▸ spy novel

Read: The Nearest Exit

There is nothing romantic, nothing glamorous about Steinhauer’s Tourist. This burnt (-out) spy, reactivated for service in a black-ops department, addicted to amphetamines, a troubled soul, has a conscience and doubts about his job. He is unfit for duty. Steinhauer has created an interesting, mostly credible character. Though far from a perfect hero, he has a tendency to survive. Though, not with style.

Steinhauer has not only created a convincing protagonist, his story plot is convincing, too. The story moves quickly, changes pace, there are twists – that I did not anticipate. And, in the end, it all makes sense without me feeling duped.

The weakness of Nearest Exit is the same as in the first Tourist novel. Only the protagonist is fully developed. All other characters remain rather flat. All but one that is. A German mid-level BND analyst also gets sufficient space to be fleshed out in slightly more detail.

The bottom line is: one convincing protagonist, sufficient context provided by additional (one-dimensional) figures, plenty of scenery hopping to add an international flair, a villain who is not worse than the “good guys” and a healthy dose of critique on the (existing?) system of international relations (espionage and black-ops) in a violent post cold war, post 9/11 world.

Read: Sixty Days and Counting

After reading Robinson’s Fifty Degrees Below I was hoping the “science science fiction” trilogy would get better with its concluding volume. It didn’t.

The trilogy started as science fiction about science. You got a glimpse at academia, research and administration, and the plot’s background addressed a serious, topical issue: global warming. That was the first volume. Unique and interesting enough to get me on reading despite the novel’s flaws. The second volume, I still do not know what to make of the second volume.

And now, the third volume is even worse. Sixty Days and Counting is strangely anticlimactic. It is not science fiction about science any more but an odd mix of political thriller, conspiracy theory novel, spy novel, new age self improvement, and rant against capitalism. Yes, the ranting about the evil economic system, the evil capitalists' exploitation of the poor 99% that put me off in the first volume is back. The transitions between the genres do not succeed and the book would not be a good example for any of these genres.

Bottom line: Sixty Days and Counting was a waste of time and I am seriously concerned about my memory as I was pretty sure that I liked Robinson’s Mars trilogy. It was well written and absolutely enjoyable. Can a writer deteriorate that dramatically?

Read: The Tourist

Not an ordinary spy novel. Not an unbeatable hero. Not a murder(er) without moral conflict. Olen Steinhauer’s The Tourist is a remarkable addition to a genre that more often than not features unintentional comic scenes due to burlesque adherence to stereotypes.

The Tourist has no super villain. The protagonist is not invincible. Indeed, the protagonist is deeply flawed, aware of his limitations, seriously troubled, fails quite often in his tasks as a professional and a family man, and even is not the best intelligence (wo)men in the novel. This, of course, lends some credibility to this character who first reluctantly yet then with dedication follows the role he was given in a rather messy and convoluted plot. With a plot that offers so many opportunities for drifting off into global conspiracies and describes so many potentials for international conflict it is surprising that most of the novel deals with an internal conflict. Internal to one country, the US, and internal to the protagonist. The Tourist is thus more a character study of an obsolete spy thrown back into action (other characters are however hardly developed beyond their initial introduction) and a critical reflection of the state of the country after 9/11.

The novel stirred my interest. Luckily, it is (only) the first in a trilogy. There is more to read…