Perhaps I should get the disclosures out of the way. I’ve been a fan of Olen Steinhauer since I stumbled upon Bridge of Sighs in 2005. I have interviewed him a couple of times, and have even started watching the TV show he created and produces, Berlin Station (by purchasing it on Amazon because I didn’t have Epix, I might add).
So I was excited when I found out he had a novel, The Middleman, coming out this summer. I didn’t want to read it too far from pub day because then you either have to write your review and hold it until the publication day is closer or you write the review some, potentially significant, time after you read it and it feels disconnected. So I held off until closer to the announced pub date and took it on vacation with me so I could have large chunks of time to read it. Good decision in that I really enjoyed it. But, I forgot how bad I am at managing my time and so here it is past the publication date and I haven’t posted a review.
Caveats, disclosures and confessions aside, I enjoyed The Middleman and found myself furtively reading it trying to find out what happens in the end. I read it late into the night and got up and went out onto the waterside deck and finished it. (And who should appear at the end but Milo Weaver! Now I want to go back and re-read that series.)
I’m not going offer a formal review (you’re shocked I know) but let me tell you what I liked and deal with some criticisms I have come across. (For the basic plot or teaser, see the Amazon widget below the post)
I really enjoyed how Steinhauer approaches the issues from a variety of perspectives. You have leaders within the Massive Brigade, you have “everyday people” who join up with the group and its leaders, you have FBI secret agents working inside the group and you have the FBI agent working to stop them.
The book takes you through a political and cultural moment when revolution seems in the air; when tensions are high and violence seems imminent. It offers you a chance to imagine what a historical moment like this might look and feel like from a variety of perspectives.
And of course, as even the novel’s detractors will admit, Steinhauer is a master with words and prose. It may be in the thriller genre (more on that later) but it is with literary skill that Steinhauer writes.
Now, criticisms and problems. The first issue is that the back cover of the review copy I received blares:
So what is a thriller? Let’s be lazy and use WikiPedia:
Thrillers generally keep the audience on the “edge of their seats” as the plot builds towards a climax. The cover-up of important information is a common element. Literary devices such as red herrings, plot twists, and cliffhangers are used extensively. A thriller is usually a villain-driven plot, whereby he or she presents obstacles that the protagonist must overcome.
Now, you will recognize elements of this definition in The Middleman. But it didn’t strike me as a “keep you on the edge of your seats” type story. Suspense? Sure. Cover-ups and plot twists? Yes, but it doesn’t have the fast paced, race to the finish type style from start to finish. Again, it has more of a literary approach, which I very much enjoyed, but some people noted/complained about that in places like Goodreads and Amazon.
What about the “proffesional” reviewers? Here is Publishers Weekly:
Steinhauer has captured a very contemporary, very American angst—“people are going to have to pull a trigger, just to be heard”—but the book’s muddled second half will leave many readers frustrated because the polarities aren’t that clear. Rachel Proulx, an earnest FBI agent, is obviously one of the good guys, but the ostensible bad guys are less well-delineated—and the denouement is unsatisfying. Steinhauer fans will hope for a return to form next time.
This gets to the villian driven plot part noted above. There really isn’t a villian per se. As I said, Steinhauer attempts to offer a variety of perspectives and personalities caught up in the events. It isn’t clear who exactly the bad guys are and who the good guys are; except perhaps the FBI leadership and one agent in particular.
I think it is safe to say that Steinhauer has a left-leaning bent (we know the election threw a monkey wrench in his plans for this novel and caused him to reconsider his approach) and he portrays the Massive Brigade, or at least elements of it, sympathetically. He even seems understanding of the temptation to violence. But in the end, violence leads not to solutions but the undermining of the very values the protestors claim to represent.
Kirkus touches on another element of this potential problem:
Steinhauer (All the Old Knives, 2015, etc.) is a veteran, a real pro; the issues raised in this well-paced thriller are serious and timely, and the characters are believable and likable. But the targets of the Brigade, corporate conspiracy and the protection of the rich from public scrutiny, never quite reach a viscerally threatening level, and the individuals who conspire to preserve the status quo seem merely bureaucratically venal.
A professional and entertaining thriller a little short on menace.
If the Massive Brigade isn’t the villain, the corporate oligarchs and the politicians who protect them are sort of villains off stage. But as Kirkus notes, this makes them shadowy and vague rather menacing and sharp.
It feels like the classic Cold War espionage style: a place where there are few black and whites and instead mostly grays. Rachel Proulx assumes she is on the side of the good guys until events force her to reassess her perspective. An undercover agent inside the Massive Brigade, Kevin Moore, is also forced to consider not only how far he will go to infiltrate the group but whose side he is really on.
Scott Turow in a featured review in the New York Times gets at the pros and cons of this approach:
“The Middleman” is smart and entertaining and consistently intriguing, clipping along in brief chapters, somewhat reminiscent of the novels of James Patterson, and often animated by lovely, spare descriptive writing. (“They returned to I-80, and as they progressed, Kevin watched the unraveling of civilization. After Rocklin the landscape flattened, speckled with burned yellow grass and low trees. … Eventually, they got off of 80 … to where humans had given up trying to control the land at all.”) Yet because the premise of “The Middleman” is so audacious and because its point of view is fragmented, the novel doesn’t fully exhibit the propulsive force of some of Steinhauer’s spy fiction.
What makes up for that is the neat feat of asking serious political questions without burdening the suspense. In an era of rising income inequality, of unlimited corporate spending on campaign messaging that allows the richest forces in our society to gain unprecedented political power, of voters left and right rallying to outcries about a corrupt system and Washington as a swamp in search of a drain, why can no unity be forged between the viewers of Fox News and MSNBC, who instead prefer mutual vilification? Like the rest of us, Steinhauer is better at asking questions than providing answers.
That was my reaction as well. Did everything come together perfectly? No. I am still not sure I understand the ending with Milo Weaver. Was it a hold on to your pants type of ride from the opening lines? No, but I neither expected that or needed it to be entertained. I just enjoyed the way Steinhauer explored what Turow calls the audacious premise — a mass popular revolt against corporate power. I don’t exactly share his politics but am a big fan of his writing.
If, like me, you prefer your thrillers with a literary touch,even if that means a little less pace and action, you will enjoy The Middleman. Even if you disagree, I bet it will make you think about the world we live in and what might lie in the future.