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Book review: Olen Steinhauer's 'An American Spy'

With 'American Spy,' Steinhauer finishes what he started in 'The Tourist' and 'The Nearest Exit.' It's a thrilling, irresistible masterwork of love, guilt and revenge.

April 12, 2012|By Paula L. Woods, Special to the Los Angeles Times
(Minotaur )

On two separate occasions over the last nine years, Olen Steinhauer has brought a thriller series to a close. The first was the end of a five-novel series set in an unnamed Eastern European bloc nation. Focusing on a People's Militia homicide unit and stretching over a 40-year period, the historical sweep and breadth of those novels catapulted Steinhauer's work from the mystery to spy genre in a spectacular and satisfying manner — and created high expectations for the series that followed.

The first two books of that new series, featuring CIA operative Milo Weaver, more than fulfilled the promise of the earlier work. In "The Tourist" and "The Nearest Exit," Steinhauer brought increased geopolitical diversity to the spy novel, creating a morally ambiguous universe at odds with the 38-year-old Milo's desire for a family life.

By the end of "Exit," Milo almost lost that family when he was shot by a Moldavian immigrant seeking revenge for his daughter's death. The attempt was part of a larger plot masterminded by Xin Zhu of the Guoanbu, the intelligence arm of thePeople's Republic of China, which resulted in the assassination of 33 members of the Department of Tourism, the clandestine CIA unit that employed Milo.

"An American Spy," the final novel in the series, opens shortly thereafter, in April 2008, with Milo on the mend, out of the spy business and looking for a job in corporate security.

Also out of a job is Milo's friend and boss, Alan Drummond, who was fired in disgrace after the assassinations and exposure of a Chinese-run mole. But while Milo is happy to be with wife Tina and daughter Stephanie, Drummond has become angry and distant from his wife: He's unhinged by guilt, fulminating rage and has an obsession for revenge against Xin, whose murderous plot was also motivated, in part, by revenge.

The 58-year-old Xin is also in a tight spot, faced with defending his unsanctioned strike against the CIA to the Guoanbu's Supervision and Liaison Committee, made up of aging Politburo functionaries and their ambitious younger aides, most of them Xin's enemies. With the Olympics just months away, the group fears America is plotting a violent retaliation that will disrupt the Games, embarrass the PRC and undermine its role as "a superpower of unfathomable riches."

As a result, the Committee wants Xin stripped of his power, despite (or perhaps because of) his assertions that a mole exists within the Ministry of Public Security that is feeding intelligence to the Americans. Will Xin uncover the American mole before the Committee imprisons him or Drummond kills him?

"An American Spy" becomes more tangled after Drummond separates from his wife, takes a circuitous route to London and then disappears. To both protect his family from the vengeful Xin and find his friend, Milo takes up his loathsome profession once again to search for Drummond.

Drummond's disappearance might be the MacGuffin that fuels the story line, but the novel is also enriched by a diverse international cast of players, including Erika Schwartz, a German foreign intelligence official; Liu Xiuxiu, a talented young Chinese Mata Hari; a trio of ex-Tourists, including Milo's sexy colleague, Leticia Jones; Dorothy Collingwood, a shadowy CIA administrator; Milo's father, former Russian spymaster and U.N. official Yevgeny Primakov, and his estranged half sister, Alexandra.

As the novel unfolds in five overlapping parts, these players will reveal motives both personal and professional that give the novel textures uncommon in most spy fiction. Each successive retelling of events yields new answers and more troubling questions until it's clear that Milo, Drummond, Xin and the other spies, American and otherwise, are mere threads that twist back on themselves until they are no longer recognizable, tangled in a tapestry that masquerades as their nations' greater good.

By the end of "An American Spy," there is a tantalizing hint that those left standing will live to spy another day. This reader certainly hopes so, as will many who succumb to the seduction of Steinhauer's irresistible masterwork of love, guilt and revenge.

Woods is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.

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