Thursday, June 10, 2010

Book: The Nearest Exit, by Olen Steinhauer (2010)

Maybe my problem is that I don’t like origin stories.

Steinhauer introduced diffident spy Milo Weaver in last year’s The Tourist. A veteran of the Department of Tourism, a CIA black-ops shop, Milo had found solace as an administrator, husband and father. Then a personal history more tortured than even Milo suspected forced him back into his old life. In Exit Milo has, to his surprise, been welcomed back to full-time Tourism, a existence both rootless and ruthless. Case in point: an assignment to kidnap and execute a 15-year-old immigrant girl living in Germany. Milo, desperate to reconnect with his own family, concocts an asymmetrical solution that fools his superiors. Having earned their trust he’s then tasked with investigating a security breach, but both matters are linked in a way that delves into Milo’s past and threatens the future of Tourism.

The Tourist, alas, left me somewhat cold; it’s a big, expansive book that at times is too self-conscious about its ambition. Still, it contained enough passages on par with Steinhauer’s dazzling series of crime novels set in an unnamed Communist country for me to pick up Exit. I’m glad I did. Freed of the burdens of establishing the world it’s a completely different animal, densely plotted yet fleetly paced. You want globe-trotting derring-do, hidden agendas and suspense? They’re here, but not at the expense of character. Steinhauer never loses sight of the human costs of intelligence work. Milo is a truly good man in a genuinely bad world, always and only wanting to go home. And the ending delivers. I’m fully on board with Milo now, and await his next adventure.