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“You can change your name…your job description… But really, nothing changes.”

By (June 1, 2009) No Comment

The Tourist

By Olen Steinhauer
St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2009

The scene is Venice. The time frame September 10 to September 11, 2001. The players, in a deadly scenario by a canal, are unaware (though hardly blissfully) of the life changing events happening an ocean away. Charles Alexander, a CIA undercover agent with no identity and no home: a “tourist” and his colleague Angela carry out a mission that very early on September 11 goes disastrously wrong:


He’d been doing this particular job for six—no seven—years, floating unmoored from city to city, engaged by transatlantic phone calls from a man he hadn’t seen in two years. The phone itself was his master. Weeks sometimes passed without work, and in those periods he slept and drank heavily, but when he was on the job there was no way to stop the brutal forward movement. He had to suck down whatever stimulants would keep him in motion, because the job had never been about keeping Charles Alexander in good health. The job was only about the quiet, anonymous maintenance of the kindly named “sphere of influence,” Charles Alexander and others like him be damned.

Angela had said, “There is no other side any more,” but there was. The other side was multifaceted: Russian mafias, Chinese industrialization, loose nukes, and even the vocal Muslims camped in Afghanistan who were trying to pry Washington’s fingers off the oil-soaked Middle East…anyone who could not be embraced or absorbed by the empire was anathema and had to be dealt with, like barbarians at the gates. That was when Charles Alexander’s phone would ring.

He wondered how many bodies padded the murky floor of these canals, and the thought of joining them was, if nothing else, a comfort. It is because of death that death means nothing; it’s because of death that life means nothing.

Finish the job, he thought. Don’t go out in failure. And then… No more planes and border guards and customs people; no more looking over your shoulder.

To repeat: very early in Venice on September 11, 2001, the mission goes disastrously wrong.

Six years later, Charles has become Milo Weaver, a midlevel desk spook at the CIA’s New York headquarters. A husband and father, an unremarkable family man who has remarkably shed a past best left buried. Until—and with guys like Milo/Charles, there’s almost always an “until”—the Tiger shows up in a jail in Blackdale, Tennessee.

To call his search for the Tiger obsessive would have been, according to Grainger [his CIA boss], an understatement. In 2001, soon after he’d recovered from his bullet wounds in Vienna and retired from Tourism, Milo decided that while his coworkers devoted themselves to finding the Most Famous Muslim in the World somewhere in Afghanistan, he would spend time on terrorism’s more surgical arms. Terrorist acts, by definition, were blunt and messy. But when someone like bin Laden or al-Zarqawi needed a specific person taken out, he, like the rest of the world, went to the professionals. In the assassination business, there were few better than the Tiger.

So over the last six years, from his cubicle in the Company office on the Avenue of the Americas, he’d tracked this one man through the cities of the world, but never close enough for an arrest.

Now the Tiger is on ice in a small town slammer, and the only one he’ll talk to is Milo. He has engineered this meeting because he’s dying of AIDS. No more time for cat and mouse foreplay. Celibate and a non-drug user, the Tiger was infected by injection while sitting in a Milan café with the man behind many of his “assignments” whose quick needle has led him to this deathbed. He wants Milo to track down this man. A man, as it turns out, who also has Milo’s worst interests at heart. A man who is a front for the global Islamic jihad!

Olen Steinhauer

Milo stared at the Tiger. Maybe he’s done me a service. He’s closed a few cases by killing you.

I could’ve died in obscurity in Zurich…. This way I help you out. Maybe you’ll help me out. You’re a Tourist.

I’m not a Tourist any more.

That’s like saying, I’m not a murderer anymore. You can change your name, change your job description—you can even become a bourgeois family man, Milo. But really, nothing changes.

It is, of course, a spy’s greatest fear. Especially a Tourist’s, a stone-cold killer who can get in and out and get the job done. And if anyone ever asks any questions it’s sorry buddy, old boy, mate. That’s a state secret:

On the nineteenth floor of the Company’s New York headquarters there’s an eerily sterile interview level of narrow corridors and numbered doors where, when necessary, the Geneva Convention became a joke.

Tiger’s death, even his deathbed revelations, brings understatement from Milo’s superiors. “That scores one for the good guys.” And nothing does change. Before he has time to get a new cape, he’s sent to Paris on a very tricky errand that involves his old colleague Angela—a fool’s errand that ends with her death and Milo accused of being her murderer. He’s forced to go on the run to clear his name, which leads him in desperation up to his old Tourist tricks of the trade. “Just when I thought I was out—they pull me back in.”

All roads lead to the blindest of alleys and it’s a cinch the bad guys are writing Milo’s itinerary, including the man in Tiger’s nightmares. Worse, the slippery slope of truth and justice is completely trampled as Milo’s darkest secret comes to light. In the looking glass world where nothing is as it seems, Milo’s defied all the rules. He’s got everything to hide and more to lose. Milo unmasked is Milo broken.

When it comes to a genre in which Le Carré is the gold standard, Olen Steinhauer is the real deal. He evokes the world of espionage in all its seedy trappings. It’s not really James Bond, it’s really rumpled George Smiley cum Milo Weaver, who is out there protecting us. If spying is a game, it’s because without wearing comic noses or any kind of disguise, people pretend to be what they are not. And the purpose of such party games is always, unavoidably, betrayal. An ugly goal that inevitably leads to loss of soul. In The Tourist that story is most bitterly and clearly told, the lesson of human degradation involved in spying most faithfully rendered.

What Olen Steinhauer manages so skillfully is to immediately pull us into the twilight world of espionage. And keep us there, wrapped in a fog of secrets that chill as they unravel. Seinhauer has spun a taut, multilayered tale of intrigue and intelligence. It’s no surprise that George Clooney has optioned the film rights to The Tourist.

Olen Steinhauer has also written a widely acclaimed crime series set in Eastern Europe. Raised in Virginia, he lives in Budapest. Somehow, that speaks to where the authenticity in The Tourist comes from.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey. You can find her earlier “It’s a Mystery” reviews here.

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