Monday, March 19, 2012

Olen Steinhauer: The TOURIST Trilogy, Completed ... And Next?

Good things often do come in threes. There are the three classics of The Lord of the Rings. Three books in the Hunger Games series. And now there are three books in Olen Steinhauer's "Tourist" series: The Tourist (2009), The Nearest Exit (2010), and An American Spy (2012).

Three turns out to be just perfect to create a time gap of an entire week of a reader's life. Yes, I decided I needed to go back and re-read the first two books before opening my just-arrived copy of the third one. It was worth it -- the details do build. For maximum impact and enjoyment, I strongly recommend reading these in sequence. It's not just the details of espionage and the recurring characters that add up. What matters most is the sequence of changes in Milo Weaver, heavily burdened black-ops spy working for the American government -- or at least, for what the Central Intelligence Agency thinks that means.

At the opening of the first book (whose film rights now belong to George Clooney), Milo's been on desk duty for a while, as a safety move for his unexpected and wonderful family: a wife and stepdaughter with whom he bonded permanently during one of his "Tourist" assignments. The "Department of Tourism" is the cover name for the black ops group, and Milo's work has included many a morally challenging assignment, ranging from theft and bribery to deliberate deaths. Not to mention a lot of "frequent flyer" miles ... heavily affected by stimulant drugs to keep going. That's not exactly the ideal framework for the husband and stepfather that Milo's ready to be.

The trouble is, Milo Weaver, like George Smiley, is one of those people who feels "responsible." In spite of having done some terrible things, he's mostly done them when directly ordered to do so, and he's the sort of spy who'd somehow try to make things right for people he's hurt by accident. So when people he cares about are threatened, and he's the only one who can take action, he's got little choice in his moral calculus: He's got to go back undercover.

What his family expects of him, what his secret extended family need (and what they want to give him!), and what the valued mentors of his life desire from and for him drag Milo to Europe. Even as he struggles with tangled assignment goals, he mentors other "Tourists," even to the extent of creating a sort of Bible of survival and morality for other screwed-up paid killers to lean on: "To the Tourist, success and failure are handed out in equal measure. To the Tourist, success and failure are the same things -- job completed." It's a boot that will make "the life" easier to take. But not, unfortunately, for Milo.

By the opening of The Nearest Exit, Milo's actions from the first book, balanced through his complex set of moral equations, have capsized the more direct calculus of morality that his six-year-old stepdaughter deserves to have him act from. He's on the run, and trying to convince the Department of Tourism to give him back the privileges of direct action and collaboration. But from Germany to Russia to the United Nations, people who know Milo's past aren't just setting up expectations around him -- they are trying their hardest to use him within their own plans for control and information. More to the point, they treat him as a spy and demand that he behave accordingly.

Each time that Milo straightens out a pocket of his life, people return to drag him back into danger and cruel choices. In An American Spy, Steinhauer offers a bold change in narrative: the first 89 pages are spent on in China, from the viewpoints of spies and manipulative bureaucrats there. That's right, Milo's voice doesn't speak until page 93 -- and when it's finally his turn to speak, he's clearly not recovered in most ways from the losses, complications, and violence that have dogged his past. But he's trying. Heck, he's drinking tonic water and paying more attention to his marriage -- and the forms of honesty it's demanding from him -- than to the machinations of his former comrades and bosses.

But when you've carried as many secrets as Milo, and when your extended family (of birth and of choice) is still entangled with global political information gathering in the shady sense, that "nearest exit" has really only led off one airplane and onto another. But this time, Milo has no well-funded organization behind him; has few colleagues left; and has to function without any real assurance that his wife and stepdaughter are safe. If they've been taken hostage for his actions, where are they, who's holding them, and will Milo's assignments, even if completed, ever add up to enough to get his family back? He's agonizingly aware that no "Tourist" should have a family he cares about -- it turns his morality into an adversary for his necessities.

Steinhauer's series is already a classic, a suspenseful set of page-turners in which nearly every choice facing Milo requires sacrifice and complex thinking. I'd love to say something about why I felt so exultant at the end of the third book, but ... some things should be saved for rewards for readers.

What are you waiting for? If you don't get started on the first two books, you won't earn your way to the satisfactions of the third!

A quick bit of background: Steinhauer is NOT a retired spy or spook or "Tourist." But he knows how to do good research and how to extend his imagination. Most important of all, he knows what espionage can do to the soul. And how it might be redeemed ... if things don't go too far off plan. There are some earlier Steinhauer books, but they're not connected to this series, and in the best of ways, can be considered the warm-up, the training ground, for what this American-born author has now achieved. He has a website, but it's a hodgepodge of material without a good way to sort it just now -- hmm, reminds me a bit of Milo at his most lost. Right, there's no time now to mess with the website if you haven't yet read the books. Priorities! Even Milo couldn't be conflicted about this one.

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