young hack journalist, is tossed off his balcony. He is in the possession of an enigmatic letter from the now dead director of The Company, Tom Grainger. The Company was introduced in Steinhauer’s previous thriller, The Tourist (2009). It is a fictional secret arm of the CIA whose operatives are called Tourists. The analysts who run the Tourists from desks in a central office on New York City’s Avenue of the Americas are called Travel Agents.

In any event, Gray miraculously survives the fall, but winds up in a coma for several months. He gradually awakens and with the help of his girlfriend, reconstructs Grainger’s letter. Sensing that he is still in grave danger, Gray vanishes from the hospital -- and Steinhauer’s story -- only days before Milo Weaver comes looking for him.

Reader -- if you haven’t read The Tourist yet, let me encourage you right now to do so. Soon after I began The Nearest Exit, I became cranky. I found the first 100 pages confusing. Then, while on vacation, I discovered The Tourist in my condo library. It is a well-crafted novel that Janet Maslin of The New York Times likened to the best of John le Carré. I discovered that while many thrillers feature the same protagonist in standalone stories, enjoying The Nearest Exit really depends on your having previously read The Tourist. Only then can you fully grasp the impact of what is happening.

This new yarn gets underway with an impulsive, perhaps even dangerous, phone call home while three men wait in a van. They are on their way to rob an art museum. While the caller is not identified, if you have read The Tourist you know it is Milo Weaver. We learn that “the first rule of Tourism is to not let it ruin you ... The rootless existence, keeping simultaneous jobs straight in your head, showing no empathy when the job requires none, and especially the unstoppable forward movement.” We see, however, that Weaver is conflicted about what he is doing. He longs for his family and to return home, to go back to his life with his wife and their daughter.

Weaver, having spent some time in prison for alleged financial fraud, is now back in Europe. But as a result of the events related in The Tourist he has been demoted to doing field work for The Company. The assignments seem simplistic and arbitrary, but Weaver figures the Company directors simply don’t trust him after the bloodbath that resulted in the death of his good friend Tom Grainger. He assumes they are vetting his corporate loyalty. Recession-driven budget cuts coupled with his previous extensive field experience mean that Milo goes where The Company needs him, when it needs him. He’s got to have a job, and his credentials don’t qualify him for any other kind of work. Furthermore, Weaver assumes The Company suspects his loyalties are conflicted between love for his family and duty to the organization. In normal times, the existence of a family would preclude his employment with The Company.

After putting Weaver through three months of relatively mindless assignments, The Company’s new director, Alan Drummond, assigns him an impossible loyalty task: He is to kill Adriana, a 15-year-old Moldovan girl living in Germany, and then make her body disappear. “Don’t ask” is another Tourism rule. But Weaver does ask. He can’t bring himself to kill the teenager. His conflicts between blind fidelity to an organization and the emotions surrounding parental love become a theme that runs as an undercurrent throughout Steinhauer’s story. Weaver makes secret arrangements to kidnap the girl and hide her for a period of time, thereby thwarting his directive from The Company.

Shortly thereafter, director Drummond summons Weaver to Antwerp and gives him another assignment: interrogate a Ukrainian defector named Marko, who claims to know about a “mole” within The Company. There are hints of a secret Chinese spy organization, and then more instructions are given to Weaver. He is like the player of a board game, drawing arbitrary cards to discover his next move. Surprisingly, at the end of this novel’s first part, Weaver himself is kidnapped.

Part two begins in the world of German intelligence several days before Weaver’s abduction. We are introduced to Erika Schwartz, a figurative soul sister to Connie Sachs, one of intelligence officer George Smiley’s people from the Le Carré series. A grossly obese woman, Schwartz is addicted to her nightly bottle of Rheinland Riesling and accompanying Snickers bar. She has become obsessed with the kidnapping and subsequent death (or so she assumes) of Adriana. Schwartz has “learned to gather her intelligence from the cracks between the questionable facts that reached her desk.” It’s she and her staff who secretly capture Milo, after they identify him as Adriana’s kidnapper and, presumably, murderer. Weaver eventually convinces Schwartz of his innocence in Adriana’s fate, but the notion of a mole in The Company resurfaces.

Part three of The Nearest Exit relates the search for that clandestine infiltrator. Weaver is recruited by Drummond to learn what truth -- if any -- there is behind the Ukrainian defector’s reports of a mole. The evidence seems to indicate that such a spy (perhaps working for the Chinese) does exist. On the other hand, though, that evidence may be misleading and the mole imaginary. Then again, on the third hand, maybe that undercover agent is at work after all. Such confusing and mysterious goings-on are common in the world of international espionage. Only as Steinhauer’s tale races on do we realize that a diabolical plot is in place to cripple The Company.

I won’t give more away, except to say that Milo Weaver has clearly been set up to serve, in this great series’ next clever and complicated installment, as an agent of The Company’s revenge.

Reader, remember: read The Tourist first and then proceed to The Nearest Exit.

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Anonymous dezmembrari auto said...

It is a very interesting book. It give me a friend and i read it last night. I was impress.

Friday, August 27, 2010 at 1:32:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous kardella said...

The first line written as this story is being introduce trully gets my attention. I strongly agree of love and revenge in combination makes a sweet and sour thing.

It is ironic having been in love and having the vengeance. this may happen but one of the feeling may dominate. It could be love or revenge. And most story end up of loving the person.

A hard feeling and very difficult thing to deal with.

I haven't read the story yet the overview gives a od thrill about the story and really encouraged me for one to figure it out.

Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 4:41:00 AM PDT  

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