BookPage Overflow: Olen Steinhauer’s The Nearest Exit

April 6, 2011

I started reading spy stories almost as soon as I started reading mysteries, seamlessly making the move from the chaste Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew novels straight to Ian Fleming’s racy (or at least racier) James Bond books. On my parents’ bookshelves could be found espionage tales by Fredrick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum, Donald Hamilton, Ken Follett, John Le Carre, and the like. I devoured them eagerly, and then delved into the history of the genre, adding used copies of works by Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Alistair MacLean, James Munro, and Helen MacInnes to my growing paperback library. It was a bonus that the cover art often mirrored that of mystery novels, with a voluptuously exotic spy-ette beckoning me to look inside.

Fast forward a lot of years, and you can still find me reading mysteries and spy novels in my spare time, a guilty pleasure of which I seem never to grow weary. The latest in a long string is Olen Steinhauer’s follow-up to his wildly popular The Tourist, entitled The Nearest Exit.

Milo Weaver (the aforementioned Tourist) has become something of a reluctant spy. He would prefer to be at home with his wife and child, and indeed almost made that move, before being drafted once more into the uber-hushhush world of The Department of Tourism. Since we last met up with Weaver, he has done time in prison, and been assigned administrative duty as punishment for sins not of his own doing. Now he is back in the field, but his handlers are testing his loyalty at every turn; the vetting assignments grow ever more deadly, as Weaver is tasked with the abduction and murder of a teenaged Moldovan immigrant girl in Berlin. He cannot bring himself to kill the girl, especially as he suspects that she is little more than a test of his willingness to obey orders; so he goes through with the abduction, spiriting the girl away from public view, and counting on his contacts (one of whom is his UN-exec father) to follow through to ensure the girl’s safety. By mishap or by design, however, the safekeeping assignment is bungled, and the girl’s death makes worldwide headline news. Weaver is moved quickly on to his next critical assignment, to track down rumors of a mole within the Department of Tourism, and to see if they have any credibility. Still smarting bitterly from the outcome of his last assignment, Weaver is on the verge of not giving a damn whether there is a mole, or indeed whether his organization even deserves to continue. For Weaver is, best intentions aside, becoming ever more human, in a milieu that doesn’t put much of a price on humanity.  

If there has ever been a spy novel with more shades of grey, and with fewer characters that could be counted as “good” or “bad”, I cannot think of it. To say that protagonist Weaver is morally conflicted would be understatement of the first order. He will find shreds of humanity in even the most case-hardened operative, and still not blanch at the prospect of random and intense violence. And somehow, he will have to find a way reconcile his work and his home life, a decision faced by everyone at some point or other, but rarely to the degree of a Tourist.

If you are a fan of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne books, or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, The Nearest Exit should be right up your alley. It is by no means necessary, but it would be a good idea to read The Tourist first; I can guarantee that once you have read one, you will definitely want to read the other, so you might as well do it in order.

Here, by the way, is the UK cover of The Nearest Exit, which I rather prefer to its American counterpart: