Olen Steinhauer’s sixth thriller, The Tourist, centers on Milo Weaver, a weary Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) field agent so disgusted with his deadly work that he is contemplating suicide. In 2001, Weaver is shot during an encounter in Venice with rogue agent Frank Dawdle. Their fight is witnessed by Tina Crowe, a pregnant woman who immediately goes into labor. Six years later, Milo and Tina are married, living a comfortable life in Brooklyn with their daughter, Stephanie, when Milo is thrown back into action against his will and better judgment.
In his mid-thirties, Milo is a “tourist,” CIA jargon for a field agent who handles dangerous assignments. He longs to leave such work behind, but circumstances force him to leave his safe desk job. Milo has been tracking a legendary assassin known as the Tiger for six years, and the trail ends in a jail cell in Blackdale, Tennessee. Known by many names, the Tiger comes close to being a doppelganger of Milo. He knows more about Milo than the spy knows about him, and he has left clues for Milo so they can finally meet.
The Tiger views the CIA agent as an enigma: “There’s no motivation connecting the events of your past.” The assassin, a former tourist himself, also does not know who he is working for or who is responsible for his rapidly approaching death, a result of being injected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The Tiger wants Milo to track down his killer, and what Milo learns from the assassin early in the novel sets up a series of resulting events. Steinhauer excels in making his novel’s disparate elements cohere in unexpected ways.
Milo is appalled when Angela Yates, another tourist and Milo’s closest friend, is suspected of being a double agent. After she is murdered, he becomes a suspect. The remainder of The Tourist involves Milo’s efforts to clear himself while trying to determine who is lying to whom and why. Janet Simmons, a relentless Department of Homeland Security agent, is but one antagonist. Thomas Grainger, Milo’s mentor, may be another. Terence Fitzhugh, a CIA bureaucrat, wants to bring down Grainger and everyone connected with him. Yevgney Primakov, a retired KGB agent working for the United Nations, has a mysterious role in the proceedings. Only Roman Vgrimov, a dissipated Russian businessman exiled in Switzerland, is a more conventional reprobate. Those involved in manipulating others have been careful never to have direct contact with the agents they control, making the novel’s machinations even murkier.
The Tourist opens on September 10, 2001, because it deals with the consequences of the political and moral quagmire following the terrorist attacks that took place the next day. Steinhauer’s tale is both a metaphor for the uncertainties of the age of terrorism and an exploration of the philosophical side of espionage, with its paranoia and shifting identities. There is no good or evil in this world, only uncertainties. Milo feels he has “slipped to some secluded corner of the extremes, some far reach of utter imbalance.” This theme of balance is referred to frequently: “Without balance, a life was no longer worth the effort.”
While many fictional spies concentrate only on the immediate tasks at hand, Milo constantly questions his duties and ponders the consequences of his decisions and actions. Like the characters of John le Carré, he is torn between the obligations of his professional and private selves. Steinhauer has said he learned from le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) that espionage fiction can combine entertainment, social commentary, and excellent writing, and the influence of the master espionage novelist is apparent throughout The Tourist. Steinhauer acknowledges his debt to le Carré by having his spies use a line from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as a code.
Steinhauer strives to keep his readers off balance, making them as puzzled as the characters about what is truly going on. After presenting the first third of the novel from Milo’s perspective, the focus suddenly shifts to Tina’s point of view, and it later shifts to those of other characters. Tina emerges from Milo’s shadow, from her primary role as his emotional and moral support, to face ethical decisions of her own....
(The entire section is 1780 words.)