Thursday, June 4, 2009

'The Tourist' Takes a Long, Strange Trip

Review: THE TOURIST (Minotaur Books 2009)
Author, Olen Steinhauer

If you're looking for a spy novel full of convoluted twists, shady people and double-crosses, THE TOURIST should be right up your alley.

The story is about Milo Weaver, a CIA agent who once worked in "black ops," which is to say he worked in an unofficial capacity for The Company (as the CIA likes to call itself). Or, to put it yet another way, Milo worked as a "tourist" for the CIA. Going wherever they told him and just following orders.

But that changes. Sometime after 9/11, Milo gets married, acquiring a step-daughter in the process, and goes from being a tourist to serving as a manager in the CIA's New York City headquarters. And one of the things that makes this book so compelling is Milo's grappling with the pressures of handling his job and taking care of his family. But all that comes later, actually.

It really starts when he's tracking the Tiger (an assassin with, as one character notes, a rather corny nickname). He finds him and one thing leads to another and another . . . and the next thing you know Milo's acting as a tourist again and finding out all sorts of crazy stuff. None of it good, of course. Especially for him.

I'll admit, I was initially discouraged by the amount of exposition right up front in the book, when Milo is questioning the Tiger. Yeah, it's handled as dialogue, but let's face it, there's a lot of explaining going on here--much of it overwhelming in detail and a bit confusing. But that's okay, because Milo sums up the major points after they're done talking. So, okay, keep going, I think. Because it is interesting and Olen Steinhauer adds great humorous touches, both in dialogue and description.

So on I went. And each step in Milo's journey would lead to yet another new expositional conversation. More details and confusion, but again, that was okay. Milo provided a synopsis for dunderhead readers like me, who don't keep a scorecard.

Without saying too much, just know that the story leads up to several big revelations--for Milo, his family and others. The plot works like an intricate contraption worthy of Rube Goldberg. A lot of spy-versus-spy stuff (in this case, CIA versus Homeland Security) and paranoid scenarios in which various people try to out-guess each other. But does the story make complete sense? I don't know. Like I said, you'd really need a scorecard to figure that one out.

But Steinhauer writes with such great style and humor. His characters are so interesting and the plot moves along at such a nice pace (even with all the exposition thrown in), in the end it hardly matters. Especially when you get to read lines like this one from one CIA manager to a hapless underling: "If you ever send a goddamned Homelander upstairs again without clearing it first with me, you're out of here. You'll be guarding the front gate of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad wearing a George Bush T-shirt instead of body armor." (Good one!)

Not only that, but after all the expository conversations and such, the story builds to page-turning climax. With even more revelations, double-crosses and twists.

This is one of those stories in which you don't really know who the good guys are, but don't have quite as much trouble identifying the bad ones (if that makes any sense).

I enjoyed this book and would recommend it for anyone who loves spy novels. But if you asked me to explain the whole "who struck John" aspect of what happens, I'd be at a loss for words. I think I would've needed a flowchart or something to keep track of all that and I was too busy enjoying the story. So never mind all those nasty little details--on with it!

And there's one other question that I can't answer and, without giving away too much (I hope), the question is this: Why did they do this to Milo? The nature of "they" and "this" are best understood by reading the story. And as for the answer--maybe I'm just a dunderhead reader, but frankly, I haven't got a clue.

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