For anyone who is a writer of noir/crime/spy thrillers, Olen Steinhauer’s book ‘The Tourist’ is one of those that just makes you want to swear. Its that good and, as a writer, all you can do is wonder ‘why didn’t I think of that?!’
I will be brutally honest. I’m the sort of reader that stumbles across one book by an author, like it and then go out and buy their back catalogue. I have a whole book case filled with ‘books waiting to be read’. Thats exactly what I did with Olen. A friend recommended him (knowing I love a good spy thriller) and so I went out and brought a load of his back catalogue, starting with the Vienna Assignment. To be honest I wasn’t wowed at that point. The Vienna Assignment and the rest of the connected series are extremely well written but the problem I had was that I like a bit of reality grounding. I like thrillers to be set in the real world and Steinhauer’s fictional, unnamed Eastern bloc country didn’t quite fit comfortably with me. Don’t get me wrong, from a publishing perspective its a good idea and allows Steinhauer to focus on the central characters and storylines. But it left me with a vague, slightly empty feeling.
So moving onto The Tourist (and not realising this was the start of a whole new series and character) I wasn’t that hopeful, especially as I’d just finished rereading Le Carre’s ‘A Perfect Spy’ (which, in my humble opinion, remains one of the greatest character development storylines of all time).
Two days later I started breathing again and went wow.
The Tourist is that good.
The reviews were certainly excellent and rumour has it that George Clooney has optioned the film rights. It certainly has the potential to be a classic. Lets just hope it films better than Syriana (which was an excellent film that I loved but was a tad too complex for the mass-market big screen).
The signs of a classic are all there though. The fantastic idea of Tourists (the name for agents) and Tourism (the work they do) is one that most writers in this genre will be kicking themselves for not thinking of. Just as Le Carre did with ‘The Circus’, Tourism is an excellent idea and seems plausible enough to be real.
The central character, Milo Weaver, ex-Tourist forced to return to his dark past (bit of classic thriller plotline there) holds the storyline well. He’s flawed enough to create the persona of a real human being doing dark and dirty work, whilst struggling with the desire to just be a normal family man. Its a sign of a well written piece that, as we read, we want to know more about Milo and the world he is uncovering/lives within, even though we should dislike him for the work he does and attitude towards life he holds.
But its the plotline that marks the book out as a potential spy classic. For most writers in this genre the central storyline that opens the book (without wanting to spoil the plot, Milo’s search for the Tiger’s handler and where that takes him) would be the story to the book. Yet with Steinhauer that storyline is resolved two-thirds of the way through and a whole new layer of complexity and need for resolution emerges. That’s the sign of a really skilled writer.
So next up for me is the 2nd in this series, The Nearest Exit, and a hope that the outstanding promise of The Tourist is expanded upon.
- An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer (collectedmiscellany.com)