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Book Review: An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer

As a companion to the Coffee & Markets interview with the author here is my review of the book.

With An American Spy Olen Steinhauer continues to explore both the mechanics of spy craft and the moral tension inherent in the trade using Milo Weaver as his lens. With this third volume in the series, Weaver is no longer a Tourist but can’t escape the gravity of the agency’s destruction.

What from so many angles seems like violence and betrayal fueled by mere revenge turns out to be each side attempting to turn constantly shifting events to their advantage. Steinhauer plays the story out giving the reader the perspective of a number of characters from Weaver to his former boss Alan Drummond to Chinese spymaster Xin Zhu. But just when you think you are starting to put the pieces together he shuffles the deck and you have re-evaluate your assumptions.

There is an underlying tension in espionage – and thus in spy fiction – in that at root it is the search for truth and yet in pursuing that elusive truth, truth itself – or at least honesty and veracity – are the first causality (cliché perhaps but accurate I think).  An American Spy mirrors this and in fact forces the reader to wrestle with it and “live” in this type of world. You find yourself constantly trying to understand the strategy and motivations of each side while guessing their next steps – in other words, thinking like a spy.  What also becomes clear is how the nature of the trade undermines trust and casts doubt on everything.

Milo starts out trying to act like a “civilian” – dinner with friends and a routine with school and family.  But when your friendly dinner companions are your ex-boss and his wife and all he wants to talk about is the death of 33 agents under his watch, and the destruction of his career, normalcy is by nature elusive.

Steinhauer uses another cliché – the agent who can’t break free – but again to very good use.  But instead of wreaking havoc and gaining revenge on those who forced him to return –  a la many action films – Milo instead is caught in an ever-changing web of deceit and seems almost resigned to his death as an acceptable solution.  The more he pursues the safety of those he cares about the more they seem to be in danger.

It is worth pointing out that if you ever hope to make sense of the complicated plot or to understand the back stories of the characters you need to read the first two books.  You can read this by itself but you will lose a lot of depth.

Some early reviews have pointed to the complexity of the plot and the slow start that results.  But as noted above, I believe this grows out of Steinhauer’s attempt to mirror what it is like to be involved in espionage: making decisions based on limited information, constant shifting of motives and angles, and all of this done under great pressure and with ever higher risks.  We start off by approaching the story from different people’s perspective with clues and threads dangled in front of us.  But once this foundation is set, events begin to move very fast and you find yourself racing to the conclusion.  Only then you find that there is one last twist – and one that makes you hope for more books featuring Milo Weaver.

I will admit to a lack of objectivity when it comes to Steinhauer.  I am fan and have been for a long time (having read all of his books and followed his blogging as well).  But I think it is safe to say that if you are interested in spy fiction and not reading Steinhauer you are missing out.  Without getting into the never-ending debate surrounding genre versus literature, I think Steinhauer is an excellent example of the best of genre.

And I think PW’s review captured this element very well:

Steinhauer is particularly good at articulating contemporary spy craft—the mechanics of surveillance and intelligence in the digital age and the depth of paranoia endemic to the trade. In addition, his ability to create characters with genuine emotions and conflicts, coupled with an insightful and often poetic writing style, set him apart in the world of espionage fiction.

Given this it is not surprising that he is garnering comparisons to legends like Le Care and Deighton.  Big shoes to fill but with this excellent trilogy Steinhauer is well on his way.

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