The spymaster-as-hero is gone, replaced by the whistle-blower, the outsider who retains enough of his heart to be appalled by the slaughter of strays. In Cairo they’re the young trash collectors living on the city’s edge, but in Gibraltar they’re even more insignificant: one mother and her child, around whom the whole novel rotates, and for whom le Carre’s rage simmers. By the end of A Delicate Truth, you either share his anger at the injustices between its covers, or you don’t. If you do, then you’re one of le Carre’s people. If not, you’re one of Smiley’s. It’s up to you to decide which one is more worthy.
Great timing for this weeks Coffee & Markets podcast. Pejman Yousefzadeh and I were joined by one of my favorite authors, Olen Steinhauer. We discussed his just released novel An American Spy, the post-Cold War and post 9/11 spy novel, and his career as a writer while living outside the United States.
- An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer (collectedmiscellany.com)
With An American Spy Olen Steinhauer continues to explore both the mechanics of spy craft and the moral tension inherent in the trade using Milo Weaver as his lens. With this third volume in the series, Weaver is no longer a Tourist but can’t escape the gravity of the agency’s destruction.
What from so many angles seems like violence and betrayal fueled by mere revenge turns out to be each side attempting to turn constantly shifting events to their advantage. Steinhauer plays the story out giving the reader the perspective of a number of characters from Weaver to his former boss Alan Drummond to Chinese spymaster Xin Zhu. But just when you think you are starting to put the pieces together he shuffles the deck and you have re-evaluate your assumptions.
There is an underlying tension in espionage – and thus in spy fiction – in that at root it is the search for truth and yet in pursuing that elusive truth, truth itself – or at least honesty and veracity – are the first causality (cliché perhaps but accurate I think). An American Spy mirrors this and in fact forces the reader to wrestle with it and “live” in this type of world. You find yourself constantly trying to understand the strategy and motivations of each side while guessing their next steps – in other words, thinking like a spy. What also becomes clear is how the nature of the trade undermines trust and casts doubt on everything.
I was disheartened when Olen Steinhauer decided to shut down the group blog Contemporary Nomad at the end of last year. I was a big fan of the authors that posted and enjoyed both interacting with them in this limited way and hearing about what they were up to. But I understand blogging isn’t always a wise investment for authors nor is it easy to find time to keep it up.
A link in my stat tracker program reminded me of the good old days of the blog and led me back to Olen’s home page (where he is now using Tumblr). Which in turn led me to his novella You Know What’s Going On which is the subject of this post.
The story (originally published in Agents of Treachery, an espionage-fiction anthology edited by Otto Penzler) is classic Steinhauer: engrossing and full of suspense even as it is thought provoking with a literary flair.
The plot involves a CIA mission against a terrorist organization in Africa. But what exactly is the mission and what motivates it is the question each of the characters finds themselves asking.
Steinhauer offers the perspective of four characters: Paul, Sam, Nabil and Benjamin—two CIA agents, a Somali terrorist, and a Kenyan policeman. It is a testament to his skill that such a short story can pack such a punch.
Paul the agent afraid to die, Sam out for revenge on multiple levels, Nabil the ambitious terrorist trying to see all the angles, and Benjamin in the middle trying to figure it out. As each character adds their perspective and details the tension and suspense ratchets up a notch. The reader get a little more clarity even as the characters scramble to understand the big picture. It all ends in flames. Along the way Steinhauer muses on death, perspective and trust.
If you are looking for some great espionage fiction, and to hold you over until the next Milo Weaver novel comes out, this is an excellent and quick read that is also a great deal ($.99!). I highly recommend it.
The Nearest Exit by Olen Steinhauer
From Publishers Weekly
Milo Weaver, a former field agent with the CIA’s clandestine Department of Tourism, returns to action after a stint in prison for alleged financial fraud in this intense sequel to The Tourist. His handlers want Weaver to pursue a mole rumored to have infiltrated the CIA’s black-ops department, but with his loyalty in question, he must first undergo some test missions, one of which is to kill the 15-year-old daughter of Moldovan immigrants now living in Berlin. Such a horrific assignment further weakens Weaver’s already wavering enthusiasm for his secret life, and he becomes increasingly preoccupied with reconnecting with his estranged wife and child. When bombshell revelations rock Weaver’s world, he vows to somehow put international intelligence work behind him. Can he do so without jeopardizing his and his family’s safety? Steinhauer’s adept characterization of a morally conflicted spy makes this an emotionally powerful read.