Title: The Nearest Exit
Author: Olen Steinhauer
Steinhauer, Olen (2010). The Nearest Exit. New York: Minotaur Books
PS3619.T4764 N43 2010
- Now faced with the end of his quiet, settled life, reluctant spy Milo Weaver has no choice but to turn back to his old job as a ‘tourist.’ Before he can get back to the CIA’s dirty work, he has to prove his loyalty to his new bosses, who know little of Milo’s background and less about who is really pulling the strings in the government above the Department of Tourism – or in the outside world, which is beginning to believe the legend of its existence. Milo is suddenly in a dangerous position, between right and wrong, between powerful self-interested men, between patriots and traitors – especially as a man who has nothing left to lose.
- United States. Central Intelligence Agency–Officials and employees–Fiction.
- Undercover operations–Fiction.
- Sequel to: TheTourist.
Date Posted: November 24, 2016
Review by Joshua Hammer
Olen Steinhauer’s 2009 thriller, The Tourist, introduced a tantalizing new word to the lexicon of espionage fiction. Steinhauer’s “Tourists” are members of a tiny fraternity of C.I.A. operatives who move ceaselessly around the world, cultivating informers, ferreting out double agents and assassinating America’s enemies. Like black-ops versions of Ryan Bingham, the corporate hit man played by George Clooney in “Up in the Air,” these covert agents exist unencumbered by relationships or a home. The novel’s main character, Milo Weaver, is a secret operative with multiple identities who has grown sick of the rootlessness, duplicity and amorality of Tourism. One of the few members of the group who are also family men, Weaver longs to settle down in Brooklyn with his librarian wife and 6-year-old stepdaughter, but he’s drawn back repeatedly into a life of murder and deceit.
The Nearest Exit, Steinhauer’s follow-up novel, reprises the themes of The Tourist, with even more success. As the story begins, Weaver’s latest stab at domesticity is cut short when he’s dispatched on a mission designed to test his loyalty to the organization. His orders come in “a white spongy envelope” that he opens in a seedy hotel in a bohemian neighborhood of Berlin: “Two photographs, from different angles, of a pretty olive-skinned girl, blonde from a bottle. Girl: 15 years old. Adriana Stanescu, only child of Andrei and Rada Stanescu, Moldovan immigrants. . . . Kill the child, and make the body disappear. He had until the end of the week.”
Unable to summon the resolve to complete the operation, Weaver arranges a complicated deception. When Adriana is found dead anyway, her body dumped in a forest, Weaver is quickly identified, captured and brutally interrogated by German intelligence agents. Although he manages to exonerate himself, this encounter leads him into the sordid world of human trafficking, a blackmail plot involving German intelligence officials and the search for a mole within the Tourism department.
Like John le Carré, with whom he is often compared, Steinhauer skillfully renders the game of espionage in the post-Cold-War, post-9/11 era. “The other side was multifaceted,” Steinhauer wrote in The Tourist. “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.”
But the rules of spycraft remain essentially unchanged: almost nothing is what it seems, enemies often masquerade as friends, and those closest to the action are often farthest from the truth. In The Nearest Exit, Weaver roams Europe trying to unravel half a dozen interlocking conspiracies, wrestling with ambiguities at every turn. Are the “shadows” following him agents of German intelligence? Have they been sent by the Chinese? Or is a devious United States senator keeping tabs on him? Does the mole exist? Or is the entire operation an ingenious illusion meant to sow confusion and fear among the Tourists and their deskbound analyst colleagues called Travel Agents?
Weaver learns that even his own identity has been stolen to serve the organization’s sinister ends: a fellow Tourist, a cold-blooded assassin who derives “real pleasure in planning a murder,” has employed it to eliminate a nosy reporter in Budapest. Weaver traces this strand of the plot to a Hungarian strip club, where he “watched the endless parade of flesh and, though he would soon leave it, hated everything to do with his lousy business.”
Like le Carré’s George Smiley, Weaver is a richly imagined creation with a scarred psyche and a complex back story that elevates him above the status of run-of-the-mill world-weary spook. The son of a former K.G.B. agent and an American member of a Baader-Meinhof-type gang who hanged herself in a Munich prison, Weaver was raised by adoptive parents and recruited by the C.I.A. just after he graduated from college. His father, Yevgeny Primakov, now a United Nations intelligence operative, turns up periodically as a savior, a potential liability — and a reminder that Weaver can’t escape his past.
Weaver is at once a loving father and a coolly efficient killer. At one moment he’s reading his stepdaughter a bedtime story, at another breaking the leg of a pursuer with a lead pipe and forcing the man’s boss to listen via cellphone to his victim’s screams. The tension between those parallel lives begins to overwhelm him. “In the end Milo Weaver wasn’t outside the moral universe, no matter how well the Company had trained him,” Steinhauer observes. “He couldn’t escape the continual reminders that his universe had become imbued with morality — bathing his infant daughter’s fat, squirming body, later walking her to school and listening to her rambling stories, making curry for his wife, vacuuming on the weekends.”
Steinhauer’s tale has its weaknesses. His cardboard villains, including the conspiratorial senator and a Chinese spymaster who may be running the mole, will make readers long for an opponent like Smiley’s Karla. Steinhauer also has a tendency to delineate his characters with a few trademark idiosyncrasies, then repeat them over and over, to annoying effect. The unhappy German spymaster Erika Schwartz (“a big woman since the 70s, an obese one since the fall of the Wall”) snacks incessantly on Snickers bars and washes them down with bottles of cheap riesling. Weaver’s own eccentricities—he pops Dexedrine like Pez, struggles with an addiction to Davidoff cigarettes and carries an iPod loaded with the music of Serge Gainsbourg and David Bowie—sometimes feel more like tacked-on accessories than genuine outgrowths of his personality.
Yet these minor drawbacks are far outweighed by Steinhauer’s brisk pacing, sharp dialogue and convincing evocation of a paranoid subculture. In a terrifying conclusion, he brings together the myriad aspects of his plot and catches many of his characters—the father of the murdered Moldovan schoolgirl; the man who killed her; the German intelligence officer who hatched the plot; and Milo Weaver himself—in a spasm of violence that passes for a kind of moral reckoning. “We are taught, and we learn through experience, that everything and everyone is a potential hazard,” Tourists are told in the handbook of their profession. It’s a destiny that Weaver is desperate to escape, but that may well consume him.
 Joshua Hammer, “Milo’s People,” New York Times. Joshua Hammer, a former bureau chief for Newsweek, is a freelance foreign correspondent. He is writing a book about German colonialism in southern Africa. A version of this review appeared in print on May 23, 2010, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review.