After five, multi-award nominated crime fiction novels, Hungary based, American born novelist Olen Steinhauer has turned his hand to contemporary espionage in THE TOURIST.
The action in this book centres around Milo Weaver - CIA Agent, Tourist, father and husband. Starting out in 2001, Milo, nursing a serious pill-popping addiction and a strong desire to suicide in the line of duty, is in the middle of a botched attempt to stop a hitman. Flash forward 7 years and Milo's got a wife, a child, and a personal interest in tracking down the hitman behind that nearly fatal, and life changing encounter. Out of active duty and in a desk job since then, Milo wasn't expecting the "Tiger" to hand himself over voluntarily. A deathbed conversation with the Tiger turns Milo's perceptions upside down, and set him on a path unexpected.
There are a number of elements in THE TOURIST that stand out. Milo, as a highly flawed, complicated central character in what is after all, an espionage novel, seems very realistic. A man with faults and flaws, he is poignantly aware of his own limitations - particularly when it comes to the ease with which he lives his professional life, compared to the way that he handles the personal. Obviously the situations in which he finds himself are not those which the average person is going to have to deal with, so a certain suspension of disbelief is going to be required on the part of the reader. There are some downsides to this characterisation however, the most notable one being the difficulty of focusing a great sense of moral and personal outrage, when the enemy is a little closer to home than would normally be the case. THE TOURIST gets into interesting territory in this area, a direction I found quite fascinating, but then I prefer the enemy to be less than straightforward. There's also a good sense of pace, with a nice sprinkling of rushing around, without it being too over the top. Mostly, however, there is a very elegant balancing of the tension, and the threat with some nice touches of reality, delivered with some very tongue in cheek humour. (What would be more hairy for your average burnt-out, long term spy - an encounter with a shadowy enemy or Disneyworld. Still can't decide!)
Where THE TOURIST may be slightly less satisfying for some readers is in the area of plot, where things are very busy. Lots of things happen, lots of characters (good and bad) come and go, and there's some question marks frequently on whether or not everything is / could / needs to be connected. Other readers may appreciate exactly this aspect. A spies life doesn't seem like one that would be tidy and neat, with one job wrapped up nicely and the paperwork done, before the next bad situation comes along. I liked the approach, and I particularly liked the way that Milo often had no idea what was happening, as well as me!
The element that ticked the biggest box for me, and the one that made THE TOURIST an interesting book was the portrayal of the mindsets of officialdom. Alongside the concept of the enemy within, perhaps more prevalent than an external threat, this gave considerable pause for thought.