Title: The Tourist
Author: Olen Steinhauer
PS3619.T4764 T68 2009
Steinhauer, Olen (2009). The Tourist. New York: Minotaur Books
- United States. Central Intelligence Agency–Officials and employees–Fiction.
- Undercover operations–Fiction.
Date Posted: November 22, 2016
Reviewed by Marilyn Stasio
So Variety says George Clooney’s production company has acquired the film rights to The Tourist, an espionage thriller by Olen Steinhauer. Clooney himself is reported to be keen on playing the lead role of Milo Weaver, a black-ops agent with a clandestine branch of the C.I.A. that refers to its agents as Tourists and specializes in acts of extreme Tourism. Well, who wouldn’t want to play Milo? He’s a spy to die for—a decent man sickened by the dirty work he does and desperate to get out of the game, but coerced into one last operation that could cost him his beloved wife and the 6-year-old stepdaughter he dotes on. To dramatize Milo’s bona fides as a devoted family man, Steinhauer brazenly sets several key scenes at Disney World. In one tense action sequence, Milo introduces “his girls” to a retired Russian agent who mysteriously joins them on their train ride up Space Mountain. Shortly after this assignation, Milo performs the sacrificial act of leaving wife and child behind when he flees the land of Disney only minutes before Homeland Security agents pound on the door, intent on bringing him in for the murder of another agent.
Even if he didn’t look like George Clooney, Milo would be the kind of principled hero we long to believe still exists in fiction, if not in life. The only drawback to this warm close-up of the protagonist is that it skews the novel, rendering it more of a character study than a full-bodied espionage novel. There’s plenty of plot, but it’s messy rather than complex; and while the cast is thickly populated with career spooks from France, Russia, China, Sudan and components of the former Yugoslavia, few of them develop into worthy adversaries, and their agendas are so murky that we’re not particularly anxious to get back to them.
One promising story line involves a scheme to dry up China’s oil sources by destabilizing certain African governments, primarily Sudan, that supply it. But there are no clocks ticking in either Beijing or Khartoum because we never visit these venues or meet the human targets. More disappointing, the man originally assigned to carry out the assassinations (a brilliant tactician known as the Tiger, but blessed with the wit to mock that flashy moniker: “I guess that, after the Jackal, they needed an animal name”) dies somewhere around Page 60. But before he shuffles off into narrative limbo, this terrific villain passes on some professional secrets to Milo in exchange for vengeance on the operative of “the global Islamic jihad” who injected him with the AIDS virus.
Once the Tiger dies, Milo has to settle for less worthy adversaries, including a Russian oligarch with pedophiliac tastes and a red-headed assassin with many phony names but no personality. The plot convolutions keep our minds occupied as we ponder the significance of the Chinese colonel’s compromised laptop and the Sudanese energy minister’s meeting with the Russian oligarch, but the only truly pressing questions involve Milo. Will he lose his family to his job? Betray a friend and colleague? Commit suicide like his poor mother? Escape that pit-bull Homeland Security agent?
Steinhauer is on solid ground whenever his focus is on Milo, whose sense of alienation from his country and its causes has just about paralyzed his will to act—at one low point, even his will to live. “There’s no center to your history,” the Tiger taunts him, “no motivation connecting the events of your past.” It’s the kind of charge that can send an existential hero into a serious depression.
The novel contends that 9/11 changed all the old-school rules of conduct in the espionage game. “We can bomb and maim and torture to our heart’s content,” one old agency hand explains, “because only the terrorists are willing to stand up to us, and their opinion doesn’t matter.” But as Milo knows, deceit and betrayal thrive in such an amoral climate. You can’t trust anyone anymore—except, maybe, your own worst enemy, and only if he’s on his deathbed and wants a favor. “It was a basic truth of Tourism,” Milo reminds himself, “that you trusted no one. Yet, if you had to trust anyone, it had better not be another Tourist.” This is the kind of tough thinking (and strong writing) that surfaces whenever Steinhauer gets to what really interests him—the crippling disillusion and nerve-snapping paranoia that breed in closed cultures where trust is absent and internal intrigue rampant. “It was a miserable job,” Milo tells himself. “It was a miserable life.”
Life is even more miserable in the unnamed Iron Curtain country Steinhauer has depicted in an ingenious series of novels that open in 1948 and advance through the Cold War era, yielding a group portrait of paranoia, cynicism and despair. In the pitiless environment of these books, broader political issues are always hanging over people’s heads. Steinhauer applies the same paranoia-cynicism—despair matrix to The Tourist, but it’s set in a different political landscape. Outside the poisonous environs of the Tourism department, there’s nowhere for Milo to focus his moral anger—no truths to defend, no values to preserve, no civilization worth saving. In this vacuum, he finds no greater treasure than his own family, and while Steinhauer makes Milo a mensch for his times, there’s something deeply troubling when the most exciting scenes in an international thriller are set in the Magic Kingdom.
 Marilyn Stasio. A version of this review appears in print page BR7 of the Sunday Book Review (New York Times) with the headline: “Once a Spy . . . “. Stasio writes the Crime column for the Book Review.